March issue 2002
Enemy in Uniform
Vibhuti Narain Rai, a respected police officer, defies the trend of the largely Hindu police force targeting non-Hindus during communal riots in India. He has written and lectured extensively on the communal dimension of handling riots and police sensitisation to religious differences.
Rai, a scholar and author of books on religious bias among Indian policemen, says the phenomenon precedes independence and is not peculiar to any one community.
Rai’s 1998 book, Communal Conflicts: Perception of Police Neutrality During Hindu-Muslim Riots in India is a pioneering attempt to document the role of the police in abetting communal violence. Rai’s contention is that Muslims in India consider the police as their enemy; the Hindus see them as friends and protectors. It is basically the overall behaviour of the police in situations of communal strife which pushes members of a minority community, like the Muslims, into viewing it as an enemy.
Such a perception of the police, he says, is deeply rooted in the actual behaviour of the police force in general. The police routinely blame Muslims for rioting, and see them in terms of extremely negative stereotypes as wild fanatics and untrustworthy anti-nationals. This, he says, is actually quite contrary to the facts, for in almost all the cases he has studied, Muslims are not the first to start the riots. Moreover, they suffer a disproportionately larger loss of life and property in communal rioting than their Hindu brethren. They, rather than the Hindus, also become the targets of the police, ostensibly sent to restore peace. The number of Muslims killed in police firing over the years is considerable, and these include cases of perfectly innocent women and children as well. “In all the riots discussed in this study,” he writes, the police “did not act as a neutral law enforcement agency but more as a ‘Hindu’ force.
“I was stunned to discover that in most major communal riots in the country, Muslims were the worst sufferers, both in terms of loss of life and property. Often, the percentage of Muslim casualties was more than 60 per cent of the total. Their losses in terms of property were in similar proportion.”
Nevertheless, 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 harsher manner in their localities. This observation holds good for even those riots where almost all killed were Muslims, e.g., Ahmedabad (1969), Bhiwandi (1970) or Bhagalpur (1989).
Similarly, Muslims are often at the receiving end during house searches. The general pattern during a communal riot is that a Muslim mohalla is cordoned off with the help of the army or para-military forces after which the houses are searched indiscriminately. Such acts only result in injuring the pride of the entire community. What is more disturbing is the mind-frame of the civil and police administration. While the curfew is enforced with all strictness in the Muslim localities, it is virtually confined to the main roads in Hindu areas, with normal activity in the lanes and by-lanes remaining unaffected. In interviews with the riot victims of Ahmedabad, Meerut, Bombay and Allahabad, this single factor came across as the most important in explaining Muslim anger towards the police, says Rai.
Further, the experience of curfew was different for the poor residents of slum areas belonging to the two communities. Most houses lack basic facilities such as drinking water and lavatories. The Muslims invariably complained that while they were not permitted to move out of their houses to fetch water from public taps, which happen to be the main source of water supply in such areas, the Hindus were rarely subjected to such restrictions.
Recent decades have witnessed the escalation of incidents of inter-communal violence all over India, and regions where relations between different religious groups were hitherto relatively peaceful are now increasingly being threatened by the growing strength of communal and fascist groups. A salient feature of communal violence in India today is the increasing role of the police, meant to be the upholders of peace and the law, in organising, abetting and even perpetrating indiscriminate violence against minority and marginalised groups. The killing of several dozen innocent Muslim youths by the police in Hashimpura, Meerut, and the involvement of the police in the massacre of several hundred Muslims in Bhagalpur in 1989 are the two most gruesome of the many instances of the active role of the police in the escalating persecution of minorities in India. Besides the Muslims, the involvement of the police in the suppression of other marginalised groups such as the Dalits is only too well-known to need any reiteration here.
Rai sees the further exacerbation of communal violence in the post-1947 era as related to India’s lop-sided process of capitalist development and the consequent strengthening of the influence of communalist groups. In particular, Hindu fascism is seen as playing the most critical role in this regard, with the rise of the Hindutva lobby reflecting, at root, the interests of the ruling class and castes in the face of the growing struggle of marginalised groups against oppression.
Rai’s disturbing findings need to be taken with the utmost seriousness, but he himself confesses that even senior police officers are reluctant to take any remedial action. He contends that it is the top police officials’ ‘mental barrier’ and ‘rank communal prejudice’ against Muslims that prevented him from gaining access to many documents that would have helped in his study. Perhaps another indication of this attitude is the fact that the institution that had sponsored this study, the National Police Academy, itself refused to publish his findings.