(Published in Sify.com, on July 27, 2015, retrieved from http://www.sify.com/news/sandra-bland-case-is-the-us-so-very-different-from-india-news-columns-ph1i0eccadhcg.html)
Since the dash cam video of Sandra Bland’s run-in with a policeman in Texas emerged online, it has sparked furious reactions, bemoaning the structures that haunt America – racism, abuse of power, sweeping powers for the security forces, and prejudice.
As the video shows, what began as an altercation over a minor traffic violation escalated into physical abuse, ending with the arrest and eventual custodial death of Bland. The dash cam video has several glitches, and, according to the Bland family’s lawyer, the jailhouse video from the day of her death has time jumps.
It is the first time in a long while that I have heard of a custodial death in America, and it made me think about how similar the story is to those we encounter so often back home, in India.
Racism, abuse of power, and authoritarian overreach are not unique to America, but it shocks the world even more when evidence of these structures surfaces in that country. It is, after all, ironic that ‘Black Lives Matter’ is trending when the most powerful man in America, and, by extension, the most powerful man in the world, is Black. Yet, there have been three distinct cases this summer alone, of people being targeted over their race, and two of these have been by the police – the Texas pool party, the Charleston shooting, and now the death of Sandra Bland.
For every one of these, one can find parallels in India. Every few months, communal riots break out in some part of the country, often aided or exacerbated by political interests. Even on an individual level, a lot of how one is treated depends on how one looks, what one wears, and what labels one carries.
False charges are slapped on suspects, and cases of custodial death don’t make it beyond the inside pages of newspapers. On a slow news day, journalists will seek out the despondent families of such victims, and a story will be made on police atrocities, only to be buried along with the victims.
The TADA, POTA, and AFSPA have given security forces the power to not just pick up anyone on suspicion, but get away with their ‘mistakes’, however grave they are.
You could get arrested over a Facebook post, if you’re not burned to death first.
For every religious nut in America who decries evolution as “lies straight from the pit of hell” or who announces a grand plan for getting rid of gays and lesbians by hustling them into electric-fenced pens and waiting for them to die out – because, clearly, homosexuality is inherited from one’s parents – there is a religious nut in India, who believes that Ravana’s Pushpak Vimaan was the blueprint for the aeroplane.
And, now, India is planning to follow the US template for spying on its citizens. In order to introduce a Bill in Parliament that proposes the creation of a national DNA bank, the Central government told the Supreme Court on Wednesday, July 21, that India’s citizens have no fundamental right to privacy.
For a while now, we have been holding up America as a classic example of a country that has thwarted all attacks on itself by ramping up its security. In the process, we forget how different its geography is from that of most others, and specifically India. It is not surrounded by hostile countries. It does not have many porous borders.
Second, it is being attacked, not by monsters it has created in other parts of the world, but by monsters it has created within itself – racial and religious hatred, gun violence, illusions of entitlement and gaping ignorance.
And, even as we single out gun violence and shake our heads at America, we tend to forget that very similar outbursts of violence are orchestrated back home.
It may not be easy to get hold of guns in India, but it is easy to get hold of mobs. It is easy to set people on fire, to attack them with acid, to chase them down in the streets, to have them locked up, to have them die under mysterious circumstances. It is easy to ban books that allegedly offend a particular community. It is easy to ban art of all kinds. It is easy to accuse activists of corruption and send them to jail.
‘It happens in America’ cannot be justification for this.
If our economic progress and global presence is to be accompanied by the sort of controls America exerts on its citizens, but without the recourse to law and justice it provides, India’s future is a dismal prospect.