Print edition : December 12, 2014

An undated family handout photo of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence. He was killed in a racist attack by a gang of youngsters in Eltham, London, in April 1993. Photo: AP

In Washington, in March 2012, a rally for the African American teenager Trayvon Martin who was fatally shot by a volunteer neighbourhood crime-watch captain George Zimmerman. Photo: Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP

An undated photo of Trayvon Martin. Photo: AP

Enduring “institutional prejudice”—this conclusion of a famous inquiry report in the U.K. holds good for India’s minority situation as well.

ON April 22, 1993, Stephen Lawrence was murdered on a street in London, around 10:30 p.m., by a group of five or six white youths. He was on his way home with his friend Duwayne Brooks, awaiting a bus at a bus stop. One of the youths shouted “what, what nigger?” when he heard Brooks call out to Lawrence if he saw the bus coming. The group engulfed Lawrence, and one of them stabbed him twice. Brooks turned and ran, calling Lawrence to run and to follow him. There were three eye-witnesses at the bus stop. One of them, who knew Lawrence, went to his parents’ house and told them of the attack. None of the witnesses was able later to identify any of the suspects.

The attack was sudden and swift, lasting not more than 15-20 seconds. The attackers disappeared. Lawrence managed somehow to get to his feet and to run 100 yards to the point where he fell. He had been stabbed to a depth of five inches on both sides of the front of his body.

Three of the prime suspects were taken to trial in a private prosecution, which failed because of the absence of any firm evidence. Two other suspects were discharged at the committal stage, for the same reason. The inquest jury returned a unanimous verdict after a full hearing, four years later in 1997, that Lawrence “was unlawfully killed in a completely unprovoked racist attack by five white youths”.

Lawrence’s brave parents doggedly pursued the case. In this they were helped by wide public outrage at the racist crime in both the black and the white communities. The Police Complaints Authority, established by a statute, engaged the Kent Police to investigate the parents’ complaint that the investigation by London’s Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) had been bungled. Its Investigation Officer’s 45-page report, based on probes by 19 officers, roundly criticised many aspect of the MPS’ investigation. Lawrence’s parents’ persistence and the public uproar shook the government.

On July 31, 1997, Home Secretary Jack Straw announced in Parliament that an inquiry would be held and its terms of reference would be: “To inquire into the matters arising from the death of Stephen Lawrence on 22 April 1993 to date, in order particularly to identify the lessons to be learned for the investigation and prosecution of racially motivated crimes.” The Attorney General authorised the Inquiry “to undertake in respect of any person who provides evidence to the Inquiry that no evidence he or she may give before the Inquiry, whether orally or by written statement, nor any written statement made preparatory to giving evidence nor any document produced by that person to the Inquiry will be used in evidence against him or her in any criminal proceedings, except in proceedings where he or she is charged with having given false evidence in the course of this inquiry or with having conspired with or procured others to do so.”

The first preliminary hearing of the Inquiry took place on October 8, 1997. Then and thereafter, full legal representation was allowed to those involved who merited representation and who applied for it. The Inquiry sat for 59 days in Hannibal House hearing the evidence and submissions on the investigation into “the matters arising from the death of Stephen Lawrence”. It sat for 10 days to hear and consider recommendations suggested by about 100 people and organisations in connection with its remit “to identify the lessons to be learned for the investigation and prosecution of racially motivated crimes”. More than 12,000 pages of transcript were produced. The submissions of Counsel for the represented parties alone ran to around 1,000 pages. “Our aim has been to inquire into each and every issue raised by all represented parties. 88 witnesses gave evidence.” The attendant documentation is literally vast. It is estimated that there are more than 100,000 pages of reports, statements, and other written or printed documents, which were all checked. All this at enormous public expense to probe into a solitary murder? No. That murder shook society and the state because it exposed a deep-rooted malaise, which did not receive the attention it deserved. The British government was in earnest, and so were the members of the Inquiry, especially its Chairman, Sir William Macpherson. The Indian state remained unshaken by pogroms. Prime Minister Vajpayee exonerated the Gujarat pogrom as a reaction in his infamous speech at Panaji on April 12, 2002. Justice Ranganath Misra brought disgrace to the judicial community in his report on the Delhi riots, as did another Supreme Court judge, Justice Raghubir Dayal, in his reports on a host of riots, especially the Ranchi riot of 1968.

