Beatrice Jaregui’s book on UP Police titled, ‘Provisional Authority: Police, order and security in India’ (2017), is a fascinating work based on her long stay in UP from 2004-2017 (with interruptions). She hung out with beat constables and went on ‘gasht’ (patrolling) with them. So comfortable did some of these cops became of her presence that they went about their ordinary business of life as if she was not there. So they chased overloaded trucks for bribes and generally went about exercising their authority that they drew from their uniform. Beatrice’s is a dense book that grapples with issues of power, authority and coercion. She has a very nuanced view of UP Police as she perceives it as a resource used by entities — including corporate houses — for realizing certain objectives. In this interview conducted through Zoom, she explains how a change in the government in Lucknow impacted the way the police conducted itself. She had the benefit of watching the SP, BSP and BJP governments and realized how the police gain and lose authority under different ideologies. Beatrice’s views on the recent ‘encounter’ with UP goon, Vikas Dubey, are very interesting, as she believes that the decision to kill him must have been taken at the very top — not by those who killed him. After spending so much time in UP, she is working on another book about the social and economic disparity between officers and the men lower in hierarchy in the police force. Interestingly, she also takes up an important slice of UP Police history that has not been discussed — the revolt by the jawans of the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) in Bareilly, Agra and Meerut in the summer of May 1973.
In your book, which reads like a book of fiction, you — a white woman in salwar kameez as you choose to describe yourself — are with beat constables who continue to do what they are used to doing:- extracting bribes from law-violators. How were they so comfortable with you?
By the time that particular instance happened, I had been spending day after day at the ‘thana’ where they were posted for about a year in the Lucknow area. I had been coming and going almost daily for a long time. So they knew me. I was around. I was kind of present every day. So, yes, I guess you could say that they were used to that and I mean by that time I had seen all kinds of things. As you said, it was sort of matter of fact and it was just routine practice.
We saw the police in Delhi, UP and elsewhere displaying excessive brutality to enforce the lockdown to control the Corona virus. The most obvious question, why is the Indian police so lawless while enforcing law?
I think lawless is the word we hear very often. Although it’s not always clear what that means. So when you use the word lawless, what do you mean?
Here, police violence is normalized in a certain way. Cops take law into their own hands and brutally beat up people. That is what I am asking you — why is the police so ‘lawless’ in practicing law?
Yes, so ‘lawless’ in the sense of excessive violence. Also just as you’re indicating — just doing whatever they want. Many people have said things like police actually just make their own law, right? And there are many reasons for this. I think there is this sort of historical, structural reason that policing as an institution has generally been about being the means of coercion of the State of whichever set of people and their ideas happen to be in power. In the Indian context, of course, the police institution emerged during colonial rule. The way policing is organized is the way the public feels about the police, that is all structured by this history where essentially the police were the people who were hired, paid in some way to maintain control at the behest of whoever was calling the shots. Hence, we hear a lot of talk about the political masters they serve or the regime of the moment.
Many compare the police in India to a kind of private army, for, again, whoever happens to be in office. Therefore, it’s intimately interconnected with electoral politics, of course, and as we know more recently or over time, there is an interconnection not only between policing and electoral politics. Also, what we can call organized crime or organized criminal activity, which is again, normalized, institutionalized and even corporatized. It’s corporations of people who want to do their business, whatever that business maybe, but it’s sometimes illegal or outside the law, but often it can use the law or manipulate the law. Laws are a kind of tool that various people, not just the police, can find ways to use in order to advance their own interests. In that sense, the police are just one of the many actors who are doing this, who are as you are saying — lawless.
We might also use words like ‘law-manipulators’ or lawmakers. The role of law is very interesting to consider. It’s this very mutable, shifting thing. Even though we idealize it as something that is supposed to protect us and allow democracy to work. However, the rule of law is itself a very ambiguous kind of thing.
If somebody with enough power and enough clout decides that you need to be gone — that’s that. I don’t know who that was in the government, but, clearly, somebody wanted him dead — probably a lot of people.
Another evidence of police brutality has been the manner in which UP police perceives minorities. During the recent anti Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests, they, as much as the Delhi Police, for instance in Jamia Milia Islamia, engaged in acts of horrific violence. Why is UP police so communal?
Well, that again goes back to this intersection between the police institution and electoral politics. Of course, electoral politics itself is very much bound up with social politics, including caste, communal and religious differences. Many intersecting conflicts have occurred between various groups over centuries.
I am sure, I don’t have to rehearse the long history of how party politics in UP specifically has developed in line with the cleavages or fractures in society, especially, certainly, between Hindu and Muslim groups, but also caste groups. For the main political parties, at least, prior to the re-election of the BJP or the reinstatement of BJP rule in 2017, there were very many caste-based parties. They would try to say that we include everyone and this and that, but they were at least still led by people from specific minority groups.
