How does Black Lives Matter translate into India?

Man walks in front of a Black Lives Matter flag.

The Black Lives Matter movement in America has led to protests and demand for a complete overhaul of the police system, but can we expect a similar movement to begin in India? Are we ready for such a change?

If one studies the timeline of the Black lives matter movement, it was founded by three Black women named Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi. Over the last 7 years, it has sparked a wave of protests with a list of names of black youth, from Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Alton Streling, Breonna Taylor, Deborah Danner, Ahmaud Arbery to now George Floyd. As a response, we see here in India hashtags like Dalit Lives Matter and Muslim Lives Matter being discussed in social media with a range of conversations springing up around them.

After the recent police killing of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis, the United States, a series of massive protests have erupted along with inundation of conversations under the banner of Black Lives Matter. What started as a hashtag on social media in 2013, after the death of Trayvon Martin in Florida, it has now gone to become a movement against police brutality linked to white supremacy.

It is to be noted that while Black lives matter has reinvigorated not just the black movement with a new wave, but has also ignited debates around the police system, the criminal justice system, and issues with respect to violence and marginalized communities. While acknowledging its global impact, we must contextualize the form, essence, and implications of such a movement when it comes to India.

The police system in India

Just a few days ago, the death of Jayaraj and Bennicks (Fennix) under police custody with sexual abuse in Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu has sparked massive outrage leading to debates around Police brutality, unlike other times.

There are multiple factors of social demography, history of the criminal justice system, social consciousness, narratives, and concrete alternative policy level demands which need to be taken into account to set up an understructure for a movement of magnitude like the Black Lives Matter. It is the Police act of 1861 which regulates the police forces in India, some states like Maharashtra, Gujarat, Kerala, and Delhi have enacted their own acts but even they are modeled on the act of 1861. In 1981, the National Police Commission drafted a “ Model Police act” advocating for significant reforms within the police system but it has not been adopted by any state. There are is no external accountability body to evaluate and review the functioning and performances of the Police in India unlike the UK, Northern Ireland, and Canada. It is usually the human rights organizations and civil society groups which point out to the impunity of police and the excesses they cause without any binding on the police. 

The history of police brutality in India is manifested through procedural lapses, unlawful arrests, encounters, colonial laws, and custodial tortures including public thrashing. In recent times, there were many videos circulated where police were seen to be thrashing poor migrant workers going towards their hometowns, entering Jamia Millia Islamia University to unleash horror among students or even roadside vendors being beaten up during the lockdown.

Amidst reports of such heart-wrenching events, one also witnesses to a certain one-sided veneration and celebration of police through cinema, a prominent cultural institution that shapes the social consciousness and perception of the masses towards Police brutality.

In Bollywood, movies such as Singham, Simba, and Dabang have, instead of being criticized, gone to become blockbusters. Images of encounter specialists provide a certain thrill among the masses.  A society that is so entrenched with prejudices based on caste, race, religion, tribes, and gender, it is naive to assume that these prejudices would not be reflected in the functioning of state institutions and particularly the police which is mandated with a certain authority to maintain law and order. Having said this, we should also be pressing upon revoking of militarization and AFSPA in Kashmir, regions of North East and Central India.

The marginalized in India

Some bodies have become far more vulnerable than others.

According to the 21st Prison Statistics Report of 2015, 55% of undertrial prisoners in India are Dalit, Adivasis, and Muslims, far more than their proportion in the population, similar to the mass incarceration of black people in America.

With this backdrop, I would like to look at the hashtag Dalit Lives Matter that has come up in social media conversations in recent times. Unlike with Black Lives Matter, no movement or mobilizations have happened around the hashtag Dalit Lives Matter. There are no particular political objectives and policy formulations that have been raised yet.

The conversations around it are generic: about caste atrocities, manual scavenging, reservation, and casteism, etc. When it comes to Black Lives Matter, not just massive mobilizations over the last many years but also there are pertinent particular narratives on police brutality, systemic racism and defunding of police to invest in health care and youth-focused programs being emphasized upon along with toppling and decapitating of statues with the legacy of slavery both in US and UK ( Edward Colston, Columbus). There has also been a demand for bringing down statues of Cecil Rhodes and Gandhi in the UK.

We can see this aspect of redefining history in India by Dalits through events such as the burning of Manusmiriti by Ambedkar, the celebration of Bhima Koregaon defeating Peshwa rulers, and the rejection of Brahminical deities by sections of Dalits over a period of time.

The axis of articulations, however, in both these hashtags is different; one is about castes embedded in graded inequality. The other is about race with white supremacy in police in opposition to black people as a binary.

The other minorities, be it the Asians, Arabs or Latinos, despite their dose of racism towards black people, are not the center of the debate. Sections of them have come out in support of Black Lives Matter given their own share of differential vulnerabilities in the American society. Black people are setting the discourse while ensuring that others rally behind them on certain well-defined narratives.

Is it possible in India?

It depends.

In terms of connotation or for those whom human lives are universally imbibed with inherent dignity, Dalit lives hold value for them.

But when we speak of Dalit lives in co-relation to Black lives as a political movement, is the vantage point only physical violence? If so, then by whom?

There are two sets of agents perpetrating physical violence on Dalits, the first one is upper castes and dominant castes in the society; while the second one is the layers of agents within the criminal justice system reflective of the societal anti-Dalit sentiments.

