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June 03, 2020

Race & Policing in America and India

By Kartik Desai


The last several days have witnessed unprecedented scenes of mass protest against policy brutality across the United States – dominating headlines and public discourse across the world. This has led to much introspection on race relations and our collective understanding of the ‘social contract’ – specifically the justified use of force by the state in order to preserve the rights of all citizens. In India, these events have understandably triggered comparisons to our own challenges in providing equal protection to our minorities – specifically the most persecuted ones, Muslims and Dalits – under a consistent application of law, as implemented by the police, the key instrument of the state in maintaining order.

There are two sets of issues here which need to be unpacked to make any meaningful comparisons between the situation in the US and India:

  1. Race Relations – The victims in the US are ethnically different black citizens while in India they are religious minorities (most importantly Muslims) who are enmeshed in the plularistic, secular culture of India. Even though the relative share of the minority population is similar at 14% in both cases, the nature of the majoritarianism is very different, given the different historical contexts. Africans were forcibly brought to America 400 years ago, treated as sub-humans or slaves, then sub-citizens post the Emancipation proclamation, and finally as equal members of society, at least on paper. Islam in India has a very different history, as a religion initially antagonistic to Hinduism with its arrival through invasions by the Ummayad Dynasty into Sindh in the eighth century, but also one that then syncretized over more than a thousand years of integration with local traditions to create a composite culture, evident in the Hindi spoken in North India. But despite these differences, black minorities in America and Muslim minorities in India today face statisticaly similar challenges in receiving equal access and rights. A black or Muslim man is less likely to get a job and more likely to get arrested. It is as simple as that – deep discrimination is the basis for discontent.
  2. Nature of Police System – The other difference between the US and India is in the capacity and independence of the police force. The New York police department’s estimated $6 billion annual budget is roughly three times Mumbai’s, to take two cities with similar population. Indian cops usually carry a stick and revolver. US ones are ready to bust out the SWAT equipment. The bigger difference though, is the fundamental nature of how the system works. In India, the police work for politicians, and are corrupt. A citizen by default cannot expect good treatment unless she can pay for it. On the other hand, the motto of the NYPD is ‘courtesy, professionalism, respect’ – which, even if not followed with black citizens, is the norm for the other 85%, who get equal treatment regardless of social position as long as they are white. In India, it’s not just race but class that matters. A rich person or politician, whatever their religion, can make the cops dance to their tune and be immune from prosecution. But a poor person can’t rely on the police for getting justice, and instead must fear them for compounding the existing injustice created by their poverty. Beyond these differences, in both cases, the police force is seen as an key instrument of the establishment (whites in America, elite Hindus in India) used to keep the lower classes (income and identity-wise) in check.

Even after these nuances, it should be evident for people in India looking at the churn in the US system and society to appreciate just how sigificant the protests are. Our country is in much worse shape on both race relations and policing. Anti Muslim hatred has infected large parts of our polity and society, just like anti-black sentiment has been pervasive in the US. In the last few years, lynchings of minorities by vigilante mobs, both spontaenous and by design, have become a regular occurrence in India, and policy brutality was anyways an accepted reality. So no wonder we are shocked that in the richest country in the world, with the longest history of democracy, a ‘single’ lynching of a minority, has led to widespread condemnation, protest and societal soul searching. If America can start coming to grips with its racial tensions and structural issues in policing, what is preventing us in India from even being close to such a reckoning?

As an Indian who lived in the United States during his formative years, from the age of 10 to 25 years (from 1990 to 2005) I have had my own experiences of racism and police violence which I was reminded of watching the news on TV this week. These incidents are nothing compared to what black people face on a regular basis, but serve as a small reminder of what even slightly dark skin can mean in the US, and even for someone from a privileged background (my father was a UN official with ‘diplomatic immunity’ and I was studying in an Ivy League university). Three such memories resurfaced with the news this week:

  • A middle schooler in New York experiencing repeated racial bullying, for being a Hindu, and also watching racism inflicted on others for being Muslim, Chinese etc. In this case, the ‘in-group’ comprising both white, black and hispanic kids and the ‘out-group’ being the relative minority comprising Asians, labelled chinks, terrorists, ragheads, dotheads etc.
  • A 17 year old successfully buying his first six-pack of beer in a West Philadelphia store but then being confronted by a cop standing outside, who proceeds to first throw him to the ground and then forces him to individually open each beer and pour it in the gutter and finally apologise to the staff in front of the onlookers before being allowed to let go.
  • A 21 year old recent college grad (now able to drink legally), hanging out with the wrong crowd of mischief makers trying to break into an office to do a prank, and ending up in handcuffs with large guns shoved in his face, when the local police caught them in the act and decided to teach them a lesson with some humiliation tactics, before being forced to let them go.

There are other examples of violence I have experienced as young man growing up in 90s America – including as a victim of knife-point muggings – or witnessed while living in black neighbourhoods like West Philly or Harlem – but they are all economic crimes driven by desperation, and not as potent as those that relate to racial oppression by the majority, or by the use of power by the state. These have lower justification as you are not fighting for resources (or for vengence). You are simply attacking someone because you can, and you want to. Because you have the power and they don’t. Because you are great, and they not. For the victim, a cop shouting racist slurs and throwing you to the ground is much worse than having a thief mug you and run off with your wallet. Even though you may not have lost any money, you have completely lost your agency and any sense of control. And why? The fault is not in anything you do, just being who you are.

Since those days, New York City, America and the rest of the world have come a long way. Open racism and antipathy towards minorities has become less acceptable among most people. At the same time, extremism and movements advocating racial supremacy (whether white or Hindu) have gained currency with the advent of the Internet and rise of right wing demagogues able to expertly use digital and communication technologies in both countries. A new generation of millenials less experienced in the real world than in the virtual information-soaked reality of soundbytes, misinformation and outright propoganda are unable to process the evident polarisation. Youngsters today are more ‘woke’ – more liberal and less likely to commit racial abuse that was rampant but a decade ago – but they are also less able (because of the information overload and their lack of experience dealing with real life challenges of racism and violence) to make sense of such socio-political issues.

So what should young people, all of us, do? Going back to the two key issues, the solution, if only we can actually somehow do it, is quite simple. We need to stop being racist, and deter others from the disease. And we need to reform the police.

  1. Stopping racism – is not easy, but a starting point can be applying the principle in our personal domain and being absolute in its application. No light racism. No caveats and exceptions for particular groups (e.g. China post Covid). No tolerating it from friends, family, colleagues. Only if there is a larger social movement towards this can any political changes come.


  1. Reforming the police – is possible, but most people haven’t bothered to push for this. Why can’t the police be independent? Why can’t it be better resourced? Unlike race, this is a policy issue on which citizens can mobilise to demand better accountability for the police affects them all. The ones who stand to lose, the political class, are what stand in the way.

We all know that if India had as many Covid cases as America currently does on a per capita basis, given the relative size of economic capacity, we would be in deep trouble. We are lucky to have held off the disease, and hopefully will continue to get it under control. We have already seen how the pandemic has excerbated the existing economic crisis and social disintegration in the country. Covid taking on a communal colour instead of being seen as a disease that doesn’t discriminate. The police being forced to enforce a 3 month quarantine with no planning and preparation done for handling millions of homeless and migrants, resulting in heartbreaking scenes of deprivation and needless violence.

India is not America. But we share the same political, economic and social design, and our leaders have said we are ‘natural allies’. Our societies also identify with each other as friends and our cultures increasingly overlap. As the US faces this churn in its fundamental attitude towards race and policing, we would do well in India to respect their progress, and do what we can to make some ourselves.

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