By Beatrice Jauregui
Anthropologists working in different global contexts have shown that police and policing are not isomorphic with “the state,” nor with statist violence per se (Martin 2019, Karpiak and Garriott 2018, Fassin 2017, Jauregui 2016). Even so, across South Asia, police have long constituted the most visible embodiments of a coercive state imaginary, diametrically opposed to what Partha Chatterjee (2011) has called “political society,” despite a few notable demonstrations of police solidarity and synergy with anti-colonial, anti-corruption, or other progressive movements (Jauregui 2018, Shil 2017). In concert with anti-racism protests across the world that have emerged during a global pandemic, revelations via social media of police aggression and absenteeism in the face of the #NoCAA protests across India have produced a “new visibility” of police violence to the public (Goldsmith 2010).
Police responses to the #NoCAA protests have also produced a new visibility of “the people” as denizens as potential threats to “the government,” control of which has been moving farther and harder toward the far right in India since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) returned to national power in 2014. The revival of BJP rule signals a resurgence of policing as an instrument of Hindutva, an ideology claiming some versions of “Hindu-ness” as the true heart of the Indian nation, rendering all other religious forms, and the people who adhere to them, as invasive species and contagions that the state should at least suppress, and ideally eradicate. For most of the latter half of the 20th century, while the Indian National Congress party maintained hegemony over national politics in India, police impunity for Hindutva-inspired incidents of violence were cloaked in discourses of secular democracy and the rule of law. This already thin cloak began to unravel as the BJP gained power in key states like Uttar Pradesh in the 1990s, and then at the national level at the turn of the 21st century. Since 2014, and in light of the two new forms of visibility described above, there has arisen what may be conceived as a “grotesque,” if not completely novel, form of impunity for discriminatory violence by police.
I use grotesque here in the sense formulated by Mikhail Bakhtin’s (1984) analysis of François Rabelais’ novels. Grotesque acts and discourses entail purposeful distortions, exaggerations, and excesses that mock extant social institutions and ideals. In the European Middle Ages when Rabelais was writing, such grotesque mockery tended to emerge among the common people in bawdy songs or monstrous images of public figures displayed during ritualized carnival celebrations. As theorized by Bakhtin, the raucous laughter these parodies inspired served as a cathartic outlet for the populace to mock the king or other governing institutions. This temporary inversion of entrenched hierarchies revealed other possibilities for sociality, although these performances generally did not lead to revolution. Instead, they generally served to reinforce structural power asymmetries in a cyclic fashion (see Allison 1994).
Before the development and prevalent use of digital technologies like smart phones with cameras, the visibility of police violence was confined mostly to social minority communities that experienced it firsthand. If news media reported on it at all, journalists tended to privilege police perspectives on said violence. As new technologies have advanced in combination with the ubiquity and immediacy of social media interactions, police violence has gained a “new visibility” via mass sharing and public critique of apparent misconduct, a form of “sousveillance” that could potentially produce sanctions and promote justice. Ben Brucato (2015a) has noted, however, that this new visibility and its promises of improved accountability are laden with problems like desensitization and indifference to violence; polarization through unfocused distrust or support of police; and, perhaps most important to this analysis, channels for the emergence of robust discourses and technologies of “counter-sousveillance.” These new channels allow police the opportunity to engage in “repair work” that may justify their brutality and reinscribe their impunity (Goldsmith 2010; cf. Martin 2019). Brucato (2015b) has further suggested that this may be an ominous form of “new transparency” that occludes as much as it reveals about derisive, divisive, and discriminatory forms of governance (see also Mathur 2012).
This is precisely what has been happening in India under “Modi Raj”, or rule by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the BJP, and its Hindu nationalist affiliates. Many commentators have argued, even before #NoCAA protests, that the current BJP government is eroding and making a mockery of secular democracy. Hindutva affiliates include groups like the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), who were accused of orchestrating violent attacks on students and faculty at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), in Delhi on January 5, 2020, in retaliation for ongoing anti-CAA protests there. In the JNU case, police reportedly stood by while an armed mob descended on student hostels for several hours, injuring scores of people. In other cases, such as at Jamia Millia Islamia university in Delhi a couple of weeks earlier, police themselves were reportedly more active in beating protestors. Since the first demonstrations against the CAA in late 2019, we have been bombarded with images of both neglectful and aggressive police responses to mostly peaceful demonstrators, manifesting what some police scholars have analyzed as the paradoxical simultaneity of “underpolicing” and “overpolicing” of criminalized and marginalized groups (Ben-Porat 2008). More recently, the media spotlight has turned toward other routinized forms of police violence in various Indian states. In Uttar Pradesh (UP), Tamil Nadu, and Maharashtra, deaths of people in police custody and questionably spontaneous “encounters,” or staged extra-judicial killings allegedly committed by officers in “self-defense,” have again gained national and even international attention. Outcries against harmful police in/action continue, but are increasingly muted and drowned out by state leaders and their supporters who insist that critics are simply ill-informed, and that protestors against CAA and other perceived injustices are nothing but rabble rousers inciting disorder, in need of hardline suppression.
