De-essentialising the Police | Kishor Govinda

On 24 March 2020, India entered into a nation-wide lockdown to contain the spread of the COVID19 pandemic. The Essential Services Maintenance Act (ESMA) was invoked to ensure proper state function at a critical time. The majority of the population had very little time to prepare, and initially, guidelines were applied arbitrarily. As a result, for the first week of the pandemic, India effectively became a police state. The police had to assume a range of functions in the foreground of the state’s response to a public health emergency.

The guidelines became clearer over the course of the lockdown, though stories of police violence and overstep were very common. Violence against people performing essential services, like medical care and provisioning, continued. Especially disturbing were stories of violence against marginal groups, such as the homeless, street vendors, and migrant workers who tried to travel back to their villages. 

The reliance on police during the lockdown, and the many stories of violence that emerged illustrate a fundamental problem with the police as an institution. Police are seen as an essential part of a modern society, though their role can be nebulous. They are  part of the communities that they serve, but they are also expected to be representatives of the state. They are expected to be capable of violence, but also are the face of the state when dealing with victims of traumatic crimes. The role of the police in society is paradoxical . Their contradictory roles are embedded in the violence and corruption that are often associated with the police.

Policing and Systemic Violence

Our police system, like in any other country, is a historical product, carrying with it the legacy of many forms of Indian rule. It inherited the caste and patriarchal aspects of Indian society, repeats many of the imperatives instilled in it during the colonial regime, and now has begun to take up neoliberal business interests and ultra-nationalist agendas as part of its mandate.

In the Indian context, many statistics can be used to demonstrate how the policing system is biased against socially-disadvantaged communities. Comparing information regarding arrests, undertrials, prosecution rates of crimes intended to protect marginalized people, and convictions, it is clear that a lot of systemic bias exists even at the police level. Adding to this, the issues of custodial violence, extrajudicial killings, and police violence on the street illustrate how the Indian police system has been against the cause of justice. For those who are committed to a violence-free society, it is important to address the issue of policing. For those who accept that some amount of violence is inevitable in society and that the police represent the appropriate institution to direct and control that violence, it still is important to subject that institution to appropriate public scrutiny.

This issue should be seen as part of a larger discussion today, where protests against the police in Nigeria, France, Brazil, Columbia and America have focused on the role police play in their societies,  and the nature of the power they exercise in their societies… In these countries, protests  have focused on the political economy of the police. This makes sense given the relative positions that the police have had with the military in those countries. Unlike those societies, however, India has not had the strong influence of the military in the funding and working of the police. In some ways, the problems associated with the police are simpler, though no less violent. For India, the discussion can take on a different dimension, where we might ask how the police can become less essential to public order. Rather than de-fund the police, I argue that in the Indian context, we need a deep reflection on the roles and functions of the police. We should find alternatives, and de-essentialize the police.

An eventual replacement of those roles with alternative services would serve the common good better then police could. Ultimately, the police is a colonial institution that inflicts violence on the population, and in the absence of alternatives, the police play many roles, all of which become underlined by violence.

At the same time, it is important to understand contextual differences in the relationship between the state, the police, and the wider population. The nature of the policing system can vary wildly from state to state, if not from district to district derived from different histories. It is very difficult to talk about how the police function in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Jammu & Kashmir, Assam, Chattisgarh, Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka in one stroke. This should not distract from the violence inherent in the institution of the police; however, it is important to recognize the varied terrain when launching into a movement for de-essentialising the police.

Functions of the Police

Before talking about de-essentialising, defunding, or abolishing the police in a country like India, it is important to reflect on what police function is. Understanding police function is valuable, as a naively de-policed society might be untenable within the near future. Strategically, it would make sense to see the process as a series of steps. If the police serve a vital function for the class of people who are part of the movement, they might be cutting the branch on which they sit, and their progress might be undone if the first function of the police cut is essential for the movement itself.

Broadly speaking, we can say that the police serve four basic functions in society.

