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Home / Analysis / Guarding the guards is essential for rule of law, writes Madan Lokur

Guarding the guards is essential for rule of law, writes Madan Lokur

A culture of impunity rages across India, with excessive use of force. The security apparatus must be sensitised

analysis Updated: Jul 05, 2020 22:12 IST
Madan Lokur
Madan Lokur
The National Crime Records Bureau informs that there were more than 100 custodial deaths in 2017, with very few convictions
The National Crime Records Bureau informs that there were more than 100 custodial deaths in 2017, with very few convictions(Satyabrata Tripathy/HT Photo)

About 50 years ago, an experiment called the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) was conducted in Stanford University under the supervision of Professor Philip Zimbardo. He detailed his experiences in a book titled: The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. Its title is taken from the angel Lucifer who fell from grace and assumed the role of Satan. Professor Zimbardo says of his study that “normal college students were randomly assigned to play the role of guard or inmate for two weeks in a simulated prison, yet the guards quickly became so brutal that the experiment had to be shut down after only six days.”

The participants in the experiment were student volunteers carefully selected after appropriate tests. Students with issues such as drug use or some other disability were not selected. Therefore, the selected students were like those that you would find in any university. In all, 24 volunteers were selected, and, of them, nine were randomly assigned the role of prisoners, and nine were randomly assigned the role of prison guards. The rest were on standby. The purpose of the experiment was to study the psychology of prison life, and so prison conditions and environment were carefully simulated in all respects.

The experiment was abruptly stopped after six days because of the escalation of abuse by the guards on the prisoners including sadistic, degrading and humiliating treatment. The power and authority of the guards over the prisoners and their misuse resulted in the brewing of a rebellion on the second morning itself. As the days progressed, the Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde personality of the guards began to rear its ugly head.

The experiment showed that the guards were of three kinds: Tough and fair guards who followed the rules; guards who carried out small favours for the prisoners and did not unnecessarily punish them; and those who were inventive in methods of humiliating the prisoners.

If some of the experiences relating to the behaviour of the guards are extrapolated to the lock-ups in police stations across India and the arbitrary power they exercise, it is possible to find some truth in some allegations of police brutality and what hardships the armoury of the law enforcement agencies can cause to ordinary people. Remember, India’s Code of Criminal Procedure permits 14 days of police custody; an innocent person can theoretically be made to confess in a matter of six days, to having committed the most heinous crime.

The National Crime Records Bureau informs that there were more than 100 custodial deaths in 2017, with very few convictions. These statistics may be ignored only for the time being; instead, consider some instances in the recent past where allegations have been made against the police of the use of excessive force and instances where apparently normal policemen and women have turned brutal.

Last December, four persons accused of raping and killing a young lady were shot dead by armed policemen on the outskirts of Hyderabad. The accused were in police custody when the extrajudicial killings took place. A magisterial inquiry was ordered into the incident but the inquiry report (if any) is not in the public domain. Was this or was this not a manifestation of police brutality?

In February, police in riot gear attacked students in the library of Jamia Millia Islamia. Investigations into the incident are continuing and it is difficult to conclude whether or not the police used excessive force. However, it does appear to be yet another manifestation of police excess.

In March, videos were shown on national television of migrants being humiliated by the police who made them squat and hop for violating the lockdown. Some policemen have been suspended. But what has happened thereafter is not in the public domain. This is another facet of the display of brute power and authority.

Recently, two men were brutalised by the police in Tamil Nadu, leading to their death. Investigations into allegations of murder have been levelled against some police officers. But the result will be known only after the investigations are concluded. Meanwhile, there are allegations of the police destroying evidence and witnesses being intimidated.

A culture of impunity is festering and unless all of us are vigilant, some freedoms may slip out of our hands. A recent study by the Chicago University Law School titled Deadly Discretion: The Failure of Police Use of Force Policies to Meet Fundamental International Human Rights Law and Standards “evaluates the police policies from the 20 largest cities in the United States (US) during 2017 to 2018”. It concludes that each one of them failed to meet international human rights law and standards. Where would India’s police force stand in such an evaluation?

The big question is how can we as a society humanise the police? Even in the US, where the SPE was conducted and lessons learnt even after the Abu Ghraib trial, it has not been possible to humanise the police as the recent choking of George Floyd suggests. Ratifying the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment is perhaps one answer. Faithfully implementing the judgment of the Supreme Court in the case of Prakash Singh in bringing about police reforms is another answer. But, these might end up being a little more than cosmetic solutions. There is an imperative and aggressive need to sensitise police forces and other law enforcement agencies and drill some compassion into them. It’s a huge task, worth undertaking, for if we do not guard the guards, we invite the destruction of the rule of law.

Madan Lokur is a retired judge, Supreme Court of India

The views expressed are personal

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