India Continues to Face Police Brutality Issues Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

Updated: Oct 19, 2021

The death of George Floyd has fueled a high-profile movement that caught the attention of individuals in other countries who gathered to condemn systemic racism. However, police violence cases in India are demonstrating that the U.S. is not the only country that has been facing issues surrounding police brutality.

Issues surrounding police brutality in India have been around for a long time. In the 1980s, tensions from Sikh militants and the government rose. This is attributed to younger Sikhs who became lured away from traditional Sikh values by more extremist views; the Indian government responded with force.

The situation escalated further after the Indian Army raided Harmandir Sahib in Punjab in an attempt to arrest the Sikh militants on June 4, 1984. The police killed and arrested the Sikh militants, but in the process, many innocent Sikhs disappeared as well. The Indian government’s official historical account of the event does not address the human rights violations against Sikhs and justifies the Indian government’s actions by classifying the innocent Sikhs as terrorists to this day. Advocacy for the human rights of Sikhs is viewed by the Indian government as a threat to national security. Since then, police brutality has been a human rights issue for much of India’s history, and coronavirus restrictions have only intensified it.

In March of this year, Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, gave Indian citizens a four-hour notice to prepare for one of the strictest COVID-19 related lockdowns instituted by a country at the time. While the lockdown slowed the infection rate of COVID-19, without ample time to prepare, low-income citizens, especially in densely populated areas, were left struggling to follow its harsh restrictions. Many citizens report that police used violence to ensure that citizens followed Modi’s implementation.

On June 22, 58-year-old Jayaraj Immanuel and 31-year-old Bennicks Immanuel died in a hospital. This occurred two days after they were arrested and beaten by the police because they violated lockdown rules and kept their shops open past the night curfew. Their family filed a complaint saying that they were severely tortured and social media outrage eventually led to the officers being arrested. However, the case exposed the fact that the same officers who killed the father and son were also facing accusations of torture and murder from at least 12 people that were ignored by authorities.

The police brutality cases that have been recently appearing in the news hint at a number of issues in the Indian policing system that weren’t addressed earlier. In 2018, Tamil Nadu prisons had the second-highest number of deaths of people who were in police custody in India. No arrests were made despite the many registered cases. Most victims belonged to a lower caste on the hierarchy of the caste system in India, and hence, a lower economic class. The caste that they belong to describes their economic mobility and social status. Differences in India’s caste system determine how people in India are treated, and people who belong to a caste that is ranked lower in the caste system face more negative experiences with the police such as brutality.

While caste discrimination is outlawed in most parts of India, the culture is still maintained and people continue to treat individuals who belong to a lower caste differently than individuals who belong to a higher caste. Well-off individuals are less likely to be approached by hostile policemen and this bias can mean the difference between life or death for Indian citizens.

It is generally rare for there to be a public outcry against police brutality in India. Police aren’t monitored by institutions such as the government., Therefore, they are often not held accountable for their actions. This allows them to continue abusing people and hide their past actions through intimidation or money. In India, people who have protested police brutality have been called anti-nationalists, and thus, their activism doesn’t always garner support and exposure to the present police brutality issue. However, many hope that arresting the police officers that killed Jayaraj and Bennicks Immanuel will spread awareness and encourage more people to report abuse in the future.

Through Teen Lenses: As a teen living in the United States, are you aware of the police brutality situation in India? Has it personally affected any of your family or friends living outside the United States? Do you believe change can be made under India’s current political climate?

“While I personally am not aware of police brutality in India as an entire country, I am aware of the brutal forces of the police and military within Indian-Administered Kashmir (which was previously a state). As a Kashmiri, I personally have family and friends that have been affected and directly faced violence and unjust imprisonment at the hands of Indian policing forces. With the right-wing Hindu nationalist BJP party in power and their strong support base across India and in international governments (specifically in the West due to their economic prowess), I do not think it has the potential to get better specifically because most of the police forces are acting upon BJP propaganda. they push the rhetoric of violence against specific demographics and ethnic minorities within the country and are backed by BJP politicians, including the Prime Minister.” Asbah Qadri, 15, Rising Junior at Thomas S. Wootton High School, North Potomac, Maryland
“Because I have family in India, I have some level of knowledge about the police brutality situation in India. Historically, Muslims and Dalits, which are low caste people who are deemed “untouchable,” have been discriminated against by the policing system and face the brunt of violence from the police. In recent years, the situation has gotten worse with the rise of Hindu nationalism as a result of Narendra Modi and other Hindu nationalists being elected to positions of power which has emboldened police officers to further discriminate against these groups. In the mid 1980s, there was a lot of tension between Sikhs and the police, and in many cases the police would arrest anyone with mild criminal records, who had a rivalry with a certain police officer, or showed slight suspicion. During this period, one of my uncles was arrested for the possession of a rifle and was tortured for a week by the police. Since my grandfather was a politician, he managed to get him released. Unfortunately for many of those who were arrested, they ended up getting killed in these fake encounters, and were falsely labeled as terrorists. Under India’s current political climate, I am not confident any changes can be made. With the rise of Hindu nationalism, police officers are emboldened to act out against Muslims and Dalits, as many police officers are higher caste Hindus and have prejudices against these two groups in specific. The police system along with many politicians are notoriously corrupt and many of the police officers who discriminate against minorities can fall back on the support of powerful Hindu nationalist politicians. Because of this, I believe it will be extremely difficult to foster change and end police brutality in the recent future.” Sunaina Sunda, 18, Rising Freshman at Georgetown University, Rockville, Maryland
“India is the biggest democracy in the world and our constitution is based on the motto,” by the people, of the people, and for the people” however, historically people have suffered by the same officials who are incharge of protecting it, the police. We as a community are aware of the physical force used by some of these officers and yet we ignore it. We ignore it to such a extent that crime shows in India are not afraid of showing how police officers procure information from a criminal or make them agree to a crime, “by force”. Most recently people have been posting videos on social media about police hitting people in order for them to stay inside, this is not okay. Though I am personally not affected by it nor are my relatives, I know that this is not right, this is a wrong exercise of the power given to them. Definitely it’s not fair to label the whole Indian police department as brutal, but there are few officers that use these methods. I don’t think there is a direct relation between COVID guidelines and the Jayaraj case. I don’t think there is a direct relation between COVID guidelines and the Jayaraj case.” Aryan Munot, 17, Thomas S. Wootton High School, Rockville, Maryland