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Beatings, Beacons, and Big Men: Police Disempowerment and Delegitimation in India


  • Beatrice Jauregui

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    • Beatrice Jauregui is a Research Fellow at Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge ( The research on which this article is based was funded by the American Council on Learned Societies, the American Institute of Indian Studies, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Social Science Research Council, and the University of Chicago Committee on Southern Asian Studies. This piece benefited greatly from comments by three anonymous reviewers, and from discussion of earlier drafts with Khadija Carroll, Alexander Flynn, William Garriott, Claire Loussouarn, Jeff Martin, Anastasia Piliavsky, and Justice Tankebe.


It is a truism that police in India generally lack legitimate authority and public trust. This lack is widely understood by scholars, policy analysts, and police practitioners as being rooted in the institution's colonial development as a means of oppression, and its alleged corruption and criminalization in the postcolonial period. The social facts of situational hyper-empowerment and the widespread decadence of police do much to explain their poor image and performance, but these explanations do not account for the fact that police in India are also structurally disempowered by cultural-political and legal-institutional claims to multiple and conflicting forms of authority that challenge and often overwhelm the authority of police. This structural disempowerment and its performances in everyday interactions between the police and the public constitute an ongoing social process of delegitimation of police authority in contemporary India. Following ethnographic analysis of this process of delegitimation, I explore the implications of focusing on police disempowerment for theorizations of the sources and capabilities of state legal authority more generally.