Cop as community worker

Communities must receive the message from the topmost level in the police force: Gurdwara or masjid or church — he is there, he is available, he is our man. Every community wants the police chief to be there


While serving as a police officer at various levels of the police hierarchy — as the SP of a district, as DIG, the commissioner of police, Bangalore and as the DGP — I have had to handle many major communal crises situations. And I have always felt that our ability to react to or control such a situation hinges crucially on our long–term efforts to be part of the community in the normal course of our policing work. 

We need to instil confidence in our force by the calibre of our response. It is how I react to complaints from the community — even if it be the story of a minor theft that will determine whether or not ordinary people will have the faith to approach me, come to me. Whether or not I can communicate with them at times of a crisis is crucial.

I would agree that the image of the police in general on the issue of fair and neutral controlling of communally driven violence has taken a severe bashing. I am with you on that one. There is an urgent need to resurrect not just our image but drastically alter our attitude to regain confidence, rebuild our reputation and image among the entire citizenry. 

Why do communal flare-ups occur? Communal flare–ups are essentially caused by a lack of faith between peoples of different communities. It is when faith is ruptured, by vested interests, by people who want to exploit emotions and ignorance that such violence breaks out. At such a time, whatever be the cause of the conflagration, a strong and inspiring leadership is required.

I was commissioner of police, Bangalore for two years and seven months. Each year December 6, 1992 is observed as a Black Day, a day when emotions run high. Each year, sections of our people need to recall the Babri Masjid demolition. This is natural because they were hurt deeply by that act. It is a day of mourning when many would also like to take advantage of these sentiments to splash the streets with posters and pamphlets and placards, the contents of which are not always unimpeachable. 

Now under these circumstances, who should dissuade them, who should take it upon themselves to tell them that though the day and deed was extremely unfortunate, some self–regulation displayed by the leaders of the community would be in the interests of the community itself?

I faced this dilemma as a senior police functionary every year. Groups of Muslims would announce it as a Black Day and plan programmes. I evolved a simple principle of action. I built direct communication links with the community and attempted, successfully, to persuade them, in their own self–interest, to protest with restraint. The approach worked. 

I had Muslim women, accompanied by social workers from the area, waiting to meet me in the late hours of the night, waiting to take me along, to meet, to shake hands with and to pat the backs of young and angry Muslim youth. We tried, earnestly, and always together with members of their own community to dissuade them against rash acts. It worked.

I recall another incident that occurs with chilling finality every year during Bakri Id and Mahavir Jayanti — two festivals that come within days of each other! 

In 1999, they happened to fall on the same day!  Now Muslims believe in offering sacrifice of a camel or a goat on that day. Part of their faith is in making this sacrifice and distributing the meat. Therefore, we must respect it as a religious practice. 

Some twenty years ago, someone had issued a circular stating that there should be no sale of meat on Mahavir Jayanti. While Muslims are committed to slaughter on that day, Hindus and Jains are determined to stop the practice. Now in the midst of the kind of political situation that we face today, both sides are willing to fight a pitched battle. For a policeman in charge, the question is how do I avert a catastrophe?

The most important thing for us to understand is that during such trying and tense circumstances, when we face two or more very sensitive communities, particularly those living in congested urban areas, no amount of police bandobast or police deployment is the answer. That is not going to solve the problem, we simply cannot have a policeman behind everybody. Neither can we get into the heart of everyone.
What we can do, however, is to keep channels of communication and dialogue open. This is what we did in 1999 and the people of Bangalore, of all communities, will testify to this. For three–four weeks, the Bangalore police were engaged in continuous dialogue, in constant street–level, mohalla–level dialogue with the people to promote a resolution, to prevent a breakdown into violence.

The principle we followed was simple. Muslims and Jains both said that they had deep respect for each other. How then, we asked, do we get pushed and reduced to such intransigent positions?
We encouraged regular, intense but public dialogue between respectable people of both communities, from the mohalla level right up to the state level, finally the discussions resonated even in the Vidhan Soudha.

How did this happen? We discussed the principles of both faiths, their essence, what could be negotiated, what must be held sacred. For the Jains, on Mahavir Jayanti, what is prohibited is the slaughter of living beings. For the Muslims, this slaughter need not be done in public. What is banned for the Jains is the eating of meat, which is a private part of their religious belief. Also, for Jains, the believers in the non–violence of Mahavira, peace must be a primary objective, and to arrive at a position satisfactory to both sides must be the goal.

