he Indian movie Article 15 (2019) — named after the Article 15 of the Indian constitution which forbids discrimination based on religion, race, caste, sex, or place of birth— is the story of two Dalit sisters who are gang-raped and murdered, and their bodies are found hanging from a tree. The main protagonist in the movie, a young, newly-appointed senior police officer, who appears to be unfamiliar with the importance of caste in society, discovers how caste has deeply influenced his subordinates. Some of these policemen not only abetted and/or directly participated in the crime but also attempted to preclude possibility for the victims to seek justice. The other lead protagonist in the movie is a young Dalit activist who has lost all his faith in the law and resorts to extra-legal means to seek justice. Whilst the movie ends up with the successful legal prosecution of the culprits, it nevertheless highlights how everyday police functioning in India is structured along caste lines. The movie emerged at a time when several such cases were reported in India in which Dalits (and especially Dalit women) were victims of upper-caste violence and police hostility. Indeed, the everyday violence that Dalit women face is even more disturbing than those portrayed in Article 15.

In the Hathras case of 2020 from the state of Uttar Pradesh, a Dalit woman was gang-raped and brutally beaten up and she subsequently died from her injuries. The conduct of the police in this case raised a nationwide protest (Ara, 2020). The Dalit activist Meena Kandasamy’s poem “Rape Nation” on the Hathras case was widely circulated on social media, in which she abhorred the “rapist-shielding police-state”. As she wrote: “In Hathras, cops barricade a raped woman’s home; hijack her corpse, set it afire on murderous night…This has happened before, this will happen again” (Kandasamy 2020).  

It is known that Dalit women are raped with impunity. In fact, scholars have long acknowledged that when the upper caste men rape Dalit women, the police and the legal system often shields the accused (Prashad 2000, 34; see also Kolsky, 2010a, 2010b).

In the global north, the racial question — especially in the wake of the Black Lives Matter Movement (BLM) — has become increasingly centered in critical understandings of the workings of police power. Yet, as recent studies view the police in the US a white supremacist institution, it is also important to ask in what respects the police is a caste institution. In this intervention I therefore seek to explore the extent to which the racial question is a caste question in the Indian context.  

How far do the stories of the racialized character of the police in the United States and the stories of caste-based police violence in India diverge or converge? What role did policing play in the maintenance and reproduction of caste-based hierarchical social order? These questions are particularly relevant given the long history of scholarly writings on the comparative study of “race” and “caste”, and how the US-based movements for racial justice have inspired the generations of Indian Dalit activists to fight against caste-based injustices (Lokaneeta, 2011; Murugkar, 1991; O’Hanlon, 1985; Pandey, 2013; Wilkerson, 2020). Soon after the BLM Movement came to the fore, Dalit activists were quick to respond with “Dalit Lives Matter”.  Here I wish to suggest that while such struggles against policing may have certain convergences, they diverge in their individual approaches to resisting police power.

Though Dalits have identified the role of policing in denying them social justice, there has never been an abolitionist movement in India as such. In fact, such an imagination does not even exist in contemporary Dalit literature. But why? Even activists like Kandasamy, as mentioned earlier, were not asking for the abolition of policing per se. So, if it is not abolitionist, then is it reformist? What is the precise nature of Dalit anti-police repertoires which emerge from their struggles in India? By studying anti-police repertoires from (post-)colonial India, I argue that the Dalit response to policing is difficult to articulate and may go beyond the abolitionist/reformist binary. Notwithstanding the anti-police sentiments among Dalits, I argue that their response on policing can be described as ambivalent, especially in post-colonial India. And while Dalits have historically acknowledged the anti-Dalit character of policing, they also approach the police to seek justice.

Though, before we can understand why Dalit repertoires are ambivalent, we need to first recognize the plurality of Dalit repertoires, which range from the organized Dalit movements to everyday forms of resistance. Another challenge is that that Dalit repertoires and their everyday struggles against policing are inherently hard to recover. In the process of archiving, Dalits testimonies were rarely recorded. The police clerks were invariably upper-caste men, who either refused to record crimes against Dalits or forced their own versions of events. As Radha Kumar (2021) in her recent study of policing in Southern India has argued that “imbrication of caste knowledge in police practice help solidify caste subjectivities among both policemen and legal subjects”.  She further argues that “castes with proximity to the police exploited their relationships to register FIRs [First Information Reports] favoring their version of an event” (Kumar, 2021: 15).  Making the police register an FIR itself takes the form of a struggle for Dalits. For instance, in the Hathras case, the police were first reluctant to file an FIR against the suspects. Then, when it did file the report, it produced a narrative in which there was no rape at all, instead suggesting that it was a case of honour killing and that, to cover this up, the family members had framed accused rapists.

