Sunday, March 29, 2009

Praveen Swami on The Decline of the "Encounter" Death

A fascinating piece appeared in The Hindu a few days ago, suggesting that communal targeting of minorities (and perhaps Dalits) by trigger-happy policemen might actually be on the decline. Praveen Swami isn't arguing in favor of complacency on this front, but his is a useful perspective, one that isn't seen too often in the mainstream English-language media, whether right or left:

Put simply, there is no evidence to support the claim that there is an increased incidence of extra-judicial executions of Muslims — or, for that matter, Hindus. Even though police forces across India have intensified intelligence-led operations targeting Islamist groups, the NCRB data for 2007 show a sharp decline in the use of lethal force. A large part of the decline came because of a dramatic decline in killings by the police in Chhattisgarh, where fatalities fell to seven. Andhra Pradesh also saw a sharp decline in police killings, from 72 to 45. Only in Uttar Pradesh did deaths caused by the use of lethal force remain at the 2006 levels.


What these figures point to is a slow but sure process of transformation: for which the social transformation brought about by democracy deserves credit. Less than a decade ago, the police forces across India faced credible charges of communal bias. Reports of judicial commissions, which investigated the 1982 riots in Meerut, the 1978 riots in Aligarh and the 1992-1993 carnage in Mumbai, showed systematic anti-Muslim biases in everything from the use of lethal force and patterns of arrest to the treatment of prisoners.

New studies, though, have thrown up signs of change. In January 2005, the Senior Superintendent of Police, Saharanpur, Safi Rizvi — now an aide to Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram — conducted a study of the district’s prison population. He sought to test the proposition that the police were disproportionately likely to act against Muslims and backward caste suspects. Mr. Rizvi’s study, however, demonstrated that the prison population of Saharanpur closely matched the district’s demographic profile. Hindus made up 58.5 per cent of the jail population, closely mirroring their overall share in the district population. Muslim prisoners accounted for 39 per cent of the jail population, marginally lower than their demographic representation. While Dalits made up 21 per cent of the district population, they constituted just 19 per cent of the prisoners; Brahmins, in a twist, were somewhat over-represented in jail.

Rather than religion or caste, Mr. Rizvi concluded, class constituted an accurate marker of which sections of the population were over-represented in prisons. More than 84 per cent of the prison population, he found, was made up of the poor — more than twice their share of the general population, as determined by the National Council for Applied Economic Research.

One only hopes that the procession of urban, middle- and upper-middle class students so many Indian news channels put on come election time, and who can reliably be expected to express reflexive cynicism about democracy (and to blame "politicians" for virtually everything under the sun, as if politicians acted on their own, with no support from "the people", and operated in a vacuum) are paying attention. Far too often, one gets the sense that "politicians" are blamed when they don't further one's own agenda -- indeed, far too many participants in "roundtable" discussions of the sort seen every day on NDTV or CNN-IBN don't even seem to recognize their own agenda as an agenda. Such blindness is dangerous, leading to the temptation of characterizing those who see things differently, not as having different constituents or different priorities, but as being monstrously wicked. No-one can deny the criminality and thuggishness of so many Indian politicians -- equally, however, the parroting of banalities and a comic-book view of the world that seem to characterize the sorts of students/professionals the Indian TV channels insist on presenting as the only face of "youngistan", is more than a little depressing. Swami's article serves as a reminder of what should never be forgotten, that democracy -- imperfect, corrupt, frustrating, and violent -- is the only option. On some days, it seems that upwardly mobile India only pays lip service to this idea.

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