Therefore, to ensure peace between two different sets of believers, we must have a bit of sacrifice on both sides. Why not do the slaughter, which symbolises sacrifice in private, and do the distribution of meat only the following day? For the Muslims, we said that since sacrifice is a must, it must be done at home. At moments like these, accommodation and tolerance must guide both sides; blatant provocation must be avoided.

We found after heated deliberations that provocations are often created and fomented, they are not essentially there. 

After three to four weeks of hard work, we were rewarded with a mammoth gathering at the Idgah Maidan where 15,000 Muslims had gathered. For the first time in the history of the city, and in my experience serving as a policeman, it was a Jain priest who recited the first prayer on the morning of Bakri Id. It was a prayer to non-violence. After this, a joint delegation of Muslims and Jains paid a visit to the then governor, Khurshid Aslam Khan. And once again, later the same day, Hindus and Muslims participated in joint celebrations.

A prominent leader from the Jain community addressed the gathering, took them into confidence, explaining how peace was found. Then he and his Muslim counterpart exchanged their traditional headgear, with the Muslim donning a turban and the Hindu wearing a prayer cap.

It is when every community celebrates the other’s festival that one community starts feeling responsible for the other community. We were able to celebrate non-violence in a socially vibrant manner through community leaders, not merely by uttering it as a matter of principle.

These kinds of achievements require dynamism and foresight from the police. Communities must receive the message from the topmost level in the force: Gurdwara or masjid, he is there, he is available, he is our man. Every community loves and wants the police chief to be there. Do we send out the message that we are theirs? 

A smile and warm shake of the hand is all they want; unfortunately, too few of us wish to extend these simple gestures that are deeply felt by people.

Another time comes to mind. It was 1998, Bangalore. Jaya-nagar is the biggest urban extension in Asia. It is an affluent area that has a prominent road leading up to a very busy shopping complex. In the midst of this razzmatazz, there is a site, with an Idgah with attached land piled up with rubble. The administration had wanted to remove this for the past three decades; Muslims had been resisting, demanding a kabrastan (graveyard) there.

To be honest, the demand for a graveyard at this location was illogical. The obstruction is ugly, it obstructs the road. But it is an accident of development; not part of any deliberate design of the Muslims to cause accidents as it began to be portrayed by some forces!

Now on that day in 1998, a girl, Janaki Laxmi Bai, was hit by a state transport bus and, unfortunately, she died on the spot. I was on my daily rounds with the joint commissioner and we reached the spot after messages about the usual agitated, post-accident crowd gathered were beeped to us. Knowing the history of this dispute, familiar with the patterns of public behaviour, we arrived there expecting the worst. 

By the time we reached there, tensions had escalated, dialogue between the two sides had ceased and the throwing of stones had begun. There were rumours of a mosque being desecrated that angered the Muslims. And there were rumours on the other side that Muslims had gathered inside the mosque to attack Hindus. 

We talked to both sides, incessantly, sitting on the bonnet much against the advice of our officers who warned us that we could get hurt in the stone pelting. Now a policeman in charge on the spot, in the midst of a heated situation, simply has to take the risk. I was clear about my motives when I spoke to the crowd gathered. I am not going to leave by simply dispersing the crowd, that would be too easy, I told them. I am not a road builder but I am with you and I want to be with you, with both sides, to solve the problem, I added.

The mosque was vacated by the Muslims themselves and rumours thus dispelled. All the Muslims and Hindus that had gathered there went with us to a nearby club to discuss the matter through. The first bits that emerged through rational discussion was that over the years, a total of 10 deaths had taken place because of the traffic obstruction. But this had been distorted by some forces to spread the propaganda that 100 people had died!

During our conversations at the club, the first thing I did was to telephone the chief minister and insist that we, the entire delegation, wanted to meet him because we wanted an intervention at the very highest levels. We also insisted that we required swift and prompt action from him. After establishing within the group that the matter was urgent, requiring solution, we went over the respective positions on both sides. I first spoke to both the sides separately.

The Muslims spoke. On the site there stood an ancient dargah, in the adjoining land there were old graves, we simply want to confirm and assert our rights over the land, they said. But, as far as the road widening is concerned, we too are citizens and would like to see it made possible.