I think what we are now seeing again, since 2017 in UP, that for many people, especially in general caste Hindu groups, is a kind of ‘come-up’ — it’s their turn again. Unfortunately, with chief minister Yogi Adityanath or under Yogi Raj, he’s making it okay. He’s trying to make it okay. As we know, he makes all kinds of statements that vilify people from various minority groups, especially Muslim people. And I am struggling because it’s so hard to watch. It was always hard to watch.
When I was doing my fieldwork, the Samajwadi Party was in power, and then BSP came back to power; however, since 2017, there’s just been a real kind of bleakness. It’s also because I am in the US. With the election of Donald Trump, which happened at the same time, I think there are a lot of parallels actually between what’s going on in India more generally, especially in UP, and what’s been happening in the US politically.
As you were here in UP from 2004 to 2017, you managed to see three different governments. Like you said Samajwadi Party, then you saw BSP, and a little a slice of the BJP, especially when they came to power. I think all the three parties made a very conscious effort to somehow intervene in the way the police were composed and how they went about dealing with their own caste brethren. How do you think the police changed and did you experience the change? Was the police actually changing when these people came to power or was it all very cosmetic?
It’s a great question to know what actually changes and what remains the same, because, certainly, you could say both things are happening at the same time. There are real differences, real shifts that happen when the regime changes but there are also things especially institutionally that actually don’t change so I can talk about both. I spent most of my time with the police in 2006-07. That is when the Samajwadi Party was in power. Their rule was about to end after being in power for several years.
Like the ‘thanas’ where I was doing most of my observations, it was the Yadavs who were the Station Officers (SO), the chiefs of the police stations. Then, in 2007, the BSP came back to power and the transformation in terms of who would occupy these offices was almost immediate. All the items were shifted out and others were put in so that in the ‘thana’ where I was observing, indeed, a Dalit man became the SO but that was the only major change. All the other sub-inspectors and constables posted at that time remained and they were a mix. Hence, it was very interesting to watch the dynamics between the chief and the subordinates who were there because they were understandably not just suspicious of each other but there was a way in which the new SO was almost kind of like a baby. Like he really didn’t know anything about the area and the other people had been there for years. So he had to go to them to learn and to say what does actually go on here? It’s very interesting. Anyway, at a macro political level the way people would implement ‘law and order’ is always central to any political campaign.
Basically, how the police behave with people is important.
There was a kind of consensus that under the Samajwadi Party, people talk about ‘goonda raj’ and that it was all the organized criminal gangs that were really the political masters, or, at least, intersecting with the political masters. Then Mayawati came in and people said, well, now she will be cracking down and there were ways in which she did. She not only removed SP sympathetic police from major offices. She also dismissed almost 24,000 recently recruited constables. So people who had been recruited to the police under the SP were removed and that caused all kinds of litigation. Then they were reinstated two years later. It was a big mess.
People talk about vendetta politics and how there’s this kind of back and forth that whatever party comes to power they want their own people in key police postings as well as civil service postings because that is where the decisions are made and that is where the execution or the executive functions of the government actually happen.
Basically, it’s just a kind of a flip-flopping. In the common discourse people would say, who’s more corrupt or who’s more criminal? In fact, there would be a kind of lobby that would say Mayawati is corrupt, but at least she is not criminal. You hear these kinds of things said and what does that even mean?
I think there are different ways of being what you said ‘lawless’ or manipulating the law. Some can be more violent or can use different legal institutions in particular ways, whereas some maybe just more oriented towards money exchange and things like gaining property and resources and things we often associate more with corruption. I don’t think it’s so easy to characterize one party or the other as more criminal or more corrupt — everyone’s kind of doing these things but there are different styles. Now, under Yogi Adityanath, the style seems to be ‘Thoko Raj’ right? To bring down the hammer!
In your book you also talked of how the police acquire authority to do many things. You have grappled with that question. You also talk about an erosion of authority that you see in the police in different governments. Hence, if you have been able to look at all the three regimes, when do you think the police loses authority?
I think it’s interesting to think about it in terms of losing authority. Another way we could think about it is just the pluralisation of violence or the pluralisation of enforcement. Again, as I said before, police are not the only actors who will use violence to get their way or try to advance some interest. A big part of the answer to the question is well, what kind of other enforcers do these parties with these different political styles have?
When talking about Yogi Adityanath, he also has a very highly centralized strong arm. I would say, authoritarian even fascist sensibility… Now, there is an ultra brazenness. I mean Yogi has taken this as a defining feature of the regime.
Everyone has their own gangs or their own private armies, but, again, they might choose to use those different kinds of enforcers in different ways. Indeed, it seems like under the Samajwadi Party rule, I wouldn’t say there is a clear hierarchy, but I wouldn’t say the police were even the lowest, they were very important to SP rule. There were all of these other actors that were sometimes given equal, sometimes with even greater reign to do what they pleased and what they felt they needed to do.
