India has a long and brutal post-colonial history of violence against its minorities. In 1987, 50 Muslim men were picked up by the local police from Hashimpura village in the North Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. They were then shot and bodies thrown into canal leading to 42 deaths (Scroll 2nd Nov, 2018). After 31 years in 2018, 13 police officers involved in the case were awarded life imprisonment by the Supreme Court of India.
Earlier this year, Indians came out in streets in large numbers peacefully protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act that creates two tiers of citizenship in India. In February this year Twitter users shared a 30-second video of a group of five Muslim men in New Delhi, who appeared to be injured and lying on the road, being surrounded and beaten with lathis (heavy iron-bound bamboo stick used as a weapon, especially by police in South Asian countries) by policemen in riot gear. The policemen are seen taunting the injured protester to sing the National Anthem.
As this is happening, a voice is heard saying, ” sing Vande Mataram! (means “I praise thee, Mother”), while another is shouting an expletive about living in Hindustan (or India). Another person standing up is heard, apparently taunting, the men to shout Aazadi (freedom), a popular slogan in the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act.
Later news agencies confirmed that one of those men injured, Faizan had died soon after that incident (Quint, 29th Feb 2020). The disposability of his life was clear in how little attention his death received in mainstream media. This is in addition to over 40 people killed in the Delhi riots in February 2020 with tacit police complicity with the Hindu-supremacist mobs backed by the ruling party of India.
We saw the same disconcerting ease of inflicting violence in Minneapolis as cop Derek Chauvin kneels casually on George Floyd’s neck sniffing his life out, live on camera. “I can’t breathe,” Floyd is heard saying repeatedly, pleading for his mother and begging “please, please, please” (BBC, 30th May 2020). In the now viral footage Chauvin is a picture of calm with his hands in his pocket as though going about ‘business as usual’. More disturbing was the image of two of his colleagues watching him in amusement but never once checking on the victim who has passed out in just over six minutes of recording.
Like the lifeless men taunted and beaten by cops in Delhi, Floyd’s body was ‘killable’ – phrase used by Kashmiri scholar Athar Zia (2018) to describe how state sanctioned killings of Kashmiris is framed in mainland India. There ‘killable’ bodies of Muslims, Kashmiris in India and African Americans in USA help consolidate the ‘imagined’ nation and the national body.
Evoking feminist scholar Chandra Mohanty (2011), one asks “what is it about our present condition that allows these so-called democratic regimes to act with impunity in the global arena asks?” How can we make sense of state violence using policing in two of the world’s biggest so-called democracies? Using Gurminder Bhambra’s (2014) conception of ‘connected sociologies’ this article contends that the shared histories of colonialism and dispossession in India and USA offer a potential way of understanding this present moment better.
Rao and Pierce (2001, p.161) say that the colonised body was a “critical site for reproducing racial, sexual, ethnic, and religious difference” that enabled the enactment of the colonial governance. Following that insight this article highlights the continuities of colonial violence especially through policing and corporal disciplining of the body of the colonized.
Mohanty’s analysis of the situation draws upon the idea of India and USA as imperial democracies where the logics of militarism, nationalism and neoliberalism are married to create dispossessed bodies- “indigenous, Muslim, raced, classed, and gender-marked bodies – that are bio-deregulated or bio-militarised, never generic ones” (Mohany 2011, p.78).
Following the same logic Sherene Razack (2020) views police violence against Indigenous people in America along with everyday settler violence as a part of the racial terror which has historically been a central part of settler colonialism. She highlights that both the violence and its justification by the state reveal the psychic and material underpinnings of a settler state-a state that imagines and consolidates itself as a community of whites imperilled by the non-white inhabitants.
Whether it is in contemporary America or India, violence is directed at those imagined as threats to a White nation and a Hindu nation respectively. This violence flows seamlessly through institutions such as policing and law embedding itself in everyday professional routines as captured in the action of the policemen in Hashimpura back in the 1980s, and in the violent incidents in Delhi and Minneapolis.
The intricate relationship between colonial governance and corporeal technologies of disciplining the ‘other’ ‘relies on modes of racial categorization and assumptions of embodied difference between coloniser and the colonised’ (Rao and Pierce 2001, p.162). This relationship replicated in settler colonial postcolonial contexts such as India and settler colonial contexts like USA. And policing is one site where white men and women and those aspiring to whiteness enact these assumption and categorization with impunity (Razzack 2020).
Emily Bell (2013) views the use of excessive violence by police against local populations and deployment of ethnic and racial bias against certain groups as a distinct feature of colonial policing. It was deployed in distinctively political ways in the British Empire in India to eliminate the threat to the social and political order of the colony. Thus, policing functioned to legitimize British rule in a way that the army could not giving a ‘civilian face’.
Following its colonial roots, police violence on streets, neighborhoods and homes in Kashmir, Delhi, Hashimpura or Minneapolis whether using Lathis guns or just brute physical force helps hide what is in fact a paramilitary rule. In his historical study of militarisation of civilian police in the 20th century Julian Go (2020) highlights that police reformers did not just draw from the “military” but more precisely from America’s imperial and colonial experiences overseas. Here, one can see analogues between India’s militaristic policing experiments in its internal colonising projects against separatist forces, whether it is in Kashmir, Punjab or in the North Eastern states.
This article makes a case for connecting disparate locations and modalities of state violence perpetuated through the police into a meta-narrative of colonial violence in post-colonial and settler colonial contexts. The very motive of this type of police violence is to protect these carefully crafted physical and social boundaries between the colonizers and the colonized, dominant and subordinate, between the Hindus and the Muslims, between the Whites and the non–Whites. Police violence then stands, as both punishment for those who dare to transgress, and those who are considering it.
Saba Hussain is a Lecturer in Sociology in the School of Humanities, Coventry University