Historians' Watch

Policing the Margins

In June 2021, MPs in the UK approved the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Act, described by Amnesty International as a ‘deeply authoritarian’ piece of legislation which ‘places profound and significant restrictions on the basic rights [of citizens]’. The months preceding this saw large protests opposing this law. Since the election of this Conservative Government in 2019 – with a sizeable majority – there has been a remarkable resilience and consistency of the direction of home affairs, justice, and civil liberties policy under three separate Prime Ministers; driven by influential Conservative politicians and media figures whose politics tend to the far-right.

Individual pieces of repressive legislation do not exist in a vacuum. In this piece of activist history, we consider these policies and their precedents, historically and across geographies, to ask how such histories might support us to more effectively oppose policing, surveillance, and militaristic violence today. Where and when governments set out to limit democratic norms, limit the boundaries of dissent, and explicitly over-police minoritised groups, it is crucial that this process is explored in a global context; to understand apparently domestic developments through the lens of histories of imperialism and colonialism. Following this, our activism against repressive legislation and carcerality also needs to be guided by principles of  internationalism.

Signs at a public hearing at Trafalgar Square, London in 2021 demanding the release of political prisoners in India. Photograph: Adrija Dey.

In Britain today, the position of ethnic minorities and other marginalised groups, which has never been secure, is becoming increasingly vulnerable and precarious. In a period of less than 4 years, the Conservative Government has embarked on a project to massively expand state power, coupled with the curtailment of individual and collective freedoms and liberties. The Police, Crimes, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Act (2022) is coupled with other pieces of legislation. The Elections Act, for example, is likely to disenfranchise millions (largely disabled, minority, or poor) of voters, and compromises the independence of the UK’s electoral watchdog. The Nationality and Borders Act (2022) bestows on the Home Secretary the right to unilaterally revoke citizenship without prior notification, thus creating a de facto two-tier citizenship system in the UK. Currently being debated in parliament, the Public Order Bill reintroduces draconian elements restricting freedom of protest and assembly that were originally removed from the PCSC Act as a result of organised campaigning.

This militarisation and securitisation of everyday life in contemporary Britain may appear to be a new phenomenon. Like so many domestic innovations, however, it can be understood as a colonial aftershock, ‘making its belated appearance on the shores of the mother country’ as the authors of Empire’s Endgame write. In India, Jamaica, Malaysia and Northern Ireland, the British army has a long legacy of mass incarceration, interrogation, indefinite detention of so-called ‘terrorists’ or ‘rebels’ and violent suppression of resisting communities. Paramilitary policy strategies first used in the colonies are now being extended in Britain, with the policing of ‘gangs’ taking place through search and stop, intelligence gathering using local informants, and cultural analysts surveying social media. According to the authors of Empires Endgame, ‘today people from formerly colonised populations living in Britain are not only framed as exceptionally threatening or unruly, but are also subjected to militarised forms of governance’.

When the PCSC Act was announced, we found stark similarities with what was happening in India today. In the treatment of political activists in Britain, we see how increasingly dissent is viewed as terror and sedition. For instance, the Stansted 15 case in 2018-19 resulted in 15 non-violent human rights activists being convicted for terror-related offences, as a result of their actions to stop a flight deporting 60 migrants to Ghana, Nigeria and Sierra Leone. Similarly, under the Modi government, academics and activists in India have been arrested using sedition laws such as the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) for voicing their dissent against the current regime. However, these national security laws used in contemporary India have their roots in colonial times. For example, the 1818 Bengal Regulation was one of the first preventive detention laws to be introduced in colonial India. In the name of preserving security of the state, it gave authority to place individuals ‘under personal restraint’ despite a lack of ‘sufficient ground to institute any judicial proceeding’. This regulation was ultimately extended throughout India and remained in force until at least 1927. Currently all preventive detention laws in India mirror this regulation in their principles of criminalising dissent and by not having to prove suspicion to the standard of proof required in ordinary law.

