In recent days, images of police violence in different cities of India against the protestors of the CAA (Citizen Amendment Act) and the NRC (National Register of Citizens) have flooded the media. Even tear gas discharges and water cannons appear benign as lathi charges (systematic use of batons), ruthless beatings, use of firing and clashes with protestors have resulted in critical injuries and now more than 20 deaths. Alongside these images of police actions have emerged condemnations of violence focusing both on the police as well as the protestors.
When I begin my seminar on torture in a small liberal arts college in suburban New Jersey, we watch a classic film Battle of Algiers. Made in 1966 by Gillo Pontecorvo, the film focuses on the escalation of the anti colonial struggle that include retaliatory bombings by the FLN (National Liberation Front) in response to police bombings in the Casbah. The film is shot in black and white, uses actual actors from the area, and dramatic music coincides with key moments making it a very powerful viewing experience. During our discussion, some students note the meaninglessness of this cycle of violence. The scenes of violence are indeed horrific but it becomes an opportunity to talk through the meaning of violence in distinct contexts.
On Dec 15, 2019 students in India were peacefully protesting against the CAA for explicitly excluding Muslim migrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan as possible candidates for citizenship. Serious concerns abound about the combined impact of CAA and NRC on the citizenship claims of current citizens especially poor and Muslims. Instead of respecting the students right to protest against a discriminatory law, the Delhi police barged into the Jamia Milia Islamia University campus and its library and brutally attacked the students. In Aligarh Muslim University, worse accounts of attacks by UP police emerged. These police actions have now resulted in world-wide protests against the CAA and NRC and also against police brutality. Meanwhile, the media debate has returned to the question of violence. Can violence be used in protests? Is a support of these protests a condoning of violence? As celebrities take a stand supporting the protestors, they begin by condemning the violence on both sides. The discourse on violence thus overtakes the substantive issues raised by students and creates equivalence between the actions of the police and the protestors.
After watching Battle of Algiers, some of my students equate the violence between the FLN and the French colonial state. The apparent incomprehensibility of the actions of the FLN are highlighted and the everyday violence that Algerians faced, the martial law, and the torture situated only within the escalation created by FLN. In the film, a colonial official woefully notes- for 130 years “we both lived so peacefully.” As my students read Frantz Fanon and excerpts from his patients’ accounts on the impact of violence, the importance of distinguishing between and contextualizing violence becomes clearer. Violent consequences of French colonial rule on the everyday lives of the Algerians get completely erased in any equivalence of violence between the two sides or by focusing only on an apparent cycle of violence.
I take this example not to equate the two situations (though undoubtedly areas within the Indian context may serve as direct parallels to a logic of colonial occupation in terms of the explicit legal and everyday violence for example in Kashmir and North East). I also do not focus on whether violence should be used in protests. But the purpose is to just reassert the necessity of contextualizing violence on one hand and remembering the intimate relationship of state and police to violence on the other.
The German sociologist Max Weber noted that states have a monopoly over legitimate violence. The police, as a most visible site of state power, then utilizes that violence in its everyday interactions. Students in both Jamia and AMU were in the custody of the police if not literally but in hostels and libraries (public institutional spaces) that were enclosed and the police entered after tear gassing them. In such a context, the police really do have to explain their intentional use of force (which is often by definition determined acceptable) and why they shouldn’t be held responsible for the impact of such violence. Police, as state actors, have explicit powers that involve the use of violence and in situations where extraordinary provisions such as section 144 are utilized they acquire more heightened powers and have to explain the non-following of any rules.
The scope of state violence extends beyond the direct use of physical violence. State violence is also reflected in the “othering” that the students at Jamia and AMU experienced as they merged into the identity of their friends either by appearing like them or by implication. Large sections of Indian society routinely exhibit this “othering” towards Muslims but here it is intentional, systematic and in uniform. A Hindu right wing party leader- the prime minister- insinuates the equating of protestors with certain clothes, a chief minister speaks of revenge against the protestors, and yet the communal speak of the police (as bureaucratic agents) becomes particularly significant since that frames the perspective of who is considered worthy of their discretionary use of mental and physical violence.
While there are numerous instances of police violence in custody against certain sections of society (think poor, dalits, tribals, transgender people, “urban naxals,” Muslims amongst others), it is only at these moments, the blatant role of the police become more publicly visible to those who routinely ignore such violence elsewhere. The police asking the Jamia women students to go to Pakistan, stating that they are not Indians, even as their non Muslim friends watched in shock, are just some of the comments shared by these courageous women in a conversation with Ravish Kumar. The subsequent police targeting of Muslim journalists and lawyers/activists and subjecting them to illegal detention or in some cases torture then becomes the logical next step.
The language of the Citizen Amendment Act by elected representatives in India represented a form of erasure by explicitly excluding Muslim migrants from neighboring nations. The mental and physical police violence in the state’s name that followed the peaceful protests cannot be erased in this bland discussion of violence and protests.