Making of a criminal, one register at a time | Shivangi Narayan

In September 2020, a court in Delhi granted bail to a man named Neeraj who had been detained by the police on the charge that he committed theft and vandalism during the Delhi pogroms. Since February, Neeraj had been kept in jail without any evidence supporting the police’s charge and only the claim that he was a known “bad character”. While a judge in the case stated that one “cannot be made to languish in jail” based on a “bad character” tag, this case draws attention to police records that are used to surveil and document people on such a label. 

Reams and reams of paper-based registers, colloquially known as “history sheets” or “ruffian records” record details of young people in an area who have not been convicted of a crime but who, in some cases, may have been previously arrested for petty crimes. These “bad characters” are those who the police have labelled as “trouble-makers”, “budding” or “potential criminals” or people who are supposedly “addicted to crime”. Because the police relies on its eyes and ears to collect information and mark people with this tag, it is only a specific section of the people that end up in these paper-registers– people living in slums or shanties, overwhelmingly belonging to the so-called non-dominant castes of Hindus or Muslims, Adivasis or migrants–people whose socio-economic status leaves them visible to the very in-real-life, physical, penetrating gaze of the state. This is what I have termed visible surveillance1In Narayan S. Guilty Until Proven Guilty: A Study of Preventive Policing Databases in India (forthcoming), a form of state intrusion enabled by the police to collect information on people who can be literally ‘watched’– within the private spaces of their home, by being physically followed or asked to periodically present themselves in police stations– that merges the boundaries of public and private.

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