Excerpts from the chapter “People’s Perception of Discrimination by the Police” from the report “Status of Policing in India Report 2018: A Study of Performance and Perceptions” (click HERE to download), a collaborative effort by Common Cause and the Lokniti- Programme for Comparative Democracy at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS):
As an important part of the executive, the police in India wields immense power due to its primary responsibility of maintaining law and order. However, often, in the name of investigating crime, extracting confession and punishing perpetrators, torture is inflicted not only upon the accused, but also upon complainants, informants and bystanders in the form of physical abuse, custodial death, rape, humiliation, intimidation and deprivation of food, medical attention etc.
In addition to the physical police brutality, institutional discrimination is another component of policing that cannot be denied. Discrimination manifests itself in a variety of ways and may be motivated by intolerance towards traditionally marginalized groups, religious communities, caste and class background, and gender. For instance, around the time of communal riots, it has been widely perceived that the police does not act as a neutral law enforcement agency and perceptible discrimination is alleged in the use of force, preventive arrests, treatment of detained persons at police stations, reporting of facts and investigation, detection and prosecution of registered cases.
This kind of social marginalisation is likely to have negative consequences and affect social harmony in society. In addition to less representation of minorities in the police force and their over-representation in prison, discriminatory attitudes of the police are one of the ways in which stereotypes and prejudices against certain communities play out in public life.
Opinion on discrimination by police on the basis of caste
Respondents were asked to share their views on discrimination by the police on the basis of caste, that is, whether they thought that the police discriminates on the basis of caste. Contrary to many critical writings on the discriminatory practices of the police, this view was not found to be as widespread. One in four (25%) respondents stated that the police discriminates against people on the basis of caste while a large plurality (57%) did not think so. Nearly one in every five (18%) refused to answer the question.
With regard to religion, we found that the belief that the police discriminates on caste grounds was strongest among Muslims (30%) and weakest among Sikhs and Christians (8% and 11% respectively). While the degree of difference between responses based on religious disaggregation was not very large, those based on caste distinctions was greater: Upper Castes in both Muslim and Hindu communities were much more likely to have a favourable response for the police than their backward caste counterparts.
Among Hindu communities, it is the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) who were found to be most likely to believe that the police engages in caste-based discrimination (30%), followed by the Scheduled Castes or Dalits (26%). Scheduled Tribes or Adivasis were least likely to hold this opinion (20%. Like among Hindus, among Muslims too, it is the backward sections (Muslim OBCs) who were most likely to believe that the police discriminates on the grounds of caste. This perception of Muslim respondents may be derivative of the fact that the proportion of Muslims in jail far exceeds their overall proportion in the country’s population.
While these percentages appear to be more moderate compared to the grim picture reported in the literature on this issue, yet the fact that more than a quarter of those who were interviewed reported perceived caste-based discrimination by the police is in itself an important revelation. In absolute terms, this proportion would translate into huge numbers. Interestingly, when we disaggregated the communitywise findings further by economic class we found that across all communities (except Christians) the perception that the police discriminates on the basis of caste is stronger among the economically well-off sections than the economically worse-off.
That is to say, the upper and middle classes among Hindu Upper Castes, OBCs, SCs, STs, Muslims and Sikhs were more likely to hold the opinion that the police discriminates on caste lines than the lower and poorer sections among all these communities. This class divide within communities was strongest among Muslims, Hindu OBCs and STs.
While the overall figures for perception of caste discrimination may appear moderate, examining state-wise opinion is an important comparative exercise that helps us in understanding the diverse range of public opinion with respect to police. In comparison to the nationwide average of perceived caste-based discrimination (26%), we found Bihar, Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh to be the bottom three states on this parameter, implying that in these states people’s perception of caste-based discrimination by the police is highest.
Additionally, our analysis suggests that Scheduled Castes in Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh were more likely to perceive caste-based discrimination than Scheduled Castes in other states. Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, along with Karnataka, are also states where OBCs were found to be more likely to be of the opinion that police engages in caste-based discrimination than OBCs in other states. In terms of Scheduled Tribe responses to the question, Gujarat and Jharkhand stood out compared to other states. Tribals in these two states were far more likely to believe that police discriminates on the basis of caste than tribals in other states.