First and second, police are supposed to be the custodians of law and order. First, there is the law. Second, there is the order. Law is the enforcement of the Indian Penal Code and other civil and criminal codes. The police ensure that crimes are registered, reported, and stopped if they’re ongoing. Order is a very nebulous concept, especially in the context of India. The early legal understanding of social order reflected the dynamics of a colonial society . As a result, our police  inherit many of the flaws of the colonial police order, which tried to police communities, protect trade interests and resist spontaneous organizing efforts by the people. The police also can enforce dominant prejudices by harassing sex workers, invisiblizing begging, and cultural policing. Post-independence, the colonial nature of the police force was inherited and retained by a post-colonial state.

The third function of the police can be called the “Street Bureaucrat” function. The “Street Bureaucrat” function of the police is the role they take up as proximate representatives of the state. If there is some sort of local need that arises, the police are supposed to be present in regularly spaced out centres. They respond to state mandates on the street. This can be about making sure that people have proper licenses to sell, or to break up potential disturbances, addressing accidents, etc. This category is residual, meaning that it can be any number of things. While there might be a public distrust of the police as corrupt, violent, indifferent or even cruel, as interlocutors of the state, the police take up things that are not specified and can be quite arbitrary. The arbitrary assumption of these roles reflects the wider neglect of this question both by the state and in public discourse. As a labour issue, this can be unfair to the police, who are expected to do many things, from mediate conflicts, direct traffic, get people to hospitals, register crimes that have no statute, etc. In de-essentializing the police, it is important to focus on this aspect of the police function.

The fourth function is the police’s role as a mobile army for the powerful. Even beyond the question of social order, police are often directly called by politicians and the powerful to do their bidding. The hierarchical nature of the police organization makes it impossible for them to do otherwise. These demands fly in the face of democracy and make democratic organizing impossible. Some of these orders are standing, regulating where people can hold protests. Some of them can be arbitrary. This function often overlaps with issues of law and order, making it difficult to sort out facts on the ground. The nature of this function is shrouded in secrecy, making the police and the state opaque institutions.

De-Essentialising the Police

Street Bureaucrat functions are very important in any democracy. It is the most local practice of the state. As street bureaucrats, the police are currently an essential wing of the state. This makes it hard to understand the state functioning or even existing without police presence. However, in the current form, the combination of police functions make it an essentially violent institution. The violence associated with the police during the various lockdowns across the country is a sign of how dangerous it is to combine the various functions of the police under one unit. In many cases medical professionals and food sellers were attacked, putting the people providing essential services at the time of the pandemic in a state of fear.

A de-essentializing police movement must address the functions that the police serve in maintaining law and order, as street bureaucrats, and as a mobile army. Combining these functions is part of what makes the police a violent institution, but to reduce or eliminate the institution, one must wean out the street bureaucrat function from the police.

The army function of the police meant that the control of the lockdown would be treated like an occupation, where police authority and their presence received priority. This conflicted with its street bureaucrat function and the order function of the police. Rather than having a wing of the state provide proper direction in a time of the lockdown and create non-violent strategies in contexts where the state might lose control of a situation, violence or at least the looming threat of violence, became the default strategy of the state. This situation highlighted how unprepared the state is to handle any situation where violence is not the optimal solution. Arrests of citizens involved in the protests against state policy also have highlighted how political this violence is, often appearing to reflect orders from the top.

For instance, in the United States, movements asking for the reduction of police have also asked for the creation of emergency service hotlines and the funding of services that take up aspects of police function in non-violent ways. This can include services that prioritise the wellbeing of those reporting sexual assault,  and facilities that address issues of mental health or homelessness outside of the police framework. An emergency service hotline, as an alternative to the police hotline, is a critical part of those demands.

In India, to reduce the violence of the state, it is important to reduce those wings of the state that operate on violence. Rather than leaving police in the residual function of policing society, these functions need alternatives. Police, as often the sole representatives of the state, legitimize the stat as a creature of violence, and legitimize state violence, even as non-state violence is seen as illegitimate. It is important to remember that violence from any corner, even the state, requires justification. To go beyond that mandate, it is important to ensure that we begin de-essentializing the police in state action.

Kishor Govinda is a researcher based in Bengaluru. He is a mathematician and an activist. As an activist, he has worked in areas concerning civil liberties and labour rights, and has written extensively on movements in other countries.

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