An Open Letter to the Police in India

Dear policeman,

Do you remember the day you became an officer of the law? When you donned the crisp khaki uniform for the first time? When your head, with a smart crew cut, was filled with noble ideals and perhaps understandable naivety? When you swore, with your loved ones watching in the stands, to uphold and protect the defenseless, that you would be “different”, maybe?

What narrative do you tell yourself today?

As of this minute, thousands of fists are clenched against you in genuine anger. Harsh words against your ilk populate tea stalls and dinner tables across the country. Even the mild-mannered common man, in the privacy of his home, has perhaps vicariously relished the thought of punching you in the face.

And who can blame him?

The torture and murder of Jayaraj and his son Bennix in Sathankulam town in Tamil Nadu has shocked the nation beyond belief. Though there have been many lynchings and murders since then that have made headlines, I believe the last time we felt such palpable public outrage was over the Nirbhaya gang rape of 2012. Many are demanding that the policemen involved in the custodial deaths case face the same justice the rapists did.

On June 23, your colleagues stripped, beat, sexually tortured and brutally killed a father and son ostensibly for keeping their shop open beyond lockdown hours. The real reason for their unforgivable, misplaced rage is that a common citizen dared question their authority. Instead of slinking away quietly or begging them with folded hands to release his father, Bennix challenged their high handedness. Enraged that a tax paying, middle-class citizen stood up to them, they decided to teach him and his 59-year-old father a lesson.

These occurrences are common, and you know it. Reports suggest there are five custodial deaths every day in India. Clearly, there is something terribly wrong with the Indian police today.

Ask any person on any street in India what the first word that comes to their mind when they hear the word “police”. You are most likely to hear words like “bullies”, “thugs in khaki”, “bribe”, “corruption”, “harassment”, “problem”, “beatings”, “fear”, “lazy”, “incompetent”, “threatening” among a few other unprintable words, rather than “respect”, “service”, “sacrifice”, “crime fighters”, “safety”, “support”, “patriotism” etc.

This is because people draw from their experiences; experiences of paying bribes, putting up with needless harassment, being threatened with red tape and the lathi and being humiliated and insulted in abusive language. Over the years, people witnessed your servile nature to your political masters, juxtaposed with your apathy towards people with no agency – whom you swore to defend. For too long,  people have seen how you turn a blind eye to the activities of corrupt businessmen yet brutalise petty thieves.

This trust deficit has reached a tipping point, and it’s time your force answered some tough questions.

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During the recent George Floyd protests, the police in the US publicly took a knee and apologised for the conduct of their colleagues. Yes, America has its own problems, but many police precincts are doing their best to rebuild trust.

What did your colleagues in Thoothukudi do? They conjured up a fake medical fitness certificate, a botched appearance before a magistrate, and a ridiculous official statement that claimed that Jeyaraj and Bennix sustained internal injuries by “rolling on the floor”. Every action was a coverup. The same thing happened during the Thoothukudi firing in May 2018 where the officers responsible were transferred/reinstated. The families of the 13 victims your colleagues targeted and shot dead still await justice.

The rot runs deep. When a constable decides to sodomise a citizen with a stick, with no fear of repercussions, it tells you how the police view themselves and others. It tells you how pliant the system is and how easy it is for policemen to go on a rampage and get away with it.

Yes, service conditions need to improve. We know that there are good policemen too, but you must stand up to the many ‘rotten apples’ for the stereotype to change, and it must begin now. How long will you be content representing a force that runs on scant respect?

My plea is that you and your colleagues make amends. Apologise. It doesn’t matter where you serve. Use this shocking incident as an opportunity to repair past wrongs, to hit the reset button and begin the long process of regaining the trust we citizens once entrusted you with.

Push for police reforms, refuse to do the bidding of political masters in return for sinecures, push for sensitisation and stricter standards of police conduct, be empathetic. Above all, remember the oath you took and stand for what’s right.

Someone who has had enough

Joshua Karunakaran is a writer based in Chennai.

Featured image credit: Reuters/Amit Dave