The Inquiry comprised Sir William Macpherson of Cluny as Chairman with three advisers who concurred in the report, which was submitted on February 15, 1999. Of ancient lineage with a fine record in Oxford and the army, he shocked people by travelling to the Inquiry by tube. The report runs into 389 pages (The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry; Cm 42- 62 – I). The writer is grateful to his friend Ravi Nair of the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre, New Delhi, for providing him with a copy of this very instructive report). It deserves to be quoted in extenso, not least for its relevance to our situation.

The report records at the very outset that “Stephen Lawrence’s murder was simply and sorely and unequivocally motivated by racism. It was the deepest tragedy for his family. It was an affront to society, and especially to the local black community in Greenwich. Nobody has been convicted of this awful crime. That also is an affront both to the Lawrence family and the community at large.”

It had “no doubt whatsoever but that the first MPS investigation was palpably flawed and deserves severe criticism. Nobody listening to the evidence could reach any other conclusion. The underlying causes of that failure are more troublesome and potentially more sinister. The impact of incompetence and racism, and the aura of corruption or collusion have been the object of much evidence and debate. We refer to these facts and figures not in order to gain sympathy as to the task which confronted us, but to indicate that this report is an attempt to distil all that raw material rather than tediously to rehearse or repeat all that is contained in the transcripts.

“We believe that the immediate impact of the Inquiry, as it developed, has brought forcibly before the public the justifiable complaints of Mr. & Mrs. Lawrence, and the hitherto underplayed dissatisfaction and unhappiness of minority ethnic communities, both locally and all over the country, in connection with this and other cases, as to their treatment by police. The Inquiry was not, of course, an inquiry into the general relationship between police and minority ethnic communities, and detailed examination of other individual cases would have been misplaced. Inevitably the Inquiry has heard many sounds and echoes concerning, for example, stop and search and the wide perceptions of minority ethnic communities that their cases are improperly investigated and that racist crime and harassment are inadequately regarded and pursued.

“We believe that the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry has provided such publicity and such awareness of the problems directly and indirectly revealed that there is now a signal opportunity to deal with specific matters arising from the murder and all that followed. We believe that there should be a clarion call to seize the chance to tackle and to deal with the general problems and differing perceptions that plainly exist between the minority ethnic communities and the police. If these opportunities are not appreciated and used the Inquiry will have achieved little or nothing for the future.

“We stress one aspect of the case which has perhaps received less attention than it should. The very existence of a sub-culture of obsessive violence, fuelled by racist prejudice and hatred against black people, such as is exemplified in the 1994 video films of the five prime suspects, is a condemnation of them and also of our society. These men are not proved to have been murderers of Stephen Lawrence….” (Emphasis added, throughout.)

In his evidence, Chief Constable Burden (South Wales Police) impressed upon the Inquiry that racism exists within all organisations and institutions, and that it infiltrates the community and starts amongst the very young. The problem is thus deeply ingrained. “Radical thinking and sustained action are needed in order to tackle it head on, not just in the Police Services of our country, but in all organisations and in particular in the fields of education and family life.”

It may be recalled that the great Judge, Lord Scarman, in his report relating to the Brixton disorders of 1981, said: “The evidence which I have received, the effect of which I have outlined…, leaves no doubt in my mind that racial disadvantage is a fact of current British life.… Urgent action is needed if it is not to become an endemic, ineradicable disease threatening the very survival of our society. …racial disadvantage and its nasty associate racial discrimination, have not yet been eliminated. They poison minds and attitudes; they are as long as they remain, and will continue to be, a potent factor of unrest.” The menace was ignored.

Inquiries, if honestly and thoroughly concluded, involve catharsis and close analysis of what may have gone wrong. But catharsis cannot be “achieved without searching cross-examination”.

The report pays a deserved tribute to the parents of Stephen Lawrence, Neville and Doreen Lawrence, for “their persistence and courage, their dignity and courage have been an example to all throughout”. They came to England in 1960 from Jamaica. Doreen frankly told the Inquiry, “No black person can ever trust the police. This idea is not preconceived. It is based on experience and people that I know who have had bad experiences with the police.”

High praise is due no less to Sir William Macpherson himself for his humane approach, civility, fairness and detachment. These qualities are not very conspicuous here. They explain his moving words that Stephen Lawrence’s “legacy must be the root and branch change that has to be in place in society”.

