In February 1995, in the cover story of Communalism Combat (www.sabrang.com) Vibhuti Narain Rai gave an interview that turned the searchlight within, on the Indian Police Force. I had met him at the National PoliceAcademy where I had been asked to become part of a training given my work in the post Babri-Masjid demolition Bombay violence.
Even then, he was an IPS officer, with 20 years service behind him, whom the saffron brigade loved to hate. Based on his personal experience as a junior officer during the 1980 communal riots in Allahabad, he wrote a novel. Shahar mein curfew. In 1989, on the eve of his promotion as the superintendent of police of the same city in U.P. Ashok Singhal, the general secretary of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, felt enraged enough by its contents to engage in a public burning of the book. In 1987, he was the SP of Ghaziabad, when in the course of the Meerut riots, the state’s Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) arbitrarily rounded up a group of Muslims from Hashimpura, packed them in a truck, killed them in cold blood and dumped them like garbage. He and his men, cried themselves hoarse for three hours in desperate search of a survivor among the victims so that the gruesome tale of ‘criminals in uniform’ could be told to the world. Having succeeded at last in finding Babudeen, the lone survivor, he ensured top security to the victim until an F.I.R was lodged against the murderous PAC men. After the Hahsimpura verdict we interviewed him again and this interview can be heard on http://www.sabrang.com/Infocus/VibhutiInt25032015.htm
He had then (1995) taken a year’s study leave for research on the subject of communalism and the police force in India. Among other things, Rai’s interviews with hundreds of riot victims from across the country produced the startling finding that in all riot situations, Hindus consider policemen as their friends while, almost without exception, India’s minorities—Muslims and Sikhs—experience them as their enemy. The implications of his finding are frightening because “losing faith in the police may lead to loss of faith in the state” itself. The candour and depth of feeling with which Rai spoke to Combat is rare for a police officer still in service.
What is the specific subject of your dissertation?
The subject that has been assigned to me is “Perception of Police Neutrality during Communal Riots”, that is, the perception of the police among different strata of society. I concentrated on perceptions of police neutrality among all minority segments in Indian society. How they perceive the police was my specific area of research.
To collect information, I framed a questionnaire for a wide cross-section of riot victims from all over the country. The responses that I have got are startling, there is a sharp difference between the perception of the minorities and those of the majority community.
Hindus responded in one way while the response of Muslims and Sikhs was entirely different. From the hundreds of responses that I have collected is clear that during communal riots, Hindus always visualise the police as their friends while almost every Muslim and Sikh sees them as his enemy.
Now, this is a truly shocking revelation to me. Though I had anticipated that a large majority of Muslims and Sikhs might feel this way, I expected at least some sections from both the communities to view the police otherwise. I was shocked to find a near universal minority response that the police are enemies.
“Communal prejudice and bias is so deep and widespread that I feel some drastic steps need to be taken and fast. Especially by the senior leadership within the Indian police”
A second question I asked my respondents was whether they would approach the police during a communal riot when their life was threatened or their property was in danger. The responses to this question, too, were yet another revelation to me. The vast majority categorically stated there was no question of their, approaching the police. A few said they would not like to reply to this question. Among those who responded, barely 5-10 per cent said that they would like to approach the police. These responses, again, are truly shocking.
As a senior police officer what do you feel are the implications of such responses?
The implications are nothing short of disastrous because the police represents the state. Losing faith in the police may amount to losing faith in the state. But I must make a qualification: one of the heartening findings was that while loss of faith in the police was near total among the minorities, many of the riot victims I interviewed still expressed faith in other of the state like the army, the BSF or the CRPF.
But if the communal virus that is so virulent spreads further, I wonder how long can we keep our army free from it? Especially, if the army is called in so frequently to tackle communally explosive situations and jawans are stationed for long durations, there is every likelihood of their catching the same virus. The consolation for now is: at least, the minorities still have some faith in some institutions of the state.
Now that you have completed your research and are near the end of your dissertation what are the major conclusions that you have reached? As an insider who has been extensively researching on the issue, how serious and widespread, according to you, is the problem of communalisation in the Indian police force?
Communal prejudice and bias is so deep and widespread that I feel some drastic steps need to be taken and fast. Especially by the senior leadership within the Indian police. Prejudice governs our actions much more than the fair-play we are sworn to. It is heart-warming to come across instances of decent, non-partisan police officers. But, and I say this with deep regret, such examples are more the exception than the rule. Many times we take shelter behind politicians for our own failures. We say that politicians did not permit it. But no politician can ever ask us to behave in a communal fashion.
It is useless to decry or condemn or constantly put blame only on politicians. We in the police force have to accept that our house is not in order.
It has become a routine, a fashion almost, after each riot when the allegations begin coming in, senior officers defend the force and counter-allege that the accusations are biased, that they have been levelled by ill-informed persons, etc; that sections of society, the media, social activists, minorities and communists who commonly bring these facts to the notice of the public are biased and that, in a nutshell, their accusations are mala fide. Personally, I feel that unless we begin by accepting that there is something seriously wrong, we may not be able to rectify it and put our house in order. Our leadership must improve, IPS officers must stop blaming the force. This applies to Bombay or anywhere else in the country.
Note: Not only were no steps taken but there is institutional amnesia in our country, the refusal to accept the extent of the bias. Hence Hashimpura to Bhagalpur to Delhi to Bombay to Gujarat the deep seated bias had flourished with cynical impunity.
Post Script: The news this morning that Masum Akhtar, a newspaper columnist and the headmaster of a madrassah in Kolkatta’s Metiabruz area was badly beaten up and escaped narrowly with his life, pained and angered me. Why was he attacked? Because he taught about traditions of transparency and accountability within Islam, wrote freely about issues that may or may not have angered a few in Dainik Statesman and Ananda Bazar Patrika. He believes he was attacked by fanatics belonging to his own faith. The news pained me because the attackers (like those among the Hindutva fold) do not necessarily represent the majority of thinking, feeling, breathing Muslims but by their acts of violence, they generate a climate of fear that silences the majority. Angered, because the great traditions of Islam and Islamic learning lived/lives comfortably with dissent, criticism, introspection. But a brand that is being sold sullies and stereotypes the Islamic faith.
A version of this appeared as the author’s weekly column in the daily, Rashtriya Sahara