The anti-police repertoires which are readily available are those which are not specific to Dalits. Herein, the recovery of Dalit repertoires also hinges on the question whether Dalit repertoires must be distinct from the general anti-police repertoires? For instance, as I have argued elsewhere, drawing on Michael Adas’s scholarship on colonized people’s “modes of protest oriented to avoidance rather than confrontation,” ordinary people often resisted the police not by confronting the police but by avoiding them (Singh, 2020).  In early nineteenth century, villagers often deserted en masse when they heard that the police were arriving on the scene (Chatterji, 1981). In 1965, D. H. Bayley surveyed 2600 people in India to study their perceptions of the police. The survey revealed that three of five people were reluctant to go to the police even when they needed help (Bayley, 1969). Another study also concluded that people consider the police as enemies of the people (Sharma, 1984). Unfortunately, these observations on anti-police struggles did not consider whether Dalit repertoires diverged from these generalized repertoires in India at the time. If we acknowledge that in colonial India, Dalits were the most marginalized section of the society and that they did not possess the means to protest against policing or to confront it, it is likely that Dalits avoided the sight of police more than any other section of the society.  

Another form of anti-police Dalit repertoires is available in the organized Dalit movements in colonial and post-colonial India. A notable thing about these repertoires is that they believed that the anti-Dalit character of policing is a part of a larger problem of caste domination. The iconic Dalit leader B.R. Ambedkar argued that police were dominated by upper-caste Hindus, as he wrote “the Untouchables are placed between the Hindu population and the Hindu-ridden administration, the one committing wrong against them and the other protecting the wrong-doer, instead of helping the victims” (Ambedkar, 1979: 414). He called “The police and magistracy” as “the kith and kin of the caste Hindus” (Munusamy, 2022: 46). In the 1970s, the Dalit Panther movement in its manifesto listed “police forces” being controlled by Hindu feudal rule, the overthrow of which would lead to end to injustice against Dalits (Murugkar, 1991: 2). These examples can be multiplied. The claim here that the police itself is not a problem, the problem is that it is controlled by the anti-Dalit forces. On the whole, the ideologues of the organized Dalit movements did not envisage abolition of police or a world without policing as a solution to caste- and class hierarchy, and decades later such a radical vision is yet to develop within Dalit politics.

After India gained independence in 1947, the Indian Constitution, which was drafted by B.R. Ambedkar, carried special provisions on abolishing all forms of caste discrimination, though in practice, the caste structure has endured and remains deeply entrenched. Dalits used a variety of tactics to pressurize the police to register their cases. These tactics are part of everyday struggles of Dalits against policing. For instance, Dalits protest by halting traffic on the nearby highways and railways to pressurize the government to register their cases. They also refuse to cremate the bodies of victims of police violence and protest in public places often with the body of the deceased until the case has been registered.

Another strand in anti-police Dalit repertoires was to capture state power with the help of electoral victories. In 2007 when Bahujan Samaj Party, a Dalit political party, came to power in Uttar Pradesh, it appointed Dalits as heads of the police stations, which reflects a deeply shared resentment against the earlier control of the upper castes over police stations. However, when the BSP lost the next round of elections, Dalits were removed from important positions within the police.

Unlike, works on the BLM Movement in the US that have argued that the police and other law enforcement agencies play a crucial role in maintaining racial hierarchies and imaginaries, the repertoires of Dalits do not reflect a similar understanding. From Ambedkar to contemporary Dalit activists, they hold that it is not the police and law per se which causes subjugation of Dalits, rather it is the social-economic subjugation of Dalits which causes police and law to become hostile to Dalits. Dalit leaders like Ambedkar relied on law for the emancipation of Dalits, though it had limited impact. The Indian police commission of 1980 noted the apathy of the police towards weaker sections of the society, especially Dalits. A decade later, a special law was enacted — Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 — to protect Dalits from violence. Though the law, popularly known as the Atrocity Act, empowered Dalits, its implementation remained in the hands of the police which was often hostile. Even then, Dalits frequently resorted to this Act to struggle against caste injustice. In early 2018, when there was an attempt to dilute this Act, Dalits protested all over India in large numbers. In this scenario, Dalit response to policing and law has remained ambivalent, where they have suffered at the hands of the police, but they do not wish it away.


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Pandey, G (2013) A History of Prejudice: Race, Caste, and Difference in India and the United States. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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Gagan Preet Singh teaches at the Department of History, Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi.  His research interests include history of policing and forensic science in colonial and post-colonial India. His research has been published in Radical History Review, History Compass, and Economic and Political Weekly.