Police And Communal Riots

By Vibhuti Narain Rai & Yoginder Sikand

26 November, 2004

Vibhuti Narain Rai is a senior Indian Police Service officer. He is the editor of a Hindi literary magazine, 'Vartaman Sahitya'. He is a novelist, and his most well-known book is 'Shahr Mai Curfew' (Hindi), which has been translated and published in English as 'Curfew in the City'. He is also the author of 'Combating Communal Conflicts--Perception of Police Neutrality During Hindu-Muslim Riots in India'. In this interview with Yoginder Sikand he talks about the role of the Indian police in handling communal riots.


Q: How did you decide to write a book on the subject of the police in handling communal riots?

A: My book is the outcome of a one-year fellowship that I received from the National Police Academy to study perception of police neutrality during incidents of Hindu-Muslim violence. Basically, the study set out to examine how Hindus and Muslims perceive the role of the police in different ways in such situations. In the course of my study I discovered, not surprisingly, that Hindu and Muslim perceptions of the police during communal disturbances are diametrically opposed. This is basically what I tried to show in my book.

Q: How do you account for these different perceptions of the police by Hindus and Muslims?

A: In the course of my study I found that in a normal situation an average Hindu does not necessarily see the police as friendly or helpful but during communal riots he looks upon the police as a helper and protector. On the other hand, Muslim riot victims do not generally feel that they would get any protection from the police, even when their lives and property are under threat. I think one basic reason for this is the police themselves. After all, an average policeman-and most policemen are Hindus-gets his value system from his own society or community. And that is why the average policeman often thinks of Muslims in very negative terms. Many policemen seem to believe the standard stereotypical images of Muslims being 'dirty', 'untrustworthy', 'violent' and 'pro-Pakistani'. And this is what leads to them thinking of Muslims as 'aggressors' who initiate riots. Now, of course this is not true to say that most riots are started by Muslims.

But still, when I point out to police officers that many more Muslims than Hindus lose their lives in the riots and so it is improbable that they could be said to have initiated them, they generally refuse to agree. They claim that Hindus are, by nature, 'pious' and 'non-violent', and 'law abiding', and would, therefore, never initiate violence themselves. This perception seems to be deeply rooted in their psyche. My argument is that if you analyse the history of various riots that have taken place in India since 1960 or so, you will find that there has probably been no single riot in which less than 90% of those killed have been Muslims, but this point is generally not accepted by the average policeman, although I am basing my claim on official records. I am not surprised that many police officers do not wish to recognise this fact. They , like an average Hindu , would disbelieve these figures .But these are official figures and no government on this earth would release false data which may show that minorities are not safe under its territory. After all, even Hitler did not openly admit the fact of the persecution of the Jewish minority in Germany, and, claimed, instead that the Jews were the cause of all the troubles in the country. In India, I must say, many of the so-called Hindu-Muslim riots are nothing of the sort-they are simply clashes between Muslims and the police.


Q: What do you feel about the sort of training that is given to the police? Are they taught to deal with incidents of communal violence in a neutral way?

A: Theoretically, such inputs are given to the policemen when they undertake their training course. However, the training period is only for nine months, and in this short period you cannot completely disabuse them of the communal stereotypes that they have imbibed from their family and society. The course is sufficiently long to train a person only to handle a weapon. In any case, in the course little attention is devoted to history, culture, religion and other social issues. There is also no regular training component after this initial period.. And then again there is this factor of the infiltration of the police by the RSS, but this is difficult to quantify. I think there must be periodic training sessions after the initial course, where policemen should be thoroughly briefed on a range of social issues, including respect for and knowledge of different religions.


Q: Are there any efforts being made to provide this sort of training input?

A: As far as I know, there have been few organised or institutional initiatives undertaken in this regard. Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer is doing some useful work in this direction. His institute arranges workshops with the Mumbai police to sensitise them on a range of issues related to communalism.


Q: What, then, do you think is the solution to the problem?