Racist stereotyping

A police force, for that matter, the judiciary, the civil service, the media and, indeed, all institutions, all spring from the society of which they are a part. They reflect its values and its prejudices. The police treated Lawrence’s friend Brooks badly. It seemed more interested in questioning him than in tending to Lawrence. The report notes that he was “stereotyped as a young black man exhibiting unpleasant hostility and agitation … such stereotyping played their part in the collective failure of those involved to treat him properly and according to his needs”. He was “the victim of racist stereotyping.… We do not believe that a young white man in a similar position would have been dealt with in the same way. He simply was not treated professionally and appropriately and according to his needs.” Stereotyping of the minorities is a product of prejudice and, in turn, fuels it.

Far more than the facts of this gruesome crime it is Chapter Six on “Racism” (pages 41-57) which is strikingly relevant to the situation in India. Every word of censure on the terrible consequences of racism applies to sexism, casteism and above all to communalism. The chapter traces the origin of the terms “racism”, defines it and proceeds to discuss the words which won the Macpherson Report enormous respect and fame. They are “institutional racism”. The reader will judge for himself the relevance of the expression to the police in India and to its treatment of the minorities. Predictably, police officers who compiled the Kent Report “denied racism or racist conduct”. The Macpherson Report disagrees completely.

It says: “Racism in general terms consists of conduct or words or practices which disadvantage or advantage people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. In its more subtle form it is as damaging as in its overt form. We have been concerned with the more subtle and much discussed concept of racism referred to as institutional racism which (in the words of Dr. Robin Oakley) can influence police service delivery ‘not solely through the deliberate actions of a small number of bigoted individuals, but through a more systematic tendency that could unconsciously influence police performance generally’.”

The report discusses thoroughly and at length various definitions and analyses in scholarly studies and concluded: “For the purposes of our Inquiry the concept of institutional racism which we apply consists of: ‘The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.’ It persists because of the failure of the organisation openly and adequately to recognise and address its existence and causes by policy, example and leadership. Without recognition and action to eliminate such racism it can prevail as part of the ethos or culture of the organisation. It is a corrosive disease” (Para 6.34). It gets worse and worse as society wraps itself in a mantle of denial and refuses to accept that the disease does exist and demands effective cure. The definition, carefully arrived at, is then applied by the Inquiry to the actual situation.

“Given the central nature of the issue we feel that it is important at once to state our conclusion that institutional racism, within the terms of its description set out in the Paragraph 6.34 above, exists both in the Metropolitan Police Service and in other Police Services and other institutions countrywide. In this context we stress what Sir Herman Ouseley, Chairman of the CRE (Commission for Racial Equality), has written to us: ‘This Inquiry offers a unique opportunity to make a difference; not only with the MPS and its failings, but for all our institutions. …there should be coherence across all institutions and organisations as part of a national framework for change. Without this any change would be merely piecemeal, limited, and unlikely to be long-lasting.’

“In reaching this conclusion we have considered the primary evidence which has been put before us and the legitimate inferences which can fairly and as a matter of ‘common-sense and not law’ be drawn from that evidence, as May LJ indicated in North West Thames RHA v Noone (1988) IRLR 195 CA. Furthermore we apply the civil standard of proof, namely that we are satisfied upon a balance of probability that any conclusion we reach is justified” (Para 6.39). It then adds: “Upon all the facts we assert that the conclusion that racism played its part in this case is fully justified. Mere incompetence cannot of itself account for the whole catalogue of failures, mistakes, misjudgments, and lack of direction and control which bedevilled the Stephen Lawrence investigation. Institutional racism is in our view primarily apparent in what we have seen and heard in the following areas.” Four are listed; namely, the investigation and treatment of the victims’ family at the hospital; unequal treatment in ‘stop and search’ incidents; under-reporting of “racial incidents”; and failure of police tracing. The report does not tar the entire police force with the same brush but pinpoints racism where it clearly exists.