Under the BSP or BJP, they seem to prefer to use the police as the State apparatus of violence to do that particular form of work. Many people call it just ‘violence work’ or enforcement.
In one sense that makes the police stronger, but in another sense and I think if you speak with many officers, especially senior officers, they might say no, actually, we feel less autonomous because we can’t make any decisions ourselves. We just have to take orders from above. There is the authority part, but there is also the part where the police themselves feel that they have the decision-making power and the capability to do what they feel is their duty, which isn’t necessarily in agreement with the regime.
The police had never been autonomous from politics.
In a certain way, in a democracy, civilian authority dominates police or in terms of the way they express their authority. I want to know how a political ideology, whether it is in the reign of Mayawati or Samajwadi or Yogi, shape the way the police conducts themselves.
Even I think sometimes the ideology itself can be a challenge to grasp or understand. There is also what is often referred to by some social scientists, the kind of front stage and backstage! There is the public performance by both the political parties and the other arms of the government in the Civil Service, police or otherwise, and then there is the backstage, a kind of what are the conversations that are going on behind the scenes and what many say are the real drivers or things that shape the motivations to make specific decisions. It’s hard to say that, you know, a particular party ideology has a very different way of conceiving police.
I think Mayawati was very much about centralized control. She was the primary, everything had to kind of come down from her office. There are ways in which authority may be thought of as much more centralized then other ways where it’s more decentralized. I do think that during the Samajwadi Party rule, enforcement authority tended to be more decentralized. There were many groups with many plural actors, whereas Mayawati had this more strong arm. Some might say authoritarian. That might be a little too strong. I don’t think it’s necessarily too strong.
When talking about Yogi Adityanath, he also has a very highly centralized strong arm. I would say, authoritarian even fascist sensibility. Yes, that certainly will have a tremendous effect on how the police get used and how police leaders themselves get to make decisions or not.
Although this is a question that I had written ever since Adityanath came to power, police authority expanded substantially. They have used the instrument of police for encounters against petty criminals and others showcasing commitment in enforcing law in UP. I have learnt that there is also allegedly a list of people who could be ‘encountered’. While I acknowledge that he is not the one who has done this.
As you have just suggested, the police encounter as a form has been around for a long time. I am sure we could even bring it back to the fact that that the term was used in colonial times as well. I have actually been trying to research when this idea of the encounter or the actual word, the encounter, came into this course. It’s really hard to find a first time but we can just say — a long time back.
I mean, in the more general term of extrajudicial killings, certainly, that’s not unique to India and even the encounters. In Pakistan, they also have a discourse. So that particular word is a very South Asian way of saying again that the more general act of extrajudicial killings by police, even in this kind of planned, strategized and staged form, happens. It happens everywhere, but I think there is something peculiar or particular about the way it happens or the way it has been routinized or normalized as a part of policing in India. So it’s not new; but the way it gets used or done, again, can be very stylized or there are different modes.
If we were talking about, so-called ‘goonda raj’ as many people said happened under the Samajwadi Party, it was often a way for these rival gangs to bump each other off, threaten each other; so you could say the police were kind of used as its hit men by these other groups because there were all kinds of informal ties between some police personnel and organized criminal gang leaders. They happened under the BSP rule as well, but not openly or routinely. It was a brazenness.
Now, there is an ultra brazenness.
I mean Yogi Adityanath has taken this as, I would say, a defining feature of the regime. And as you said, there are lists of people, and I had never seen this kind of mass scale begging by so-called known criminals saying, please don’t kill us, we surrender and will do whatever you want.
They are apparently petty criminals, they aren’t hardened variety, and they are not the people who have murder charges against them. They are guys who probably would walk away with your bag.
In 2006-07, there were always these kind of Page-8 newspaper reports of encounters and they would always say ‘notorious gangster’; so it’s supposed to be some big man or relatively high in the hierarchy of criminal leaders. It wasn’t always the case and there were certainly petty criminals who would be bumped off too. It seemed like it was used as a technique or a technology more for sending messages among rival gangs.
Now it’s almost a kind of a blanket technique. We have even heard people say things like ‘encounter raj’; before ‘Thoko Raj’, people were talking about ‘encounter raj’ under Adityanath. It was always there but now it’s much more overt. There is a kind of loud and proud ‘Yes’, this is what we do and we are not going to apologize for it. In fact, we’re going to encourage it as we really go.
I mean this is different. There may have been impunity before but police were never charged, much less convicted for these heinous acts. Now, it’s just amazingly brazen, open and justified. It’s surrounded by a righteousness that this is what is going to realize justice in our world.