Amid evident social desensitization and political polarization regarding police violence-cum-apathy, and “preemptive action” by state agents in the name of “law and order,” we are also witnessing new counter-sousveillance technologies being deployed by Hindutva-inspired governments, including police use of facial recognition software at pro-CAA rallies and other mass gatherings. Problematic digital policing technology has been deployed to identify people who have attended previous protests in order to remove or detain them, and allegedly preempt further “disturbances,” even if there is no evidence of criminal activity. This new visibility of the people to the government falls in line with other emergent and widely criticized technologies imposed by the Modi regime, like the Aadhaar program linking biometric data with official identity cards. The Aadhaar program is one means by which people may be required to “prove” their citizenship for the National Register of Citizens (NRC), and which the state hails as necessary not only for enhanced security, but more importantly for “modernizing” governance in India.
The now infamous “anti-Romeo squads” in Uttar Pradesh, formed ostensibly to protect women from sexual violence and harassment, are another recently developed policing technology purportedly aimed at ensuring security under BJP-led governance. Numerous reports indicate that, in fact, these special police squads—established by the notorious “firebrand” religious monk and BJP-affiliated UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath—routinely harass consensual couples, many of whom are suspected of being inclined toward inter-caste or inter-religious “miscegenation,” which Adityanath and his acolytes vehemently oppose. Yogi Adityanath is infamously Islamophobic, a fount of polarizing hate speech, and a virtual caricature of Hindutva ideology incarnate. Under his leadership of Uttar Pradesh (aka “Yogi Raj”), many police atrocities—particularly the aforementioned encounter killings—against Muslims and persons from other minority groups are not simply excused through appeals to secular democracy or rule of law, but actively encouraged and explicitly praised by some state leaders as manifestations of “justice” in the name of “law and order”. Other names for Yogi Raj include “Encounter Raj” and, most recently, “Thoki Raj”, in reference to Adityanath’s statement that under his direction any and all alleged criminals will be punished, indeed terminated, with extreme prejudice.
These loud and proud calls to state violence by government leaders signal a transformation in discriminatory and oppressive forms of policing that have long been a problem across India under various party regimes. Contemporary forms of impunity for communalist police violence are continuous with prior historical forms, some of which occurred decades ago under BJP rule at the state and national levels, and some of which predated the party’s emergence as a significant power in electoral politics. Although the BJP and its associates have been a strong force of often violent communal politics more generally for decades, today, the excesses of Yogi Raj serve as one of the most egregious examples of a broader state complicity in communalist police violence that has transmogrified into a gargantuan, brazen form of injustice we may conceive as “grotesque impunity.”
Amid the rising global tide of right wing regimes, many ceremonies of state and practices of governance in India have become grotesque, above and beyond public policing. Grotesque impunity for violence meted out by police and other state officials makes a mockery of democracy, and embodies a tragic farce of untold proportions, while ideals of truth, transparency, accountability, equity, and justice are crushed ever deeper underfoot. The people cannot breathe, never mind laugh. Therefore, our task is to seek out other possibilities of sociality revealed by the grotesque impunity enjoyed by police and other state actors, and to find ways to overturn the powers that be for good in the hopes of speaking truth and realizing a more just and equitable world.
Beatrice Jauregui is an anthropologist and Associate Professor of Criminology and Sociolegal Studies at the University of Toronto. Her scholarship focuses on global policing institutions and the praxis of security, authority, and order. She is currently conducting an ethnographic and archival study of police worker politics in India and beyond.
 This digital policing was occurring prior to the Covid-19 lockdown, which has produced its own forms of violent “law enforcement” of “public health” and communalist scapegoating of Muslim people and other marginalized groups.
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