On March 30, 2021, in a video that went viral, policemen were seen forcing five men to duck walk at Marine Drive in Mumbai. The men were being punished for allegedly not wearing masks. The men could be seen struggling in the sweltering heat.
On social media, as people began commenting on the incident, what emerged was a distasteful combination of classism, indifference towards torture and insensitivity towards suffering.
It is unfortunate and problematic that the plight of these men was considered funny. While tweeting about the incident, corporate honcho Anand Mahindra described the video as “comical”. Republic TV‘s report described the incident as “hilarious” and “side-splitting to watch”. The comments clearly suggest that the video evoked laughter in many people.
This is not an isolated incident.
During the nationwide lockdown last year, people were forced to walk hundreds of kilometres without adequate food and shelter. To make matters worse, the police were seen indiscriminately thrashing people out on the roads even due to sheer necessity. Yet, one can find ‘funny videos’ on YouTube and ‘funny memes’ on police excesses during the lockdown. While some may brush aside these reactions as mere light heartedness, I believe that that the Indian society’s attitude towards torture is fundamentally flawed.
Firstly, when people find torture and police excesses comical, they are normalising illegal methods of law enforcement. What ought to be borne in mind is that even mild forms of torture are violations of dignity and bodily autonomy, apart from being plainly illegal. When the policemen forced the men to duck walk, they reduced them to objects of ridicule and robbed them of their dignity by defiling their personhood. When such incidents are glorified or not condemned, it only emboldens the police to continue breaking the law and violate the citizens’ human rights.
Eventually, when an emboldened police force, which has scant respect for the law, ends up inflicting brutal injuries or causing deaths of citizens, the society seems to momentarily realise that the police needs to be reined in. For instance, in 2020, there was widespread outrage against the ghastly custodial deaths of Jeyaraj and his son Bennix in Tamil Nadu. What sparked the outrage was the gruesome nature of injuries inflicted and the fact that they were subjected to horrendous forms of torture for merely failing to shut their shop on time during the pandemic.
Police brutality, which was viewed as comical during lockdown, was suddenly perceived as abhorrent when it claimed lives. Had the police been condemned when they behaved violently before, it is unlikely that they would have taken the liberty of torturing the duo to death for violating prohibitory orders.
Yet another problematic dimension of society’s attitude towards police excesses is that the outrage is conditional on the conduct and the identity of the victims. Let us take the example of the alleged rapists and murderers of a veterinarian, who were shot dead by the police in Telangana. While the police offered hollow justifications claiming that they shot in self defence and to prevent the accused from escaping, the encounter was perceived as a form of instant punishment to deliver justice. A good number of celebrities welcomed the ‘bold measure’ and cheered the actions of the police.
Brutal forms of torture, including electric shocks to private parts, have been inflicted on people suspected of being terrorists. Tribals and other people accused of being naxalites and naxal sympathisers have been victims of horrendous forms of torture as well. There is very limited outrage against torture inflicted on alleged terrorists, naxal sympathisers and rapists. It is perhaps because civil society feels that the torture inflicted on them is proportional to the crimes they are being accused of and therefore they deserve to undergo pain and suffering. Therefore, society’s stance on torture is ambivalent and unfortunately such a stance only emboldens the State to blatantly disregard human rights.
It is pertinent to understand that most of the victims of torture are poor and belong to marginalised communities. This shows that vulnerability to torture depends on one’s socio-economic status. Celebrities and politicians tend to normalise or laugh at torture perhaps because they are virtually immune from it. For instance, they do not run the risk of being beaten up by the police for not wearing masks or for flouting prohibitory orders. From their flawed vantage point, torture is probably an effective method of disciplining deviant citizens.
Torture as a concept is inherently wrong and has no place in a civilised society even if it is an expeditious method of law enforcement. Selective outrage against torture based on its nature and the identity of victims lends legitimacy to torture. When we laugh at mild forms of torture, glorify violent cops and feel satiated when extra judicial methods are adopted, we collectively fail as a civilised society.
Rahul Machaiah holds an LLM in Law and Development from Azim Premji University.