The Covid-19 pandemic has shut down the world, but it has also opened up new channels for festering truths to break free. In the United States, the murder by a policeman of George Floyd in Minneapolis has ignited pent-up anger against widespread racism and hatred of America’s police. In India, last year, a new “citizenship” law unleashed a rash of citizens’ protests, against the law in particular and the Bhartiya Janata Party-led government’s five years in power in general. Ordinary Americans and Indians realise they confront the more dangerous viruses of racism, and communalism and casteism, than even the Novel Coronavirus.
The United States is witness to unprecedented outpourings on the streets of all people, not just people of colour. It reflects a deep resentment against the system and underlying disagreement with the ideologies of racism and xenophobia. These pernicious ideas had begun to raise their head, as reflected in the impunity with which the American police could kill Black citizens. These nefarious ideas created the circumstances that brought Donald Trump to power.
The United States has a glorious history of presidents who stood for values conducive to running America along democratic principles. The Americans are known to reject candidates who have a blemished past, even at the nomination stage. However, it is very difficult to find virtue in the current president. In troubled times, leaders are meant to instil confidence in people by winning their trust. But Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo had to admonish Trump when he was making provocative statements.
Acevedo exhibited a rare courage which can come only from a firm belief in humanism. In a magnanimous gesture, at some places, the police also went against the president’s advice to dominate the protesters by laying down their shields and batons in solidarity with the demonstrators. It certainly requires more grit to face a mob non-violently than use force against them.
The most historic of outcomes of the anti-racism protests in the wake of murder of George Floyd is the decision by Minneapolis City Council to defund the police department. Nine of the thirteen members of this council were of the view that the police department was infested with racism and it was impossible to reform it. The council will work with the community to evolve a new citizen-friendly public safety system. It requires even greater commitment to human values to take a decision like this one. Ultimately, a humane society should not need any police, nor should nations need armies or armaments.
India has been recently criticised by the International Religious Freedom Report issued by the United States’ State Department for various incidents like “cow vigilantism” and mob-lynching. There has been systematic targeting of Muslims, Dalits and people dissenting with the Hindu supremacist ideology of the parent organisation of the BJP, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, no less insidious than racism. The communal or casteist incidents in India can easily compete with racist incidents in the United States and Europe, in numbers as well as in their gruesomeness.
But what is more dangerous is the communalisation of the system, especially the police. Police are known to be brutal everywhere. In Sri Lanka in a recent incident related to global anti-racism protests, Namal Rajapaksa, a former Member of Parliament and the son of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, has condemned the assault on protesters by police and called for investigation and action against the culprit. However, in India we see the virus of communalism affecting the police similar to the virus of racism in the United States. In the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens which were halted due to the Covid-19 lockdown, a number of cases have been registered against Muslim citizens who were the potential victims of the new law.
The Special Cell of Delhi Police is presently investigating the larger conspiracy to ‘create unrest during Donald Trump’s visit to India’ and mainly questioning or arresting Muslims citizens. People who participated in anti-CAA/NRC protests have been singled out by the police for retributive action. Whereas the reality is that the violence was immediately preceded by a provocative speech-act of the BJP leader, Kapil Mishra. The police have been known for communal behaviour even from before the ascendancy to power of the right-wing BJP. However, it has never been so blatant. The characteristic style of functioning of police under the BJP rule is to make victims the accused.
According to data from 2017, Blacks in the United States, who constituted 12% of the population, made up 33% of the prison population. According to the 2011 Census in India, Muslims who are 14.2% of the population represent 19.7% of the prison population. Dalits with a 16.6% share in population contributed to 21.6% of jail population.
George Floyd’s murder has shown that people can tolerate only so much of police brutality or bias. The increasing repression in India of Muslims, Dalits and dissenters is bound to recoil one day. It is only a matter of time when demands to dismantle police departments or reform them will become widespread. Every country or place deserves to be like Minneapolis, where the legislature decides to do away with the autocratic police regime.
Irish poet Seamus Heaney left us with these words:
History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
And cures and healing wells.