Meena KandasamyThe shootings are not a deterrent, but the work of a vengeful patriarchy that could encourage people to take the law into their own hands

Tue 10 Dec 2019 1

Demonstrators in Kolkata protesting against sexual assaults on women, 4 December 2019.
 Demonstrators in Kolkata protesting against sexual assaults on women. Photograph: Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP via Getty Images

On 27 November, a group of men raped, smothered and then burned the body of a vet in her 20s near the Indian city of Hyderabad. The police came under heavy criticism for their botched handling of the case, notably the time it took to start investigating – time that the family says could have been used to save her.

Four men were arrested as suspects, and were shot dead as they allegedly snatched weapons from the police during a reconstruction at the crime scene. Such murky incidents, which many think were simply extrajudicial executions, are called “encounters” in South Asia.

What is most sinister about this narrative is the way it whitewashes the undeniable history of the police’s own rapes

On social media, viral videos of people lighting firecrackers, showering flower petals and hoisting the police officers on their shoulders were shared. These moments – where people enjoy the public spectacle of executions – reflect a repressed, collective bloodlust and do not belong in the realm of a civilised society: but how could we aspire to anything but barbarism in contemporary India, a Hindu-fundamentalist, hyper-capitalist, caste-divided patriarchy?

The public celebrations, which included men and women, are a form of misplaced angst: in vicariously enjoying the police killing alleged rapists, people are expressing their frustration with the criminal justice system that indulges in victim-blaming, where cases drag on for years, where the conviction rates are appallingly low, where legal loopholes ensure that retributive justice is rarely implemented. Their celebration also stems from a false belief that such flash punishment will serve as a deterrent. It is the easy way out: instead of looking at the structural changes we have to make as a society to wipe away masculine aggression and entitlement, we might as well give a thumbs-up to a police officer spraying bullets.

It was not just the masses, though. As if on cue, media figures, rightwing politicians and a smattering of celebrities joined in the jubilation, portraying the police as daredevil saviours. What is most sinister about this narrative is the way it whitewashes the undeniable history of the police forces’ own rapes and sexual assaults on civilians in the line of duty. Across India, police stations – which women and transgender people might assume to be safe spaces – have been sites of rape.

It is worth remembering that the first enactment of amendments to India’s rape laws regarding consent were the result of the state’s loathsome handling of the custodial rape of a tribal teenager, Mathura. On 26 March 1972, she was raped by two policemen in a police station – the supreme court let the perpetrators free, arguing that it was not rape because the girl was “habituated to sexual intercourse”, further character-assassinating her by saying: “She might have incited the cops to have intercourse with her.” Protests by women’s rights groups around the country led to political action, including the recognition of custodial rape (when the victim is in custody) as rape.

Celebrating the ultra-macho police force glosses over the fact that 93% of police in India are men. It hides the unforgivable custodial rapes of Dalit, tribal and transgender women in India, such as the 1992 gang-rape of a Dalit woman Chidambaram Padmini within the premises of a police station; accusations against the central reserve police force in Chhattisgarh; the sexual torture that tribal activist Soni Sori faced while she was in jail in 2011; and the nine surviving adivasi women of the village of Vakapalli, who are still fighting for justice 12 years after they were allegedly gang-raped by 21 commandos.

When the police and, by extension, the state are allowed to commit extrajudicial murders, we hover dangerously close to the idea that people can take the law into their own hands and mete out justice. In a country where mob-lynchings against Muslims and Dalits have become commonplace in order to uphold the Hindu-Brahminical status quo, police-led murders serve a similar purpose. They are a type of “justice” that reinforce patterns of marginalisation. After all, encounter killings always target the poor and the oppressed – or, conversely, encounters have been carried out in the service of the powerful, the rich and the ruling class.

The uber-masculine, chest-thumping bombast of deploying India’s air force in Pakistani territory to eliminate “terrorists” following an attack in Pulwama, Kashmir, helped Modi sweep the 2019 general election. The police shooting dead four rapists is another spectacle. It proclaims: India is safe for women, and the rape crisis has been permanently solved.

It is absolutely essential to fight toxic masculinity when it manifests in the form of a rape and it is absolutely essential to remember that the police forces themselves have a sordid history of rape. There is no justice when the state acts as a vengeful patriarch – one kind of toxic, trigger-hungry masculinity should not replace another.

• Meena Kandasamy

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