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Truckers' Revolt: Deciphering The Colonial Residue In Indian Policing – IMPRI Impact And Policy Research Institute

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Truckers' Revolt: Deciphering the Colonial Residue in Indian Policing

TK Arun

The law makes them sitting ducks for cops to make a fast buck and so they resist the law with vim and vigour; The greater the punishment, the bigger the bribe.

As life limps back to normal after the truckers withdrew their strike against tougher penalties for hit-and-run offences, the strike leaves behind not just fuelling stations that have run dry and disrupted supply chains, but also an insight into the actual meaning of decolonisation.

The government claims to have decolonised India’s laws on crime with the introduction of three new laws to replace the Indian Penal Code, the Criminal Procedure Code, and the Indian Evidence Act, all introduced, in their original form, under British rule. 

What the new law says

The new replacement laws have names in Sanskrit, written in the Roman script: Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita, Bharatiya Nagarik Suraskha Sanhita, and Bharatiya Sakshya Adhiniyam, respectively. 

It is Clause 2 of Article 106 of the Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita that has sent truck drivers on the warpath. It reads as follows: “Whoever causes death of any person by rash and negligent driving of vehicle not amounting to culpable homicide, and escapes without reporting it to a police officer or a Magistrate soon after the incident, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description of a term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine.”

The now-redundant IPC prescribed, under Section 304A, a sentence of two years in prison and fine, for causing death due to negligent conduct, whether on the road or otherwise. Some state-specific amendments prescribed life imprisonment for causing death while driving intoxicated.

Unorganised industry and Truckers

The government has wriggled out of the tight spot it found itself in, after the truckers struck work, blocked the highways, and caused a shortage of fuel and other essential in different parts of the country, by agreeing to not implement the new, tougher provisions under the Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita without first discussing the rules with the truckers’ representatives.

Strictly speaking, the All India Motor Transport Congress, with which the government held its parleys to get the truckers to call off the strike, represents transporters rather than the truck drivers themselves. Transporters perform the function of accepting freight orders from customers, and executing them by hiring trucks and drivers. 

The vast majority of trucks in India’s highly unorganised trucking industry belong to owner-drivers, with large fleets accounting for a relatively small share of the total number of trucks carrying freight across the country. The interests of transporters and the interests of truckers are often at odds.

Shadow of colonialism

Why should truckers go on the warpath when the sentence for negligent driving and failing to report a fatal accident goes up from two years to 10 years? Do they see the right to hit and run as an inviolable fundamental right of India’s truck drivers?

That is hardly the case. The problem is the colonial nature of the police and the administration. The police force was built by the colonial administration to keep the natives in check, and maintain stability and security at any cost. Delivering justice was a secondary consideration. This armed the police with arbitrary powers vis-à-vis the subjects of the colony. Fear of the white ruler probably deterred gross misuse of arbitrary powers by the individual members of the colonial police.

After Independence, the structure and culture of the administration and the police remained more or less the same. The police still see the people as subjects, to be controlled and disciplined, rather than as citizens to be protected and served. This culture gives plenty of scope for policemen to shake truck drivers down, and pretty much anyone else who does not have ‘connections’ to the levers of power, to hold errant policemen to account.

Beyond the laws 

If a truck driver were to be involved in an accident, two things could happen. The local populace would, given a chance, catch hold of him and beat him up to an inch of his life. Now, some people are not good at fine measurements, even at the best of times, and tend to be terrible when enraged. 

So, even if the intent is only to deliver the punishment no one believes the state would deliver for killing someone on road through rash driving, unintended death might occur. This tendency for an accident to be followed by mob justice inhibits any tendency on the part of the driver to halt and play good Samaritan.

The second thing to happen would be for the driver to be wrung dry by a policemen, were he to get caught after causing an accident. He could be charged with anything, ranging from rash and negligent driving to driving while drunk and trying to imitate the latest Formula 1 champion. 

To avoid that charge, the driver would have to pay a bribe. The heavier the punishment for the offence he is charged with, the larger the bribe he would have to pay to escape being charged.

The root cause 

This is why there is so much anger among truckers to the increased sentence for the crime of hit and run. No driver wants to hit and run, and most of them would be quite penitent were they to cause death on the road. But the knowledge that the law sets them up as sitting ducks for a policeman on the prowl to make a fast buck makes them resist the law with vim and vigour, regardless of the intrinsic merit of the law or the lack of it.

The culture of colonial rule, in which the state sees the people as subjects, deserving to be subjugated and ruled, continues. That is at the root of the truckers’ protest, the fear of arbitrary police action and extortion of bribes. Changing that is far more difficult than changing the names of laws and drafting some new provisions in the law. To call such cosmetic changes decolonisation is not just disingenuous but also to recolonise the people into a new kind of oppression.

TK Arun is a senior journalist based in Delhi.

The article was first published in The Federal as No, truckers aren’t defending any fundamental right to hit and run on January 5, 2024.

Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organisation.

Read more from the author at:

Beyond Contention: Kissinger and the Absence of a Foe

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Acknowledgment: This article was posted by Tanu Paliwal, a research intern at IMPRI.

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