Just Violence
Torture and Human Rights in the Eyes of the Police
Rachel Wahl



It is always difficult to know precisely how the questions that drive research first emerge. But two early experiences stand out as formative for this project. The first was my visit as a child to Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s Holocaust Museum. It was around then that I became preoccupied with understanding how it is possible for people to do others so much harm. The stories I heard there still haunt me, as does the question of how people who brutalize others understand and live with what they do.

The second experience came years later, when I worked with educational NGOs in the United States, Peru, and China. In different ways, these organizations sought to change what other groups believe and how they live. The American organization hoped to model particular ways of parenting for families whose children had been incarcerated. The Peruvian NGO worked to convince impoverished parents to value education for their children. In China, the aim was to change how children use their minds and relate to authorities as well as peers, encouraging “critical thinking” by urging them to question their teachers and debate with one another. I came to wonder how the targets of these efforts perceive them. What values do these parents and children hold that may be displaced by these new ideals? What do these already existing values mean to the people who live by them, and how do such concerns inform the way they respond to educators’ and activists’ efforts to change what they believe?

My attention ultimately turned to one of the most visible education and advocacy efforts of our era: the human rights movement. In Michael Ignatieff’s words in his book, Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry, human rights have become the “lingua franca of global moral thought,” spreading around the globe and winning the endorsement of almost every state. But how state officials respond to this international effort to change them remains even more opaque than how children and parents respond to the prodding of NGOs.

This book then is inspired by the two questions that arose from my early experiences. The first question probes how people—in this case, police officers—understand their own violence. The second examines the implications of their self-understanding and the values that accompany it for how police respond to human rights campaigns to prevent this violence.

There could be many possible settings for a book on police violence. National outrage over police killings of unarmed people of color in the United States makes the problem impossible to ignore there; indeed, there are few if any countries where the coercive power of the police has not created problems for the promises of democracy and the protection of human rights.

I turned to India for this study because of the contradiction and therefore the puzzle it offered. Even more so than the United States, the country embraces the institutions and language of international human rights. While the U.S. government tends to be vocal about human rights beyond its borders, it is notoriously hesitant to scrutinize domestic concerns in such terms. Hence, while India boasts a National Human Rights Commission and requires all police officers to be trained in human rights, neither are the case in the United States. India is also home to dynamic local movements for social justice. Rooted in national history such as the Independence movement and in the response to the State of Emergency under Indira Gandhi, civil society in India is no mere response to international norms. Yet as I’ll discuss, torture, extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrest and detention, and related abuses of power on the part of the police and military are pervasive. The formal national embrace of human rights seems to mean little in police stations around the country. This freights with importance the question of how Indian officers understand and respond to the messages they receive about human rights protection.

Answering this question depended upon the help of innumerable people. The twelve months of fieldwork I conducted in India were made possible by the assistance of many, and the same is true of the years of preparation leading up to the fieldwork as well as the years since then spent analyzing, reflecting, and writing.

The project began while I was lucky enough to be a doctoral student in New York University’s Department of Humanities and Social Sciences in the International Education Program, and I have so many reasons to thank the people there. Rene Arcilla made this book possible. He has for years been an ideal conversation partner, pushing me to go deeper and further in my work while at the same time giving me reason to trust my discernment. Rene creates around him a utopian environment of genuine intellectual engagement, a place where the real questions can be asked. The ideas in this book owe much to our discussions. I remain ever grateful for his relentless encouragement to center my work on what really matters to me, and to his patient and insightful responses to my ideas and their translation on the page.

Dana Burde read this work in its entirely from its earliest stages with incredible patience and attention. I benefited greatly from her exacting and generous mind. She was precise in her feedback and always encouraged me to explore new territory. From the beginning of the project, she inspired me with her boldness about what my fieldwork could be and where it could take me. Cynthia Miller-Idriss, now at American University, Jon Zimmerman, now at the University of Pennsylvania, and Niobe Way offered consistently sharp and thought-provoking comments that regularly reignited my own excitement about the project. I am grateful for their insight and support. Ritty Lukose helped illuminate the complexity of India’s social and cultural landscape. My cherished writing group, consisting of Amy Kapit, Naomi Moland, Karen Ross, Jennifer Auerbach, and Elizabeth Knauer, along with other close colleagues such as Christian Bracho and Alexandra Wood, provided invaluable comments on drafts as well as phenomenal support.

I also benefited greatly from the insights of faculty at Columbia University. Jack Snyder’s sound advice and sharp but open-minded perspective continue to enrich my work. Sudipta Kaviraj was invaluable in shaping my thinking on Indian politics and connecting me with scholars in India. Al Stepan also contributed to the project early on through his lively intellect and discussions of the politics of secularism in India and elsewhere. Monisha Bajaj, now at the University of San Francisco, has been integral to the project from the very beginning, giving much to this work both practically and intellectually.

