In his many years in the Indian Police Service, Vibhuti Narain Rai, 70, witnessed numerous communal riots. What he saw in the course of dealing with riots as an officer influenced him to study and write insightfully about communal riots in India and the role of police in it. An acclaimed writer in Hindi, his novel, Shahar Mein Curfew (Curfew in the City, 1988), was based on a riot in Allahabad that he observed personally as a police officer. It narrates the events of the three days in a small neighbourhood under curfew. In 1987, as SP, Ghaziabad, Rai registered cases against the UP Provincial Armed Constabulary personnel in the Hashimpura massacre, where 42 Muslims were killed by the police.
Later, he published his account of the massacre (Hashimpura 22 May: The Forgotten Story of India’s Biggest Custodial Killing, 2016). While in service, he received a fellowship to study the neutrality of police during riots. One of his findings was that Muslims were the worst sufferers, both in terms of loss of life and property, in most major communal riots in the country. According to Rai, “However, even in riots where the number of Muslims killed was many times more than the Hindus, it was they who were mainly arrested, most searches were conducted in their houses, and curfew imposed in a harsh manner in their localities.” Rai, who now lives in Noida, shares his understanding on what went wrong in Delhi, where at least 47 people died in communal riots a week ago. Excerpts:
It is said the police did not arrive on time during the recent Delhi riots, and when they came they did not have sufficient personnel. How could this happen?
It was a terrible command failure. Initially, the leadership of Delhi Police appeared to be totally clueless. One can understand that since President Donald Trump was in town most of the personnel and officers were committed to his security. But what about a plan B which any professional police force is expected to be ready with? A totally different eventuality may require immediate attention and, for it, reserves are to be kept. The communalisation of the city was complete and communal violence was waiting to happen. The replication of the Shaheen Bagh model protests at Jafrabad with BJP leader Kapil Mishra threatening protesters to vacate the place was the proverbial last straw on the camel’s back.
How much of autonomy can a police force exercise? Can its leadership act on its own in the event of a riot even if orders from the political executive are delayed, or are absent?
Political interference (in policing) is normal in a democracy, but this time it was worse. It appeared that the headquarters of the Commissioner of Police was shifted to North Block. During elections in Delhi, the BJP tried to communalise Shaheen Bagh and succeeded to a great extent. Ministers and senior leaders were issuing provocative statements and the police were watching helplessly. Two central universities, hardly a few kilometres apart, experienced two different standards of law enforcement. While in Jamia Millia Islamia, the police was hyperactive, beating up agitating students even in the library, JNU suffered vandalism. A complicit police, by wilful default, facilitated saffron hooligans to vandalise the campus. These two different standards could not have happened without the knowledge of North Block.
Muslims in the riot-affected area have complained that the police did not respond to distress calls. There are also people who complained that the police was not neutral. This, of course, is not a new complaint. Is the police as an institution biased against Muslims?
The behavioural pattern of police, with a lot of intrinsic communal bias, is a normal. I was on a fellowship working on police neutrality during Hindu-Muslim strife in India and I found police bias against minorities in almost all the major cases of communal violence across the country. Our leadership had rejected the premise of Partition (that Hindus and Muslims are two different nations) and created a secular nation-state. Much more was needed to make us build a real secular society. Especially, if we keep in mind the love-hate relationship between Hindus and Muslims during the more than thousand years of living together, we will agree that just by adopting a secular Constitution, a society can’t become secular. Public spaces like education, media, judiciary or electoral laws require much more. During my study, I found that in all major riots, the minorities had one common complaint, which was that the police, the most visible arm of the Indian state, had not done what it was supposed to do. And in many cases, it has done something that is barred by the Constitution. The police behaviour has led to huge alienation of minorities.
How important is for the police force to reflect the communal composition in the society? Can it help in the better enforcement of law and order, prevent police from taking sides? Would you advocate reservation for Muslims in the force?
I feel a composite police force will help members of the force understand each other (religious communities) better. There is a system of reservation for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, but not for Muslims. Something needs to be done to increase the representation of Muslims in the police. It will certainly help improving the force’s behaviour during communal violence.
In the Delhi riots, many have alleged that a speech by BJP leader Kapil Mishra triggered the violence. Two days after his infamous speech, riots broke out. It was almost spontaneous. But are riots spontaneous? Or is it that people plan and prepare and wait for a spark?
It could be both. There is a valid argument that for the government or forces of Hindutva, communal violence in the national capital when President Trump was here would have the worst nightmare and last priority. But it is also a truth that the pyramid of communal tension was completed during the last few months and the BJP was mostly responsible for it. Things happened in a sequence: triple talaq, Article 370, the Citizenship Amendment Act, the Ayodhya verdict, the declaration that the National Register for Citizens will be replicated outside Assam, and finally the communalisation of Shaheen Bagh during Delhi elections. All these led to heightening of communal tension. You can’t always boil water at a controlled temperature. So it overflowed at a time when the government least wanted.
Impunity is an issue that crops up whenever we discuss riots. In the context of the Delhi High Court verdict on Hashimpura massacre, you had written that lower level officials take law into their hand only when they are assured of impunity. How does this nexus of political leaders and police officials work out on the ground?
An inbuilt institutionalised system of reward and punishment, which is missing at present, needs to be strengthened. We hardly know of any police officer being punished for the failures of magnitude such as 1984 (Delhi) or 2002 (Gujarat) or the demolition of Babri mosque (1992). You asked about Hashimpura, where the senior-most officer prosecuted was a sub-inspector. Can you believe that a decision to kill 42 Muslims in custody could have been taken by an officer of that seniority? Senior officers behind this killing went scot-free.
A lot of people in the riot-affected areas had said outsiders were responsible for the violence. Is this always the case?
There can’t be a rule of thumb. There are cases where neighbours helped each other, but I know many cases where it’s the other way round.
Is there a pattern one can identify in India’s history of riots?
During my study, I found communal tension increasing in the shape of pyramid. Covert and overt actions, rumours, prejudices and fears help this pyramid reach a point where it is primed to explode. All you need then is a small fire. The present riots in Delhi are the best example of this pattern. I would have been surprised if it didn’t happen. These riots hasten the process of communalisation of a society, whereby Hindu and Muslim identities overtake all other identities.
What role does the police have after the riots, particularly in healing wounds?
Police, along with other institutions should try to heal the wounds. Many victims may be angry with them. Recently, a soothing picture appeared in the Press where policemen are offering roses to students at examination centres. They can play a bigger role by arranging relief for the victims or tracing the lost ones and connecting them with their families. And last, but not the least, they have to show neutrality in their behaviour.
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