Probing another aspect of caste-based discrimination, the study also asked the respondents their view on impartiality shown by the police when it is confronted with situations of inter-caste strife. Over three in five (63%) respondents said that police is not partial towards a particular caste group in such situations whereas about one in ten (8%) thought it to be so. A large chunk of about one-third respondents chose to not answer this question. Muslims (11%) and Hindu OBCs (9%) were more likely to opine that police tends to be partial. Among Muslims, OBC Muslims tended to believe far more than ‘Upper caste’ Muslim that the police is impartial in such situations (13 percent as opposed to 8 percent).
Opinion on discrimination by police on the basis of religion
Respondents were also asked about the prevalence of discrimination by the police on the grounds of religion. About one in every five (19%) of them said that it does take place while three in every five (61%) denied its occurrence. One-fifth (20%) did not answer the question. Among all religious communities Muslims were most likely to hold the view that the police discriminates on religious grounds with one in four (26%) of them stating so. Among Hindus, this figure was much less at 18 percent and among Christians it was 16 percent. Sikhs were the least likely to hold the opinion that the police engages in religion-based discrimination. Only 6 percent of them thought so.
Out of all the States, people’s perception of religious discrimination by the police was found to be greatest in Bihar, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. On the other hand, respondents in Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Kerala and Odisha were least likely to opine that the police discriminates on the grounds of religion. When we did a state-wise analysis by looking at only Muslim responses we found the belief among community that the police discriminates on religious grounds to be greatest in Bihar, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra. Among Christians, the feeling that the police discriminates on religious grounds was found to be strongest in the southern states except Kerala.
As in the case of caste, respondents were also asked their view on impartiality shown by the police when it is confronted with situations of inter-religious strife. Two in every three (66%) respondents said that police is not partial towards a particular religious group in such situations whereas only 7 percent thought it to be so. Nearly three in every ten (28%) chose to not answer this question.
Muslims were twice as likely to opine that police tends to be partial than Hindus, 12 percent as opposed to 6 percent. Christians and Sikhs were the least likely to believe so. Muslims in Delhi, Haryana and Rajasthan stood out in their responses to this question compared to Muslims in other states. In other words, Muslims in these three states were far more likely to believe that the police is partial to a particular religious group whenever there is a fight between people from two religious communities.
Opinion on discrimination by police on the basis of gender
On the question of gender discrimination, three out of ten respondents stated that police discriminates between men and women. One in every two (50%) denied its occurrence and 20 percent remained silent on the issue, that is, they did not answer the question. Interestingly, there was not much of a difference between how men and women responded to this question. If anything, men were slightly more likely to view the police as being discriminatory on the grounds of gender than women were, particularly in towns and cities. Educational attainment seems to make a significant difference to views on gender discrimination by the police, both among men and women. The more educated a man or a woman, the more likely he or she is to see the police as being biased on gender lines.
A state-wise analysis of responses revealed that respondents in Bihar, Telangana and Maharashtra were most likely to view the police as being genderbiased. Nearly half the respondents in these three states saw the police as discriminating between men and women. This finding held true for women as well, that is, women of these three states were also far more likely to view the police as being discriminatory on the grounds of gender than women in other states. Women in Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Punjab and Kerala were least likely to hold such a perception.
Opinion on discrimination by police on the basis of class
In comparison to caste, gender and religion, we found that in the eyes of the people class was the more significant and telling cleavage of discriminatory attitudes of the police. Overall, one in every two (51%) respondents was of the opinion that police discriminates on the basis of class, that is, between rich and poor. There is no difference between how the economically well-off and worse-off answered this question. Upper and middle-class respondents were found to be as likely to see the police as discriminating on class lines as lower class and poor respondents. Among the poorest sections, it is those living in big urban centres that were more likely to believe that the police discriminates on class lines than those living in small towns and villages.
Nearly three out of every four respondents (73%) in Bihar and Delhi saw the police as discriminating on the grounds of economic class. Maharashtra too reported a high proportion of such discrimination perceivers – over two in every three respondents (68%) there saw the police as engaging in class-based discrimination. If we just analyse the responses of the poorest respondents by states, then those in Bihar, Punjab and Delhi were more likely to affirm to the police’s differential treatment between the rich and poor than those in other states.