Moreover, I owe a great deal to the members of the monthly seminar at the Columbia University Institute for the Study of Human Rights. In particular, I am grateful to Zehra Arat, George Andreopoulos, and Yasmine Ergas. They gave especially careful comments on an early chapter draft and served as valued conversation partners on a wide range of human rights issues.

I am indebted, too, to colleagues who have commented on this research at conferences, colloquia, and in private conversations. Mahmoud Monshipouri, Amitav Acharya, Kathryn Sikkink, Martha Finnemore, Michael Good-heart, Shareen Hertel, Michelle Jerkovich, John Wallach, Tim Dunne, Stephen Hopgood, Benjamin Gregg, Wendy Wong, Clifford Bob, Hun Joon Kim, Jinee Lokaneeta, Anil Kalhan, Francisco Ramirez, Oren Pizmony-Levy, James Williams, Christine Monaghan, Paula McAvoy, David Hansen, Megan Laverty, and Sally Merry have provided valuable comments on this work. I am grateful for their time and thoughtfulness. My conversations with Danielle Celermajer, Kiran Grewal, and Jack Saul on their research to understand and prevent torture were especially helpful. I wish to thank James Dawes not only for a helpful conversation but also for inspiring me with his own stunning writing on violence.

At Stanford University Press, I have been lucky to work with Michelle Lipinski and Mark Goodale, whose support and suggestions have improved this work. Two blind reviewers provided comments that proved exceptionally helpful in revising the manuscript.

At the University of Virginia, I have many colleagues to thank for sharpening my thinking about this book in its later stages. I am grateful to Derrick Alridge, Nancy Deutsch, Brian Pusser, Stephen K. White, Jeffrey Legro, Lawrie Balfour, Jennifer Rubenstein, John Echeverri-Gent, Josipa Roksa, Allison Pugh, David Eddy-Spicer, Caitlin Donahue Wylie, Sarah Mosseri, Diane Hoffman, Joanna Lee Williams, Carol Tomlinson, David Edmunds, Johann Neem, Liya Yu, Robin Kimbrough-Melton, Jeffrey Guhin, Lisa Messeri, and China Scherz for their valuable comments. I am grateful to Jieun Sung for her careful, astute proofreading. Moreover, Derrick Alridge and Diane Hoffman have made Social Foundations a supportive and intellectually alive place to work and write, and did much to contribute to the book by supporting my commitment to it.

In India, I was fortunate to be a Visiting Fellow for a year at the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance at Jewaharlal Nehru University. My discussions with Niranja Gopal-Jayal, Amit Prakash, and Pratiksha Baxi were particularly illuminating, as were the Centre’s weekly seminars.

I am also grateful to the many devoted human rights workers in India who spoke with me for this study, including the staff of the Human Rights Law Network, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, Asian Centre for Human Rights, Indian Social Institute, Indian Institute of Human Rights, Centre for Social Research, and the South Asian Human Rights Documentation Centre. I would especially like to thank Nawaz Kotwal, Colin Gonsalves, Ravi Nair, Suhas Chakma, and Rahul Rai for their illuminating discussions and support for this research. I am in awe of the tireless efforts of these advocates and of their deep commitment to reducing suffering.

It may go without saying that I was able to write this book only because so many law enforcement officers were willing to speak with me. But it should not go without note. Not only did they speak with me, but they devoted hours of their precious time off of work to explaining themselves in great detail. They sat patiently through what likely seemed like endless questions. I believe they did so out of a commitment to broadening public understanding of their experience and perspective. I am grateful for their time and openness.

Many people not directly associated with this book also made it possible. To name just a few, I am grateful to James Corrick for years of encouragement as well as patient and sound advice. Amy Arani and Linda Wahl were supportive and enthusiastic. Mythri Jayaraman was one of the first people to cause me to think differently about justice. Her analytical prowess and originality of thought are matched by her commitment to upholding her ideals in her daily work. Cara Blouin was the reason I first traveled for educational work and has helped me to think through the complex questions such work inspires. At home in Virginia, Veronica Lowry and Julie O’Brien made it possible for me to concentrate on writing through the incredible support they provide. In India, Sunetra Lala is the reason that New Delhi became for me a home.

Finally, I am absurdly lucky to have a family that has cared about my ideas as well as about me during these years of fieldwork and writing. I have been speaking to my father, Richard Wahl, and mother, Margaret Wahl, about my questions for as long as I can remember. It is because of them that I developed a fascination with the world around me. My husband, Jeffrey Brewer, has made everything possible by providing ceaseless support and a love that includes but is not limited to intellectual companionship.

The years of writing this book also included death and birth. My grandparents, who supported this work in spite of the absence from them it required, passed away in its later stages. My son Oliver came along as I wrote the final drafts and burst everything open with joy.

Rachel Wahl
University of Virginia