A: I think one major solution is to institute reservation for the different minorities in the police services, where they are now very poorly represented. And by minorities I do not mean just Muslims but other religious minorities and even minority ethnic groups in every state as well. Reservation for minorities should, ideally, be in accordance with their share in the total population. Now, some people, including police officers, will argue that reservations in the police service for minorities would divide the police on communal lines. They might argue that instead of reserving jobs for minorities in the police services we should encourage the minorities to apply for police jobs. But my reply to them is that ever since the independence of India the government has sent out dozens of circulars, orders and guidelines to recruitment boards asking for a fair recruitment of the minorities in the police service, but this has not worked because it has not been made mandatory but has! been left entirely to the discretion of the boards. At times one notices a bias in the boards against recruiting Muslims into the police. I've heard some police officers even arguing that if Muslims are recruited they will run off with their weapons to Pakistan or else use them to promote 'anti-national' activities. When I was serving in Kashmir in BSF I used to hear this argument very often. However, despite this I took the initiative of recruiting local Kashmiri Muslims into the Force, and although there were a few stray cases of desertions I think the decision was well worth taking.

But when I talk of representation for minorities in the police service I also want to stress that this should only be for the backward sections among them. Now, in the case of Muslim , the Muslim elites or Ashraf do not want to recognise the fact of caste differences in the Muslim community. They talk of Muslims as a monolith, which is not the case. I think reservations for the Muslims must be restricted to the backward sections or biraderis among them, the so-called Ajlaf Muslims. The Ashraf are, on the whole, capable of taking care of their own interests, while the Ajlaf are poverty-stricken and they also suffer the most during communal riots. I am opposed to the idea of reservations for Muslims as an entire community. If that is done then the Ashraf are bound to occupy all the positions as they are more educated and better-off than the other Muslims.


Q: Perhaps encouraging Muslims to join the police services would be a less controversial way of promoting Muslim representation in the services. What are your opinions on this?

A: No, I don't quite agree, because I think that many recruiting officers themselves have a bias against Muslims and would not be happy to see Muslims join the police. They will put up all sorts of flimsy excuses to see that this does not happen. They will claim that Muslims simply do not apply, and if they do apply they might dismiss their applications by claiming that they are not physically fit, which might be totally wrong. I think that, in fact, very little effort is needed to encourage Muslims to apply, and if one is serious about it one can get numerous such applications. After all, unemployment, even among the educated, is rampant among Muslims. And then there is this feeling that wearing a police uniform is a matter of prestige.


Q: How do you think that increasing representation of minorities in the police services through reservations will actually change things?

A: I think it will make a tremendous impact, and will help increase the confidence of the minorities in the police. It will also help undermine the communal stereotypes which, as I mentioned, are quite deeply ingrained among many policemen and police officers. If Muslim and Hindu policemen live and work together it is bound to lead to a change in mutual perceptions and promote a sense of understanding. In turn this will also lead to more responsible handling of riot situations by the police.


Q: What do you feel about the performance of Muslim police officers in handling riot situations?

A: Normally, Muslim police officers are as good or as bad, as competent or incompetent, as other officers. However, in situations of communal riots many Muslim officers do not have the courage to get out of the police stations for fear of being killed. Muslim officers might be reluctant to deal with Hindu mobs for fear of being accused of being 'anti-Hindu'. They might feel that they do not have the confidence of the police force, which is largely Hindu. Just to cite an instance, in the recent violence in Gujarat a Muslim police officer was mobbed by a group of Hindus and narrowly managed to escape with his life.


Q: How do you look at the phenomenon of communalism? How does it influence your writing?

A: I must confess that as a youth I was associated with the RSS and even attended the local shakha. Later, I came under the influence of Marxism, which is how I changed my way of looking at the world. I believe that all forms of communalism are dangerous. The communalism of the majority is more dangerous because it is capable of capturing state power. At the same time minority communalism must also be fought against, including by the minorities themselves, for whom it poses a grave danger while deceptively appearing to champion their interests.


Q: How has your book on the police and communalism been received by police and other government officials?

A: I must say that not many people in the police or in government actually read my book, but from those who did I got mixed responses. Some praised it, but many others condemned it. They claimed that I was creating dissensions among the police! They even alleged that findings and my conclusions were biased because they could not believe that some Hindus, too, can be aggressive, intolerant and violent. This, of course, itself suggests that prejudices about other communities are very deeply rooted in our society, including among government and police officials, who ought to know better.


Vibhuti Narain Rai can be contacted on [email protected]