“Any Policeman Can Do This”

“Any policeman can do this”: for us ungrad students in Trivandrum, Kerala, in the 1980s, this was the cool way to refer to any really low-down, low-skill task. Partly it came from the defiant mood of that decade, when political action from marginalized social groups was taking shape and acquiring strength outside mainstream politics and the state. Partly it was rooted in our common feeling that the police force was essentially nothing but an arm of mainstream political forces.

Things, however, have changed in Kerala now. Civil society has changed. Economic inequality has skyrocketed since the 1980s. Kerala now has a substantial anti-political civil society obsessed with acquiring the golden key to consumer citizenship: skills to enter the global job market. The police force, too, has changed. It appears that the police, while still at the beck and call of ruling powers, are forging a new tie with this civil society. Nowhere is this more visible than in the recently reported incidents of civil social vigilantism under the eyes of compliant policemen. A few months back, in mid-2007, a gypsy woman was manhandled by a mob in a busy market in Edappal, in the northern district of Malappuram, and the police remained passive. Comparisons with “Bihar” (which the oh-so-socially-developed-Malayalee-middle class can scarcely endure) feel fast and thick and the government had to suspend the policemen guilty of negligence. Just the other day, a twenty year old man was accused of stealing a mobile phone and attacked by a mob in Trivandrum, and the police watched as he was forced to strip in public to prove his innocence. The phone was found later on someone else. Not that these mobs are anywhere close to consumer citizenship. But the objects which appeared stolen, the loss of which incited the mob to violence in these instances, are symbols of the new wealth of the Malayalee consumer citizen: a baby’s golden anklet, and a mobile phone. Thus the police have finally found their true allies: a thoroughly anti-political civil society paranoid about losing precious objects they have accumulated, who project the blame of such loss onto the outsider.

Two kinds of ‘outsiders’ have been invented, who cement this new bond of solidarity between the aspiring and real middle classes of Kerala and the police. One group consists of the poor — all those who have missed the buses of early 20th century social development and late 20th century high-paid ‘sloggery’ in the Gulf countries. Thus the new urban development in Kerala, like elsewhere in India, fosters new alliances between resident associations of upper class people and the police to shoo away virtually everybody else from the new city spaces. This group also includes other kinds of ‘outsiders’, migrants, and not necessarily poor. Last month, a Kashmiri salesman, Altaf Muhammed Khan, was arrested after he was suspected of being a Hizbul Mujahideen trainee, and the police declared that a ‘hundred per cent verification’ of all Kashmiris living in the State would be conducted.The other group consists of ‘extremists’, ‘terrorists’, and ‘Maoists’, and indeed, politicians in the left and right mainstream have been vying with each other to warn civil social lambs that they would have been gobbled up by these wolves had it not been for Big Uncle (valyammavan – as those of us with a matrilineal past would say!) and his police. Of course the two groups shade into each other. The arrest of a PWG leader, Malla Raja Reddy, from Kerala last month prompted the Home Minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan to announce that migrant labourers to Kerala will be surveyed. “They [the Maoists] may be working among the migrant workers”, he said. It is worth noting that none of the powerful trade unions in Kerala are interested in defending the rights of these workers.On the heels of this, a senior Maoist, Govindan Kutty, editor of a radical magazine, Peoples’ March, was arrested on the charge that he published “anti-national” material. Obviously the standards are different when it is a powerless activist involved: he is after all no political heavyweight, no Nedumaran, Vaiko, or Tirumalavan. Just about a week back, the police, without a search warrant, entered a house in Kalamassery and arrested human activists from Nandigram, claiming that they had information of ‘Maoist activity’ there. Human Rights activism is then merely a cover-up for Maoism, thus spake Kodiyeri Balakrishnan and who else– The Hindu, CPM’s dutiful propaganda outfit.

Now, all this makes the prospects of the police quite bright. Look at history, and you’d find that most of the incidents of murder and violence involving the police since the mid 20th century which shocked the Malayalee public were political murders: a political activist murdered under the behest of other politicians. This is the case since the murder of the left activist Moyarattu Sankaran in the late 1940s, to the murder of Naxalite activists in the 1970s, to the murder of the RSP activist, Sarasan, in the 1980s. But now a new era seems to have begun, in which irrespective of whether politicians are involved or not, the police may be able to loot and kill. This was clear in the shocking murder of a young working class man, Udayakumar, in a police station, in 2005, in the heart of Trivandrum. He had apparently shown reluctance to part with the four thousand rupees he had on him.

But thinking back, maybe we had been disarmed much earlier. The manner in which the Udayakumar murder case was reported in the press, and the way in which the CPM used it during the 2006 elections, gave away some clues about how the ideology of the family has shaped the media’s shaping of political discourse in Kerala. The anguish of Udayakumar’s aged mother was prominently displayed in election posters as evidence for the tyranny of the Congress-led UDF government then in power. In fact, I would even contend that when citizens contest the power of the state, or seek justice from the state in Kerala, being a ‘family person’ or not affects the balance of forces crucially. This was amply evident early enough — in the infamous murder of the young engineering student, Rajan, during the Emergency. Then and now, the media’s depiction was as if the injury was entirely to the family – Rajan as citizen disappears from view. Shaji Karun’s film of the 1980s, Piravi, which produced an aesthetic statement of the tussle, added further inflections. The struggle was framed as lineage vs. modern state; it appeared, ultimately, to be a battle between (blameless) tradition and (blood-thirsty) modernity, actualised in state power.

While the suffering of fathers and mothers at the loss of children can never be denied, the political effects of its deployment in media-discourse are unmistakable. Rajan and Udayakumar are not citizens who have been murdered by the state but innocent children who have been seized from the laps of their parents. Their innocence is important: things may have been different if Rajan has indeed been directly involved in Naxalite action, and Udayakumar had indeed been booked on a petty theft.

Thus the fingers now pointing accusingly at the outsider were already beginning to be extended. The state was guilty of murder when it destroyed a young innocent; those who could not lay claim to this quality were already outside. It’s just that we didn’t notice. And so here we are, back to ‘any policeman can do this’. But the referent has changed.

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