Uses and Abuses of the Po Po

Friend Naureen Shah has written the following Op-Ed in the NY Times.  In addition to posting it because of the pride of seeing her published thusly, it's a very good piece that, among others things, shows the use of Slumdog Millionaire as a hook into issues of import in India being discussed for Western audiences, highlights both the abuses committed by the police as well as the conditions they exist in and their need for labour protections and assistance, and offers some tentative solutions for resolving these problems.  It's also very well written.  Here is the entirety of the text:

BANGALORE, INDIA — The Oscar-winning film “Slumdog Millionaire” starts with a shock: Policemen hook the young protagonist Jamil up to a car battery to try to force him to confess to a crime he did not commit. Jamil soon gets a reprieve, as an inspector sits him down and lets him explain how he knew the answers to those million-rupee trivia questions.

Though the film earned accolades in Hollywood, it unleashed a firestorm of criticism in India for its gruesome portrayal of poverty, which some called one-dimensional. But few critics in India — if anyone at all — disputed the film’s depiction of police torture: It is a harsh and undeniable reality. Across India, police torture is commonplace. Police officers consider torture a necessary tool to punish criminals or elicit confessions, whether true or false. For decades, successive governments have failed to deliver on promises to hold the police accountable for abuses and to build professional, rights-respecting police forces.

During recent interviews — over plates of English-style biscuits and cups of over-sugared tea — some police officers opened up with what seemed a keen desire to be understood. One told me he was exploited by superiors who demanded unrealistically that he solve cases quickly while cramming his work schedule with patrols and V.I.P. escort duties. Complaining that he had neither the training nor the equipment to use scientific investigation techniques, he admitted that he had beaten suspects to extract confessions.

He also told me he had recently been ordered to commit a fake “encounter killing.” It is a common practice for the police to secretly execute a suspect, then claim the victim died after initiating a shoot-out. This happens so often that all Indians know the term “encounter.”

“I am looking for my target,” the officer told me. “I will eliminate him. ... I fear being put in jail, but if I don’t do it, I’ll lose my position.”

Most of the police officers I met did not resemble cinematic villains. They were often haggard men and women who work long hours with little time off to see their families or get a full night’s sleep. Many said they often lack basic equipment — vehicles to get to a crime scene or witness interview, tools to gather evidence, and even paper on which to write reports.

Though India’s police forces battle many pressing problems — including terrorism, organized crime and religious and caste violence — they are in a serious state of disrepair. Many problems stem from under-staffing, with just one civil police officer for every 1,037 Indian residents, about half Asia’s regional average and less than a third of the global average of one officer per 333 people.

Police station chiefs told me they knew their officers, embittered and exhausted, sometimes took out their anger violently on the public. Many of the more than 60 lower-ranking officers interviewed for a new Human Rights Watch report said their superiors expected them or ordered them to torture suspects. The pressure to resolve cases is intense, even if it means arresting and torturing an innocent person.

The police use escalating levels of violent crime and the acquittal rate — at about 90 percent, one of the world’s highest — to justify these abuses. But vigilante-style justice is an archaic and ineffective practice for a country reaching for modernity. It also undermines India’s status as the world’s largest democracy.

The government knows this. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has made a commitment to take on police reform in an “urgent and serious manner.” But as our research has shown, reform requires strong measures, including sending abusive police officers to prison, dismissing those who allow abuses to take place, and setting up independent and powerful police review commissions. Only decisive and sustained action will send a clear signal across the police ranks that torture and killing are never acceptable.

At the same time, the government needs to overhaul a broken system. It needs to treat the police as people with rights, too. Officers need the time, training and equipment necessary to develop professional, rights-respecting policing tactics. They need time off, decent housing and incentives to behave properly. A system that does not provide these resources effectively discourages the police from changing their deeply rooted, abusive patterns of behavior.

Reform will not be easy, but it is the only way to transform India’s police forces into the kind of institution that Indians respect instead of fear.

Naureen Shah is a Leonard H. Sandler fellow at Human Rights Watch. 

As always, I have minor quibbles with the language ("English-style", "modernity").  But the basics seem sound on the specific topic of the police and policing - it was especially good to see someone point out that the police need to be treated as people with rights - not as agents of the state (the Giuliani take) but as people and labourers (the Dr Anonymous take). 
It would have been idea to incorporate thematically class, gender, regional, ethnic, and caste analyses - i.e. understand the diversity of India or make a case for why its not represented - rather than portraying Indians as all of one-ilk, but it's a very, very, very good start on an important issue that probably does affect nearly all Indians.  I also would have preferred if some victims of police abuse had been quoted rather than just described in the abstract, much as the police themselves were humanised and if at least one example of a best practices could be highlighted to avoid the 'India is so poor, backwards and helpless' implication that I believe is very readily evoked in the reader of the New York Times.
All that said, the role of policing and police forces as an important cog in understanding social, economic, and political relations in countries from Weimar Germany to the Obama-era United States has already been noted extensively in the Western media and its good to see someone besides Tom Friedman or Nicholas Kristoff writing about Indian policing practices in the pages of the New York Times.   
Kudos, Naureen.
Naureen Shah discusses Indian policing in the pages of the New York Times