Then we spoke to the other side. We had to be careful and sensitive. We had to settle the issue without making them feel that Muslims had been favoured.  On the other hand, if it was decided at the end of discussions to hand over the land for the Bangalore Municipal Corporation Muslims should not feel they had been bulldozed!

In this case, the land had been transferred to the Waqf Board after a former Maharaja of the city had gifted the land where the Idgah stands for prayers. Therefore, Muslims had legitimate and legal control of the land. But despite this history, allegations of ‘appeasement’’ of Muslims were deliberately spread by a certain element within the Hindus. They wanted to make a propaganda that prime property of 10–15 acres right in the middle of town was with the Muslims!

Therefore, the secret and sensitive negotiations that carried on well past midnight were critical. Due to the sincerity and sensitivity of our efforts, a 30–year–old problem, a flash point, that had been the cause of several riots and dozens of deaths, was finally solved. 

How did we do it? The flash point, in this case, the irritant was itself removed. How? The Muslim leaders took it upon themselves to convince the whole community that their legal and rightful claims to the land was being given up in the civic interests of the city. The whole process took thirty days, but the files were kept secret. 

Decisions were taken silently and secretly but different sections of the leadership, down to the ground level, were apprised of the top–level decisions each and every day. They were kept in confidence to minimise distrust and avoid any speculation that leads to rumours and outright tension.

I must add that the media, the press, also displayed very good sense because we took them into confidence. They did not get into the by-line competition by publishing sensational and ‘exclusive’ news! No speculative news reports appeared in that tense period.

It was a great diplomatic exercise for me, a police officer used to functioning differently. Do you know what many of my close Muslim friends said to me after the crisis was settled through a mutually agreeable settlement? They said, “The commissioner of police should be sent as India’s ambassador to Pakistan!”

What was the key to the solution? We had to be patient. We had to be clear and make it clear to all concerned that we were not in an indecent hurry, that there could be no instant solutions. Both sides had to be listened to but fair play and justice could not be sacrificed.

The result of the goodwill that I have earned through all these efforts is this. When I go, dressed in my uniform, to attend Id celebrations every year in Bangalore, I am overwhelmed by the cordiality and warmth with which I am received. If you were to see it, it would bring tears to your eyes. 

The minority in any society is a particularly insecure community. There is a feeling of insecurity among them in our country. And are we really surprised, given the circumstances? The best thing that we can do under the circumstances is to ensure with a fair and open heart and mind that at all times they have access to and experience proximity with the powers that be. 

If, as commissioner of police I go to them, be among them, my subordinates, too, will go. If I go, I will be first–hand witness to what happens there, they would honour me because there is so much warmth. It is this kind of intermingling that builds trust and cordiality between citizens and the police. And this is what is lacking among the police, the desire to build long–term and solid foundations of trust and respect. The police in general lack this sensitivity, unfortunately.

When I left Bangalore as CP and assumed my next post as DG (prisons), the goodwill and trust that I had earned followed me there. Do you know how? My best friends from all communities followed me to the prisons: Christmas, Id and Sankrant began to be celebrated there. The humanitarian work from all three communities flowed into the prisons I was in charge of. There were 30-40 NGOs with whom I worked closely.

I still remember the day when I handed over charge as CP of Bangalore. I was simply overwhelmed by the sentiments expressed by the more than hundred Muslims who came to see me. There were 50–60 cars belonging to members of the community lined up outside my office; they had come to present sweets to me. But what touched me most was when they took me to the mosque to pray for me and to give me blessings! I felt one of them and they trusted me as one of theirs.

This kind of trust can be created only when they are sure that we will stand by them. The police simply must stand by all sections of the population. When a Muslim or Christian woman experiences fair treatment and justice, the sentiment slowly grows into how the whole community feels. This sort of building of confidences cannot come overnight. But once this is done, it can be of immense help to a policeman whenever there is a burning issue, because your access to the community is already assured.

The only way to get there is to pass the test. We cannot be self–seekers, not carry or convey the arrogance of authority. We need to be available at all times whenever access is requested. The leader of the force, the man in charge of the thana, the sub-divisional officer, SP or CP – each one of us must think he is the one for this job. Expectations from within on each one of us, of ourselves, must be high!
When frenzy breaks out, the lack of faith that this violence manifests must be restored by the police. It is such a small thing but so difficult! Actually it is a very big thing! Whoever the officer is and wherever he is placed, must be just and seen to be just! There must be no room for rumours to spread!

