Police on both sides of the border have used tactics of public shaming to force people off the roads during the pandemic lockdown.

Amidst the coronavirus lockdowns and curfews in India and Pakistan, a stark similarity has come to fore between the two neighbours: police in the nuclear-armed countries are using public humiliation to force people indoors. 

You must have seen some videos recently of young and old men being forced to crawl, do squats alongside roads, and their backsides thrashed with batons for violating restrictions on movement. 

In some places such as Karachi, people were forced to emulate a murgha, or chicken - a stress position where you have to hold your ears from between your legs or be made to do painful frog-hops. 

While it’s true that police in developed countries like the United States and France use brute force to keep crowds away to stop the contagion, the disparaging behaviour of law enforcers in the Indian Subcontinent has brought back memories of Great Britain’s colonial rule. 

“For me the images of the people being made to crawl on the streets for instance, reminds me of the crisis of 1919 when the British introduced martial law in the aftermath of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre,” says Kim A. Wagner, a professor of Global and Imperial History at the Queens Mary University of London. 

He was referring to the killing of hundreds of unarmed civilians by the British police in Amritsar, India. 

“They preferred to punish people physically but also with this sort of racial humiliation as part of it. They would make people crawl at the point of a bayonet and they would also make them salute for hours while standing in the sun.”

India and Pakistan gained independence from British rule in 1947, yet several colonial rules and laws are still in place. For instance it took Pakistani lawmakers more than 50 years to replace the colonial-era Police Act of 1861. 

It’s still not uncommon for local politicians to have outsized influence over police officers in their area. In rural parts of both countries, powerful landlords and tribal chiefs use police to bully opponents and keep poor farm hands under control.

This particular tribal or feudal history, more than the colonial legacy, is partly to blame for police behaviour, says Ilhan Niaz, a historian at the Islamabad-based Quaid e Azam University. 

“Yes, the British Raj did use such punishments. But these sort of punishments were part of South Asian culture for thousands of years. They were also part of the operation of the Hindu caste system which was adopted by other religions in the region.”

Even before the British conquest, the Marathas in the 17th Century were treating lower castes with disdain in the Maharashtra state, he says. 

“If you were an untouchable then you would be obliged to tie a bell to yourself if you walk in the street so the higher caste can hear you are coming and you would also be obliged to tie a broom to your back so you can cleanse the pollution that you are causing.” 

Public shaming as a means of punishment is more routinely used by informal justice mechanisms like village panchayat and tribal councils, he says. 

“It’s not uncommon to see local landlords humiliate people. In extreme cases there have been instances of women being forced to parade around naked.” 

But in many ways it was the British colonial rulers who conferred unchecked authority to powerful local rulers known as Waderas and Sardars

“The very notion of tribal areas that have to be governed by a different means is in itself a colonial one. If you go back to the 19th Century, the idea was that you couldn't apply the rule of law to what you call the tribal areas because the only thing people understood was brute force and physical punishment,” says Wagner. 

The governing structure in Punjab, now Pakistan’s largest province, and its namesake in India, was based on discretionary powers given to colonial officials who could mete out rough justice whenever they needed, he says. 

For the colonial rulers, it was a system that gave them sway over the local population and helped assert their authority. 

“Rather than giving people a fine they would whip them publicly. It was about reasserting racial hierarchy and fear of colonial rule -  essentially in a way that would never have been applied to Europe for instance,” says Wagner. 

And now in the age of social media when videos go viral in an instant, it has become apparent that attitudes within the police haven’t changed much. 

Indian and Pakistani police are notorious for carrying out what in the local lexicon are known as police encounters - which are basically extrajudicial murders considered by police a better way to get rid of criminals who might walk free from weak state conviction rates. 

But in recent years, human rights groups have shed more light on the practice of  extrajudicial killings and its fallout. The murder of a young man, Naqeeb Ullah Mehsud, who had a passion for taking selfies, in a fake a police shootout is a case in point. 

He was killed by a police team led by Rao Anwar, a former police officer who has bragged about killing hundreds of people in such ‘encounters’. Mehsud’s murder mobilised the ehtnic Pashtuns into a movement, which has become a major headache for Islamabad. 

In India, police have for years used such encounters in areas of active insurgency such as Kashmir and Manipur, where security forces have been accused of raping women. 

Afzal Shigri, a former Pakistani police officer, who has served on senior posts, says change is slowly coming in the way the law enforcers operate. 

“While it’s true that police behaviour in some cases is not good, a change is gradually coming in their attitude. Senior police officers now routinely tell juniors to be respectful.” 

Whether it’s a colonial vestige or a inheritence from the tribal culture, the system where the powerful abuse their power and dont hesitate to inflict corporal punishment has seeped into many spheres of life. 

“Whether it's teachers in schools or religious seminaries or any other person in a position of authority, we tend to abuse our authority to the extent we have it,” says Niaz. 

Source: TRT World