How have the courts contributed to giving police a free run or the government, a free run, to doing pretty much what they want. This is because, if you look at the FIRs, they probably read the same. Therefore, what is your observation about how the courts’ countenance this kind of excessive violence which police continue to do?
It comes back to this question of the ‘role of law’ and what can the law even do, because in many ways encounters are not just socially routinized or normalized. They are also legally and procedurally routinized. There is usually a very clear procedure where police will sort of tick off the boxes. They write the report of the encounter in a particular way that represents it, and it’s always the same story. Like we have heard the story a million times.
How can it always be the same?
There is this kind of open secret, everybody knows it’s been staged and planned.
It was not self-defence; it was very much an offense. Most of the time, it doesn’t even make it to court because that is an internal procedure that just determines we are not even going to file charges. In the rare case that it does make it to the court, again, there are all the constraints of ‘rules of evidence’ — what is admissible and what is not and the ‘burden of proof’ and all of this — and it’s a pretty high bar.
Many compare the police in India to a kind of private army, for, again, whoever happens to be in office. Also, what we can call organized crime or organized criminal activity, which is again, normalized, institutionalized and even corporatized. It’s corporations of people who want to do their business, whatever that business maybe, but it’s sometimes illegal or outside the law, but often it can use the law or manipulate the law.
Even if and again it’s small, it’s a tiny minority of cases that even get that far. Most of the time the police are not even charged. So it’s hard to say.
I mean, there is certainly complicity there, but there is also, the ‘complicity of the law itself’, which says that there has to be due process and there has to be enough evidence. And if there is not, we can’t make a judgment convicting this person. I think the courts unfortunately just kind of stand outside most of the time — it doesn’t even get that far.
Quite true. I will come to the last question which in a certain way became a reason to get in touch with you. This is about Vikas Dubey’s encounter. I hope you followed that. It all started with a police raid in the middle of the night at about 1:30 am in a village in Kanpur dehat—his own home territory. If a crook is tipped that the police are coming they normally run away. But he chose to stand there and shot eight cops. Do you recall any incident like that? And why may he have done that?
Yes, this is exceptional. I mean, you usually don’t see that many police officers or any police officer killed that brazenly. This is total speculation. I don’t know but my guess would be somebody with access to knowledge and government power gave him the information, probably somebody from inside the police gave him that information. I think in some ways caste politics comes back into this and I don’t know enough about Dubey’s prior history. I mean, I have read some articles. I don’t know how close he was with anyone who has power in this particular government.
My sense is that because it’s a general caste government and he might have felt just as many Yadavs felt that they had relative impunity under the Samajwadi Party rule. Maybe he just felt like, I can actually do this under this particular party. When I was doing my fieldwork, you might remember, you know things like groups of young men who said, ‘oh, we have connections with Mulayam Singh Yadav or with some relatively high person in the Samajwadi Party’ and they would just run over police. They would just not bother.
I don’t think we should just reduce it (Dubey killing cops) to some kind of irrational or spontaneous act. I think that would be a mistake. I do think there was something much more structural that allowed him to feel like he could react in this way. I mean it is a big deal still to kill police officers.
There is also, the ‘complicity of the law itself’, which says that there has to be due process and there has to be enough evidence. And if there is not, we can’t make a judgment convicting this person. I think the courts unfortunately just kind of stand outside most of the time — it doesn’t even get that far.
Why do you think the UP police, after this man surrendered in MP, decided to kill him?
I think this goes back to that backstage thing which most of us are not privy to. In short, somebody wanted him killed. Somebody with enough power.
I don’t know who but that decision didn’t just get made by those particular police who were in the room and allowed him to die in custody right there. It was very clear in these kinds of cases that there are so many connections and things going on in the background that if you are protected enough, then you won’t be killed. But, if somebody with enough power and enough clout decides that you need to be gone — that’s that. I don’t know who that was in the government, but, clearly, somebody wanted him dead — probably a lot of people.
While working in UP, did you get a sense that UP is a kind of ‘criminal state’? I mean ruled by criminals; or you thought that the police and political authority, which has democratic credentials, are the ones who run the state?
I don’t think those things have to be exclusive. I think it can be both. It’s not that if there is ‘a good democratic rule of law way of doing things and a bad criminal illegal way of doing things’. I think it’s not that black and white that democracy itself, or, at least the forms of democracy that have arisen in India, since it became independent, that they allow these kind of activities which we often label criminal, to flourish because of this pluralism; because there are so many different actors with so many different interests and so many deeply entrenched historical and often communal conflicts between different groups.
So, again, I think a lot of this comes down to the law. And it is a tricky instrument that a resource, a provision, as I talk about in my book, and everyone in a certain sense is trying to find a way to use it in ways that will advance their interests, and those of their associates. This is because there are limited resources and everyone is trying to get as much of the pie as they can.
Thanks a lot. Thanks a lot for your insight into what we have going through and how we look at what’s happening around us.