Opinion on discrimination by police on the basis of state
The study also tried to find out people’s opinion about discrimination by the police against people from other states/migrants. Only 16 percent said that such discrimination by the police takes place whereas 48 percent denied its occurrence. More than one in every three (36%) did not answer the question. Respondents residing in big cities were more likely to perceive the police as discriminatory on this question than those living in small towns or villages.
We did not however find any association between being a recent migrant/resident of a big city and holding the opinion that police discriminate against people from another state. Recent residents (those who had been living in a big city for 1-5 years) were least likely to believe that police discriminates against people from another state (only 14% thought so) than those who had been living there for a longer time. In fact, big city residents who had been living in the city since birth were most likely to hold such a view (24%).
In other words, non-migrants/original inhabitants in big cities were ten percentage points more likely to view the police as discriminating against people from another state than migrants who had arrived in the city only recently. We cannot however identify how many of these recent migrants to a city had come from another state since we did not ask a question probing the state of origin of such a respondent. The pattern with respect to big cities also holds with respect to small towns but not to the same degree.
This belief that the police discriminates against people from another state was found to be strongest in Karnataka, Himachal Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Jharkhand. If we take into account only urban responses, then Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra stand out. Respondents in urban centres in these states were most likely to believe that the police discriminates against people from other states.
Overall perception of police discrimination
In order to get a holistic view of people’s perception of discrimination by the police, we found that only about 7 percent thought that police either discriminates very rarely or doesn’t discriminate at all, 13 percent fell in the category of those who felt it discriminates rarely, 67 percent or over two-thirds thought that police discriminates somewhat and 9 percent or nearly one- tenth were found to view the police as being highly discriminatory.
We also tried to find out how each of the 22 states where the survey was conducted fared with respect to this comprehensive discrimination perception Index. West Bengal, Chhattisgarh and Odisha fared the best – respondents in these three states were least likely to perceive the police as being discriminatory compared to the other states. On the other hand, Bihar, Jharkhand and Haryana fared the worst with respondents here being most likely to perceive the police as being discriminatory in its functioning.
Opinion on false implication of certain communities by the police
Another aspect of police discrimination is the unfair targeting of certain vulnerable communities by the police and their false implication in cases. This section deals with people’s opinion on this aspect. Respondents were asked to share their views on the false implication of Dalits in petty crimes, Adivasis on Maoist charges and Muslims in terrorism-related cases. Nearly two in every five (38%) respondents agreed with the proposition that the often the police falsely implicates members of backward castes such as Dalits in petty crimes such as theft, robbery, dacoity etc.
However, agreement with the proposition that Adivasis are falsely implicated on Maoist charges and that Muslims are falsely implicated in terrorism-related cases was not as high. Only a little over one in every four (28%) were of the opinion that such false implication of Adivasis and Muslims occurs. While Muslims were much more likely to see their community as being falsely implicated by the police than non-Muslims, quite interestingly the same pattern did not hold with respect to Dalits and Adivasis. Respondents belonging to the two communities were less likely to see their communities as victims of false implication by the police than non-Dalits and non-tribals.
An examination of state-wise opinion suggests that Dalits in Jharkhand, Telangana and Madhya Pradesh, Adivasis in Maharashtra, Gujarat and West Bengal and Muslims in Telangana, Delhi, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Karnataka were most likely to hold the opinion that their respective communities are falsely implicated by the police than their counterparts in other States
It is a positive sign that perceptions of discrimination were articulated only on a moderate scale and a large plurality of respondents did not adhere to the view on discriminatory practices of the police. Nevertheless, the opinion of those who affirmed the discriminatory attitudes of rule of law revealed core cleavages of caste and community. Overall, people were much more likely to report class-based discriminatory attitudes of the police, followed by gender and caste-based discrimination, and least likely to perceive religious discrimination by the police. While on one hand, a large plurality of respondents stated that police remain impartial in case of inter-community conflict, at the same time among those who expressed otherwise Muslims were most likely to endorse the view of police’s partiality.
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