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Opinion | Is the lathi a colonial invention?

From miniature paintings in the Akbarnama to the police using it on migrant workers, the lathi as a tool for brutal law enforcement has a long history

Miniature paintings from the ‘Akbarnama’. (Wikimedia Commons)
Miniature paintings from the ‘Akbarnama’. (Wikimedia Commons)

We can hope the global focus on police excesses triggered by the killing of George Floyd in the US will have an impact in India, where the tradition of brutal law enforcement has been visible in the treatment of migrant labourers during the pandemic and the handling of anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protesters before covid-19 broke out. Dozens of widely circulated videos have shown policemen—and sometimes women—belabouring helpless citizens with lathis.

The use of lathis, long sticks made of wood or bamboo, for keeping order is often traced by historians and journalists to the era immediately before India’s independence. The lathi has been described as a “colonial weapon of crowd control"; a “legacy of British colonial rule"; a “colonial vintage anti-protest weapon"; a “symbol of the British raj"; and a symbol of “India’s colonial hangover". Because India’s police force came into existence during British rule, most things pertaining to it are likely to have a colonial connection. But how accurate is it to suggest that the British imperial police pioneered the widespread use of lathis?

Many Indians are familiar with documentary footage of peaceful freedom fighters being bludgeoned by colonial police. The association between the lathi and the Raj has a lot to do with this visual context. There exist, however, depictions of lathi wielders that pre-date by two-and-a-half centuries the setting up of India’s police force. I am referring to Mughal paintings, and specifically miniatures from the Akbarnama, the story of the life and rule of the greatest Mughal emperor.

Paintings from Akbar’s atelier tend to pack loads of colour, action and movement into their small frames. While inspecting one such tumultuous composition in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum years ago, my eyes strayed to the bottom right corner of the page, alighting with great surprise on a guard thrashing members of a crowd. Having noticed that one lathi-wielder, I began spotting his brethren in other Akbarnama images.

Here was the emperor at his fort in Agra being informed of the birth, in neighbouring Sikri, of his heir Salim. The glad news was greeted with dancing, drumming, trumpeting and sword spinning, while, at the margin of this whirl of celebration, a guard beat two dark-skinned individuals with a stick. The first of his victims extended a beseeching arm even as the second tried to shield himself from the blows. In another panel, Akbar was astride a horse, inspecting the cleaning of a water tank. A stooped labourer, perhaps having fumbled in sight of the emperor, had felt the stick on his back. Although the supervisor had his lathi raised, giving no indication of whether he had actually used it, the labourer’s indignant expression as he looked up from his work told of what had just passed.

In a third image, as Akbar took a tour of the building site that would become his new capital Fatehpur (now called Fatehpur Sikri), a security detail posted along the route thrashed a loiterer for no apparent reason. The raised stick appeared during the siege of Chittor, aimed at a mason helping build a covered path to the fort. It showed up during Akbar’s triumphant entry into the Ranthambore fort, brandished by belligerent watchmen at the fort’s entrance.

These paintings are evidence of a long pre-colonial practice of the rod being used to control crowds, manage access and discipline workers. An objection might be raised to this assertion on the grounds that the paintings are imaginative recreations and not literal depictions of what transpired in that time and place. Kavita Singh, a distinguished expert on miniatures, tells me the trope of people being beaten with sticks is borrowed from similar scenes in Persian painting. Although the idea of depicting these acts is borrowed, I remain convinced that the Akbarnama images are good representations of actual behaviour, not only because the actions, postures and gestures seem plausible within the scenes depicted, but because they appear all too familiar to Indians today.

There is a group of scholars that traces the origin of most ills witnessed in today’s India to the experience of British imperialism. The idea of the brutal, lathi-wielding policeman as a creation of the Raj results from such post-colonial thinking. An opposing group, far more numerous and dangerous, traces the origin of most ills witnessed in India today to the experience of Muslim rule. Members of that group are likely to read the Akbarnama images as indicators of the cruelty inherent specifically in Muslim kingdoms. However, given the absence of injunctions against such acts in Hindu religious or political tracts, we can reasonably assume the paintings document practices common across the subcontinent.

This is particularly true because the lathi was an innocuous weapon in the context of societies in which war was common. Mughal miniatures depict far graver violence: decapitation, hanging, maiming and large-scale killing during battle. It was also a mild weapon in colonial times, considering incidents like the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, in which hundreds of peaceful protesters were shot at close range. It is not the use of brutal policing methods that was pioneered during British rule but the idea of a scrupulously non-violent anti-colonial resistance movement, and the consequent rise of the notion that such protests ought to be met by matching non-violence on the part of authorities.

The lathi is not a British imperialist weapon aimed at Indians. It is, rather, an instrument of the strong against the weak, employed in India for centuries and possibly millennia, which makes it a habit much harder to eradicate. If its indiscriminate use by the police today is illegitimate, it is so only on moral grounds, not historical ones.

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests have galvanized activists everywhere in the past few weeks but the brutal response to them by American police and allied forces has also gladdened the hearts of authoritarians. The Chinese, for instance, can now claim convincingly to have handled demonstrations in Hong Kong more humanely than the land of the free has managed with the BLM demonstrators. India, too, is likely to witness strengthened resolve on both sides of the divide: steadfast activists fighting fight for a more equitable world and emboldened police lathi-charging them with gusto.

Girish Shahane writes on politics, history and art.

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