Killing India’s Poor With Impunity

“You can beat me with 10 lathis (sticks) or I can give you 10,000 rupees but please don’t involve me in fake cases,” begged Pahallu Musahar to the police as he burst into tears.

The police from one of the stations in Uttar Pradesh had come to Pahallu’s house to enquire about his absconding brother Umesh. Umesh was allegedly involved in criminal activities, but unable to find him, the police decided to target his family for information. They were unrelenting in their brutality.

The police ignored Pahallu’s pleas that the family had lost touch with Umesh. Instead, Pahallu was beaten, tortured and then thrown into prison for a month and seven days. He now faces charges in two fake cases – one for possessing drugs and another for making cartridges for guns.

During the last decade when India’s status as an emerging power and a vibrant democracy have been heralded around the world, the poor in India have experienced a much greater degree of police violence and a serious erosion of their civil and political rights.

For the poor in India, Pahallu’s story is all too commonplace – the midnight knock, the brutality at the police station, the long, Kafkaesque slog in a court of law or increasingly now, simply a gun-shot. Pahallu could have ended up in an “encounter” with the police, a sinister euphemism in India for extra-judicial killings.

Since the year 2000, across India, from Kashmir in the north to Tamil Nadu in the south there has been a 41.66% rise in the number of custodial killings according to statistics released by the Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR) in New Delhi.

“It is the aam aadmi (common man) who are (sic) the majority victims of torture and other inhuman and degrading treatment. However, the UPA government has failed to address the issue of torture and other human rights violations,” said Suhas Chakma, Director, ACHR.

The statistics on poverty in India vary, but the figure hovers anywhere between 26% – 42% of a population of 1.1bn. For a majority of these people Indian democracy offers no freedom and the Indian constitution offers no equality. Already experiencing the structural violence of caste prejudice, poverty, illiteracy and malnutrition, the police compound their misery by offering little or no access to justice.

The spread of the Naxal insurgency through district after district in rural India is a testimony to the failure of state institutions and the police in particular.

A report submitted by an Expert Group to the Planning Commission of India, titled ‘Development Challenges in Extremist Affected Areas’ discusses how current police practices have made the Naxal movement attractive for people in rural areas. “The movement does provide protection to the weak against the powerful” something the police have failed hopelessly to do. The report adds that the weaker sections of society, “have no faith that justice will be done to them against the powerful.”

Yet there is a deafening silence from the middle class about such police brutality against the poor. “There is so much crime that the middle class conscience also approves of such “encounters”. What do you do?” asks Sudha Ramalingam, National Vice-President of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL).

In militarised states like Kashmir and Manipur the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) has given the military sweeping powers to kill people with complete impunity. But even in states like Tamil Nadu which have a relatively better law and order situation, police behaviour has become more and more brazen. Henry Tiphagne, Executive Director of NGO People’s Watch, in an affidavit filed before the Madras High Court, says, “Most of those killed in “encounters” are persons with a history of criminal involvement who were not convicted. Police thus act as vigilantes, bypassing the criminal justice system and Courts of law, to exact their brand of justice.”

“I thought the police would kill me in an encounter,” Pahallu Musahar later told the People’s Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR). He and his family live like pariahs in their community today because people look at them suspiciously, but just being alive has been a fate more fortunate than that of many others.

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