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Your posting of Naureen

Your posting of Naureen Shah's NY Times Op-Ed on police brutality in India (4 Aug 09) has encouraged me to post my review of the film "A Wednesday" (seen during the MOMA's "New India" film festival in New York), written for the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) and available on their web site from 2 Jul 09 (see

"Mother" India as a swaggering, chauvinist bully2 July 2009

Judging by the standing ovation, from an overwhelmingly Indian audience, that followed the showing of Neeraj Pandey's "A Wednesday" at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in June 2009, this film struck deeply resonant chords in that audience, as it has with the great majority of the 83 IMDb reviewers thus far (most of whom are Indians, in-country or ex- pats). Politically-conscious viewers seeking insight into the present state of mind of the Indian masses will find the results sobering. The "Mother" India portrayed here is a swaggering, xenophobic bully. "A Wednesday" serves as a point of pride for Hindu chauvinists thirsting for "great power" recognition: those for whom it is not enough to have the world's third-largest (and nuclear-armed) military but who also want popular culture to reflect the actual correlation of forces. The fact that "we" can now make a film with as much razzle- dazzle, high-tech, beat-em-up national superiority as those made by the world's only superpower shows that "we" have arrived. That this film "can be compared to a Hollywood movie" (Abhishek Kumar) is the highest praise possible.

Despite the IMDb's warnings against spoilers, the plot details of this "thriller" have been covered amply in the already-submitted reviews, including a pretty clear description of the film's big, penultimate, plot twist, through which its main message is delivered. That message would be familiar to and appreciated by many in the U.S.: those for whom "the world changed" on September 11, 2001 (when they lost their illusion of invulnerability); those who wanted to round up every Arab, then every Muslim, then every swarthy "foreigner"; those who lynched a turban-wearing Sikh or a dark-skinned Hispanic; those who thirsted for revenge, against any "enemy," at any cost; those who were suckered into supporting the invasion and occupation of Iraq and those who still are being suckered into supporting the "reordering" of Afghanistan.

The political subtext of "A Wednesday" was expressed approvingly by several of its IMDb enthusiasts: "mocks the failure of the state machinery to give a free hand to the police force" (chet rathod); "right message to everyone . . . don't make us rebel back, it will cost you" (Prashanth Patil); "it's time that we woke up & be(came) intolerant of those who take the liberty to end hundreds of innocent lives for the sake of their own unhealthy psyche" (The Moon! from India); "you have to kill the cockroach of your house and no body will do this for you" (abhi vega00). An extremely brutal Mumbai cop, played convincingly by Jimmy Shergill, who delivers a severe and prolonged public beating to a fellow cop, in full view of dozens of onlookers, is described as "hot blooded" by several of the film's admirers and as "the policeman who means business" (aniket-dave). But the habitual use of brutality is not restricted to a rogue cop. When he wants to extract some information from a jailed "terrorist," the Mumbai Police Commissioner himself storms into the man's cell and proceeds to beat him viciously, repeatedly yelling "have I asked you anything?" over the victim's vain attempts to provide what is wanted. The message is clear: "You are at my mercy and I can do anything I want with you. After I have beaten you sufficiently, you will tell me everything." Some of the film's enthusiasts seem to have gone off the rails: "most striking feature of the movie is its POSITIVITY" (Jignesh Vaidya). Arun Iyer from Mumbai even called this film "wholesome"! But there were cautions as well: "Everything was fine with . . . movie except the idea of standing up against something using extreme means" (Sree Harsha Sake).

It restores one's faith in human decency and intelligence that at least some of the IMDb reviewers recognized this film's deep ugliness, pervasive racism and worship of brutality. "The film is . . . stridently right-wing in its approach to terror" (long-ford from India). It "completely supports" and "glorifies" "the 'fight violence with violence' method" (The Discolored Chameleon). "This film is constructed in a way to legitimate the use of force and violence by governmental agencies in case of emergency, and we, the terrified viewers, are invited to identify ourselves with the good guys and approve this point of view" (dylndg from Madagascar).

As some of its detractors point out, "A Wednesday" has no doubts about the identity of the enemy: Pakistan, its ISI (spy agency), Al Qaeda and, by implication, Muslims in general, are the sources of "violence." To his shame, the justly celebrated Indian actor, Naseeruddin Shah, allowed himself to be used here as a Muslim cover for the film's undisguised Islamophobia. The amused nod of familiarity from the Mumbai Police Commissioner (ably played by Anupam Kher) upon hearing the Muslim name of a suspected "terrorist" speaks volumes about the mind-set of the Hindu state. For a large section of humanity, whose attitudes are shaped by media controlled by their exploiters, "terrorism" is an activity exclusive to deranged individuals, predatory organizations and "rogue" states. When "good countries" (e.g. the U.S., Britain, Israel etc.) slaughter innocents, these acts are called "accidents" or "unintended collateral damage." Blessings on the heads of two reviewers from India (bruce-woodstock and Sreyas S S) for reminding us that the largest losses of life in India have been inflicted by official state violence and by communal riots. (The 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in the State of Gujarat, during which thousands were killed and injured and tens of thousands made homeless at the hands of Hindu mobs, was facilitated by official indifference to -- if not outright collusion in -- the violence.) The outraged patriot does not perceive such things as "terrorism." Nor does "A Wednesday." By advancing the need for a "strong state," police brutality, torture and, if all else fails, vigilante justice, this film gives aid and comfort to the Dick Cheneys of the world.

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