Denial is a weapon

That said, it proceeds headlong to tackle the weapon of deniability which is used in India to stifle the minorities’ protest—there is no sexism; no casteism and, of course, horror of horrors, no communalism. We are Indians all. The report warns: “There must be an unequivocal acceptance of the problem of institutional racism and its nature before it can be addressed, as it needs to be, in full partnership with members of minority ethnic communities. There is no doubt that recognition, acknowledgement and acceptance of the problem by Police Services and their officers is an important first step for minority ethnic communities in moving forward positively to solve the problem which exists. There is an onus upon Police Services to respond to this. Any Chief Officer who feels unable so to respond will find it difficult to work in harmony and cooperation with the community in the way that policing by consent demands.” But that onus falls even more heavily on their masters, the politicians in power. There is a difference between admitting that prejudice “can” exist and admitting that “does” exist (Para 6.52).

In education and housing

Sir William Macpherson does not stop at policing but cites other areas where “institutional prejudice” exists. “Racism, institutional or otherwise, is not the prerogative of the Police Service. It is clear that other agencies including for example those dealing with housing and education also suffer from the disease. If racism is to be eradicated there must be specific and coordinated action both within the agencies themselves and by society at large, particularly through the educational system, from pre-primary school upwards and onwards. We have already referred to the racism observed amongst children of primary and even pre-school age, and to the high proportion of racist incidents attributable to young people. It must be a major concern of government that our educational system should address these issues.” Some of the suspects were under surveillance and their chatter was taped. They reflected, as a senior counsel remarked, “racism conjoined with an obsession to extreme violence”. As for housing, in Mumbai and in New Delhi, well-known Muslim actors and journalists were refused accommodation simply because they were Muslim.

There is a thorough and scrupulously fair analysis in the report of the trial and the Police Complaints Authority’s work. We need such a body in India. The report is perfectly justified in concluding that the trial was fairly conducted and that, on the evidence, at that trial the accused could not have been convicted at all. It, however, proceeds to comment on the grievances of the blacks. Their Church leaders said that they were “over policed” and “under protected”, a phenomenon which is fairly common here. “In the housing field we heard of the use and development of up-to-date tenancy conditions, and the prompt application of legislation designed to deal with racist tenants. In the field of education we heard of some enlightened development of anti-racist policies. But too often housing departments were seen to be slow and bureaucratic in their response to racist behaviour. There was a weight of opinion and concern in relation to two specific aspects of education. First the failure of the National Curriculum to reflect adequately the needs of a diverse multi-cultural and multi-ethnic society. Secondly the number of exclusions from schools which were apparently disproportionate to the ethnic mix of the pupils.” Right now we face the threat of revision of text books on history.

“We refer to two themes much heard at our meetings. The first can loosely be termed ‘Deaths in Custody’. We are clear that this issue is outside our terms of reference. But we cannot fail to record the depth of the feelings expressed. There is a need to address the perceptions and concerns of the minority ethnic communities in this regard. Such an issue if not addressed helps only to damage the relationship between police and public, and in its wake there is an atmosphere which hinders the investigation of racist incidents and crimes.

“The second strong theme concerns what may generally be termed the complaints system. It will be no surprise that almost universally we were told that there is little confidence amongst minority ethnic communities in the present system. It may seem to some that this issue is hardly within our terms of reference. But again there is no doubt but that this lack of confidence affects adversely the atmosphere in which racist incidents and crimes have to be addressed. Some believe that more direct investigation of complaints by the Police Complaints Authority is desirable.”

This is of crucial importance. Call it a Police Lokpal to which aggrieved policemen as well as citizens can complain, an independent Police Complaints Authority must be set up by statute.

There is one sentence in the report which reflects the noble spirit behind the exercise. It occurs at Chapter One in Para 1.6. Referring to the spot where Stephen Lawrence fell after his brave effort to walk away, the report records: “That place is now marked with granite memorial stone set into the pavement.” This is how English society chose to commemorate the memory of a man who was a victim of a racial crime.

That solitary act, albeit reflecting a deep malaise, shook society and government. Dare we expect similar memorials to pogroms in which thousands of Indians were slaughtered by organised mobs in connivance with the government? To go no further, Nellie (1983), Delhi (1984) and Gujarat (2002) are standing instances.

Therein lies the relevance of the Macpherson Report to the Indian condition; especially to the mistreatment of Muslims by the police, ever since Independence, which continues to this day. It has been an “enduring institutional prejudice”. Recent acknowledgements, however belated, testify to its growth to large proportions in recent years.

This is the first part of a two-part essay.

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