December 6, 1992 is a bad dream for the community that haunts its consciousness. On that fateful day, I was serving as IG with the Karnataka Detectives Corps department, an equivalent of the CID. I was an officer working in plainclothes. 

But when things started going out of hand, I was asked to go to Mangalore, a very communally sensitive town. Earlier, some BJP MLAs had been elected from here but they were defeated in the recent elections, in 1992. In 1990, there had been communal trouble in Purakkal, following the rathyatra. After December 6, 1992, there was a three-day riot in Mangalore. That’s when I was sent there because I had been DIG there previously and my close relations, oneness and bonds, with all sides, had remained intact. 

It is so critical at times of communal frenzy to reinforce the bonds that bind us. Because at times like these, the very forces that hold us together get weakened! And the cancerous cell of suspicion and venom eats into the fabric. 

I remember the day I reached Mangalore three days after the demolition. People were burning vehicles! What did I do? From morning to evening all I did was talking, and more talking. Simply talking. Endless talking. What did I want to convey through this talking? That we are not for violence, we are not for settling matters through force. It required a lot of patience. It was exhausting. I addressed some 20–25 meetings. What I desired was simple — communication lines should be kept alive, human relationships must survive such crises.

An agitated mob acts like one body but it is a scattered brain that functions with irrational and disparate acts. Some parts are talking, others are stabbing, yet others are throwing stones. It is the innocent ones at the front who get sacrificed.

Anyway, after reaching Mangalore, 95 per cent of situation was controlled within 24 hours. Unfortunately, it was only in one pocket that we failed. My men were getting injured; we shot and killed a man. It was unfortunate but the right decision at the time. Eventually my instinct, built on experience to talk and keep talking was justified. Within 36–40 hours the dialogue paid dividends. In 90 per cent of the case, it is only dialogue that pays dividends. Only in 10 per cent of the cases do we need to use force.

Maintaining this balance is crucial, between the two options. But for me to carry the weight of my decisions — to dialogue and not use force — my policemen should have faith in me. This faith can only be established, if at ticklish and dangerous times, a senior policeman leads from the front. 

In Mangalore, I was in the front. I could have been killed but if I remained in the rear, I would have inspired no faith. It is when you are in the intimate know of things that the decisions you make are made with careful calculation. In Mangalore, too, the decision was made. Conciliation, was the first option; only if this failed, would force be used.

A mob in a communally volatile situation is schizophrenic. It often needs to be administered a shock and it is the different reactions that need to be balanced and acted upon. 
It was after this that I came to Bangalore! I see myself as a policeman but also as a community man, in charge of a sensitive post and department with a special responsibility. A policeman is the visible face of the state, so he is always being watched carefully for his attitudes and behaviour. 

I believe that I must appear as a sensitive human being at all times. So what if I am a very orthodox Hindu, who after pooja applies the vibhuti on my forehead? But this sign of my faith should not be visible outside. The arms of the state should not only be secular, but also look secular. To imbibe these values in the police force, the quality of training within the police is vital. Once this sensitive pattern of behaviour is followed, it comes naturally.

My motto as a police officer was simple. Be it Id or Christmas, Diwali or the St Mary’s procession, I would never miss the opportunity to cement my relationship with people from that community. A relationship built at this level percolates down to every level. You are also in the process, demonstrating to your subordinates how a situation should be handled.

A communal situation, in a way is different, even abnormal: people go mad! My neighbour suddenly thinks he should burn my house and neighbourhood, even though through all the earlier years, including times of crises in my life, he has been with me!

Hence it is critical to keep communications open with all sides of the spectrum at such a time. I have been criticised sometimes in meeting with groups like the Hindu Jagran Vedike. But for me it was important to have contact with them if I was to retain the strength to dialogue with them.
In a communal situation especially, the police officer at the helm has to be prepared to lead from the front, to take risks. Only then can he win the confidence of the people warring with each other. Nobody will come forward to offer their necks unless you are prepared to risk yours!

(As told to Communalism Combat)

Archived from Communalism Combat, September 2001, Anniversary Issue (8th) Year 8  No. 71, Cover Story 4



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