The only difference here is they (agents perpetrating physical violence) are sanctioned by the State as law-enforcing machinery. The upper castes and dominant caste people, unlike one group of whites doing systemic violence, vary from one place to another. For example, they are predominantly Brahmins and Thakurs in Uttar Pradesh, Marathas in Maharashtra, Bhumihars in Bihar, Jats in Haryana to Thevars, Vanniyars and Gounders in Tamil Nadu.

If there is no one group of centralized agents of caste violence spread across, how can a uniform Dalit Lives Matter movement confront a list of castes varying from one place to another?

The other option one can argue is a series of local Dalit Lives Matter movements against caste violence adding up to each other. Like the possibility of racial affinity among Black people being prone to be targets of violence, are different untouchable castes capable enough to form a cohesive community of Dalits? Is there affinity based on vulnerability when members of one particular caste among them are targeted?

Dalit political identity is still an ongoing process to bring together different untouchable castes together even locally and it is not an established community of cohesive mass. In his recent article on Scroll.in, Kancha Ilaiah argues that Black Lives Matter must fire up India’s anti-caste movement to fight its central villain as the upper castes, by citing notions of inferior and superior and how they have subjugated the Dalits and the Shudras. My contention to him is that he does not cite the notion of graded inequality where even the local dominant castes who can be referred to as Shudras in the popular parlance, commit acts of physical violence on Dalits from Maharashtra to Tamil Nadu.

Physical violence on Dalits are both direct and indirect, someone dies in a gutter as enforced caste occupation while the others get killed for small transgressions of caste rules, ranging from “honor killing” to caste massacres.

Outside the vantage point of physical violence, if we assess the value of lives, there are already streams within the anti-caste movement which has raised questions of representation, livelihood, dignity, and land, all of which add value to life.

How geography is different in India

Most black people live in urban spaces, while the majority of Dalits in India live in villages as different castes, while not being spatially concentrated, and they are dependent upon upper castes and dominant castes for livelihood. How does one negotiate their village protests along with their vulnerabilities?

Uprisings in Bihar and Telangana in the 80s and 90s are examples of physical response to the violence of feudal castes of Bhumihars and Kammas which despite its initial success were suppressed and met with further violence backed by local political forces. Khairlanji in 2006 and Una in 2016 saw spontaneous militant upsurge from Dalits, not as a moral appeal from justice from the upper and dominant castes; but rather, an outburst of collective anger among Dalits. This precedent of protests, although local, already exists among the Dalit masses for decades now, without social media or hashtags to validate its essence.

Do protests mean bringing a significant change in the Indian police system?

Now coming to my second point, has this precedence of protests and narratives made any significant changes in the justice delivery mechanism?

In the year 2018, the countrywide protests against the dilution of SC/ST POA were for strengthening the legal provision. This was demanded, by making the police more accountable, and abiding by the complainants belonging to SC and ST categories. In the Black Lives Matter movement, it is all about defunding the police and taking away power from them to not be indulging in cases of police brutalities. On the other hand, the protests here were based on demands for more convictions of upper and dominant caste perpetrators by the police.

How are we on a similar plane of mechanisms of seeking justice, with or without the hashtag, with our recent history of movements?

Without the law on paper, the caste Hindus would run rampage on the Dalits en masse with all the accumulated hatred and prejudices in the society while on the other side, the police as authority invent ways not only to unleash brutalities but also to deny justice with discrepancies in legalities. According to a report by The Hindu, the conviction rate of cases registered under SC/ST POA from 2014-16 is just 27%.  From Keezhvenmeni, Tsundur, Bathanitola, Laxmanpur Bathe, Kambalapalli to Khairlanji, in all of these horrendous caste massacres and atrocities of Dalits, there has been acquittal of the accused.

It is a perplexing question that Dalits need to engage with: trapped in between the society and state machinery while seeking justice. I believe, a better response to the Black Lives Matter movement should not be emotive statements of Dalit Lives Matter or fitting in policy demands from there. It should rather be about highlighting narratives of police brutality and this should be accompanied by political pressure towards policy implementation, reforms within the criminal justice system, scrapping of draconian laws, diversifying the police, and lack of effective accountability mechanism and so on. This can be part of a larger movement and alliances can be formed with likeminded Advocacy groups, civil society, Muslim, Adivasi, and lower caste organizations concerned about the same.

No matter how radical it might sound but given the volatile nature of Indian society, drastic narratives such as “Defunding the Police”, “Abolish Police”, do not hold substantial ground to be implemented yet. The social consciousness is not prepared neither are the dynamics of inter-group relations. There are no alternative models to provide protection for the vulnerable sections such as Dalits, Adivasis, and Muslims while uttering these statements. Simultaneously, the political dispensations use police to target vulnerable groups for their own political gains or capture over resources. It is a grave conundrum that grips the vulnerable communities. If with the presence of a police system there are brutalities, one can only imagine what would happen without them given the history of communal politicians making incendiary remarks on public platforms, and caste organizations having an open license to unleash violence against vulnerable groups. These are practical questions that confront the vulnerable groups apart from what kind of drastic changes within the police system. Who then among the society comes forward to protect? Are we then not overlooking the predominant nature of Indian society and its history of violence by dominant and upper caste groups with or without the police?

Sumeet Samos is a music artist and Rapper from South Odisha and has completed his post-graduation from JNU. He writes and sings in English, Hindi, and Odia.