Vagueness is written into the fabric of repressive legislation, allowing powers to be expanded further in their application. In India, the Rowlatt Act (Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act 1919-22) allowed preventive detention of individuals for up to two years based on suspicion, especially in regions designated by the government as ‘affected areas’. But what constituted ‘anarchical and revolutionary movements’ remained undefined. Today, this is mirrored in Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, with the vague use of the term ‘unlawful’ and in the vague designation of ‘affected areas.’ A similar imprecision can be identified in the British PCSC Act. It delegates immense power to the Home Secretary of UK to make regulations and define terms: ‘The Home Secretary has a delegated power to further define the meaning of serious disruption and provide further clarity to police in the use of these powers through secondary legislation’.

Broad and vague provisions, coupled with increasing police powers, disproportionately impact marginalised communities. In India, it has enabled internet shutdowns across protest sites and imprisonment of people without trial, including students and comedians. Critically, these laws are targeted towards the most marginalised groups, such as Muslims, Dalits and Adivasis (indigenous) groups. In Britain, the vagueness of the PCSC Act likewise gives the police dramatically increased powers to crackdown on protests, expands police power for racist stop and search operations, and discriminates and criminalises Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. The criminalisation of trespass in the PCSC Act has drawn comparisons from Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller people to ethnic cleansing and cultural genocide The 2019 Conservative manifesto, which pledged to criminalise trespass, set out the case for new legislation:

‘We will tackle unauthorised traveller camps. We will give the police new powers to arrest and seize the property and vehicles of trespassers who set up unauthorised encampments, in order to protect our communities.’

Implying that Travellers are not part of the community, or that their presence and existence is (in ways that are never defined or made explicit) a risk or a threat to the community, is not a rhetorical trick used only by Tories. In 2021, Labour’s equalities spokesperson was forced to apologise after handing out election leaflets promising to ‘deal with Traveller incursions’.

Along with global histories of oppressive legislation, we can identify efforts to build transnational solidarities.  One such example can be found in the writings of Manabendra Nath Roy (1887-1954). Roy was a Leftist intellectual, an Indian anti-colonial leader, and a founder of the communist parties of Mexico and India, who was perhaps best known for his work with the Communist International (Comintern). He repeatedly called on the British Labour Party to stand with those in colonial India who were incarcerated as a result of British rule; urging it to use parliamentary action, strikes and demonstration to put pressure on the British government to stop such unjust penalisation tactics in its colonies. In 1923, he wrote an open letter to the executive committee of the British Labour Party after 228 men, many of whom were hungry Indian peasants, were set up for trial by the British government. Roy wrote:

‘If you fail to act in this tragic moment, you will go down in history with the blood of Indian peasantry upon your hands, and you will stand charged with the betrayal of those principles of ‘freedom and democracy’ that you claim to advocate.’

A public hearing at Trafalgar Square, London in 2021 demanding the release of political prisoners in India. Photograph: Adrija Dey.

In the UK labour movement today, there is an urgent need to move beyond representational politics that seek to merely put people of colour in high places and instead address structural problems of ethnic inequality and violence. Further, anti-racist struggles in Britain need to be linked to a wider project of dismantling the historical structures of imperialism and neo-colonialism that continue to subjugate people in the Global South. As activists and campaigners, we are both fundamentally led by the position that freedom is not possible in one context unless people are free everywhere. Hence, in organising within the UK to demand the release of political prisoners in India, we repeatedly highlight the colonial roots of carceral systems and their wider impact. These histories reveal that the only way to combat policing, surveillance and militaristic violence globally is through internationalist, intersectional, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist solidarity. Through this article, we want to urge groups and individuals organising against policing and surveillance in the UK to also be vocal about similar violence in the Global South; such as arrests of activists in India and police brutality in Nigeria. Otherwise, we risk replicating some of the same structures of violence and exclusion that we speak about dismantling.

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