‘No riot can last for more than 24 hours unless the state wants it to continue’
February 11, 1995
He is an IPS officer whom the saffron brigade loves 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 PRC men. Vibhuti N. Rai is his name. He has 20 years of police service behind him. Now a DIG, Border Security Force [BSF}, he was posted at Srinagar before he took 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 Teesta Setalvad of Communalism Combat is rare for a police officer still in service. We reproduce here his interview in full.
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 stratas 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 it is clear that during communal riots, Hindus always visualize 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 communities to view the police otherwise. I was shocked to find a near universal minority response that the police are enemies.
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 it 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 organs 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 we can 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
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 leveled 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.
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.
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.
There is often a tendency in the force to seek an alibi for their conduct in the role of politicians. For instance, the excuse that "we were not given the necessary orders" is often touted. What are your comments on this?
There is no denying that in a system of parliamentary democracy like ours, politicians play a decisive and in many cases a final role. But I have never in my whole career come across a situation where an officer who has acted conscientiously and stopped a riot, IS punished for it through political action.
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 not so easy for even the chief minister of a state ruled by a "Hindutva" party to openly behave like a Hindu communal fanatic and give orders according to his leanings.
Could you elaborate on this?
Yes. We now have historical evidence of this kind of inaction and complicity. In 1990, when Mr. Mulayam Singh Yadav's government was in power, 300 men were stationed all around and protected the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. Though around a hundred frenzied persons climbed the domes they could not damage it.
Two years later, on December 6, 1992, we had a situation where the entire force of the UP police CRPF, ITBP (Indo- Tibetan Border Police) totaling 20,000 plus were "guarding the structure. 'The video cassette recording by the Intelligence Bureau clearly documents that not more than 3-4,000 "kar sevaks" were within close proximity of the mosque. In such a scenario could no effective action have been taken?
The reason why no action was taken lies elsewhere. The same cassette shows policemen rejoicing with their hands held high in victory when the Babri Masjid was destroyed. The district magistrate and other officials were dancing with delight. That is why the "kar sevaks" could not be stopped. There was no desire to do so.
So, if you were in control and were given an order telling you not to fire at the kar sevaks, for example, are you saying that you were not bound to follow this political diktat?
Yes, I am saying that. No government can give illegal orders. The Indian Penal Code, the Criminal Procedure Code, the Indian Constitution, they are supreme. And no government can give orders contravening these statutes.
As a senior police officer with considerable experience, especially in communal hotspots in UP, could you cite instances of what you consider open communal bias?
There are constant refrains from sections of officialdom that the PAC (Provincial Armed Constabulary) in UP is not communal. My personal evidence is to the contrary. I am constrained to say that their behaviour is like that of an RSS activist. The only difference is that the PAC jawans sport full khaki pants while the RSS cadre wears khaki shorts.
For me, one of the most glaring instances was the conduct of the PAC in Meerut. I was serving as SP in Ghaziabad (neighbouring district) when the PAC picked up at least 40 Muslims from Hashimpura in Meerut and shot them dead in 1987.
During the communal riots there was an official "search" of the mohalla by the army, while both the police and PAC were present. During those 'searches," the PAC arbitrarily picked up Muslims from the area, packed them into a truck and killed them en route to Ghaziabad.
As SP, Ghaziabad reached the spot within a few hours. It took me more than three hours of patrolling among a field of corpses - one of the most gruesome jobs of my whole career- to locate the stray survivor of that massacre.
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 not so easy for even the chief minister of a state ruled by a “Hindutva” party to openly behave like a Hindu communal fanatic. It is often our own inbuilt communal bias, that makes us behave in a communally biased fashion.
My men and I shouted ourselves hoarse, trying to convince any survivor among the victims that we were there to save them. But how could we expect them to believe us since we donned the same hateful uniform? Finally, after several hours, we could reach
Babudeen, one of the few survivors of that PAC assault. It was due to our relentless efforts that the F.I.R. against the PAC officials was registered in his name. He had to have top notch security for many days.
The case was then handed over to the CID, UP. Eight years later, I was recently told that the (the CID) have finally fired a chargesheet against officers of the PAC! The chargesheet reached the court only a few months back. The case is now languishing with the government still to decide whether or not-to give sanction to prosecute.
It may be argued that you are over-generalising from a few cops, however shocking?
This is only one of the examples. If we try to ignore these, call them exceptions and explain it away saying that their (PAC) normal conduct is secular, it would amount to brushing the dust under the carpet. We will have to accept that something is seriously wrong with the PAC.
In almost every riot in UP over the past 20 years the PAC has been indicted. Personally, I feel that such repeated allegations call for drastic steps to improve the PAC.
Another ghastly case is the conduct of the Bihar police in the 1989 riots in Bhagalpur, especially in the villages of Loghain and Chanderi where 100 Muslims were slaughtered in cold blood. In Loghain particularly, the conduct of the police and the administration was truly shocking because the bodies of those slaughtered were recovered only one-and-a-half-months later, buried in a field over which cauliflower was being grown.
The reason was that the officials of the district police and administration, located barely 20 kilometers from the site, just kept on denying the incidents despite repeated allegations especially in the media.
You can imagine the killing of over 100 persons in cold blood within 20 kilometers of officialdom and both the police and administration trying to hide it. That was the height of callousness. There were serious allegations against the Bihar police for their gross conduct. On a recent visit to Bhagalpur, I was also told that only one PSI has even been chargesheeted.
I strongly feel that action should have been taken against the senior police officer on duty also. Punishing an ASI or a head constable is not enough The SP or the DSP, the commissioner or DIG, the DM, punishing someone at the top is a must.
Why? To send a strong message down to the lower levels of the police force and the administration?
Exactly, that way a clear message is sent down. If you punish the SP, if you tell the DM and the SP that if there are riots you will be accountable, there will be no riots. I strongly believe that if a riot break out and is not controlled within 24 hours, the DM and the SP should both be placed under immediate suspension.
What you are implying then is that any communal riot anywhere in India can be effectively controlled by the administration and the police within 24 hours if they desire to do so. If they do not, they should be held directly responsible for the failure?
Yes, absolutely. Recently, I attended a session at a training course for probationers. It was the unanimous opinion of all senior officials present that no communal riot in India can last for more than 24 hours without the consent of the state.
I have repeatedly made this proposition at every forum that I have addressed: In any city or state of the country, a riot can be controlled within 24 hours unless the state wants it otherwise. By the state I mean the forces which represent the state whether it is police or the district administration, or local governments.
Indian society is not a hostile or volatile society like West Asia, Europe or other parts of the world where sections of civil society are fighting the state with the use of weapons. Few situations like that prevail in India, the exceptions being terrorist-infested areas like Punjab, Kashmir and the northeast. In the rest of the country, if the police and administration are unable to control a riot within 24 hours, it only means that our actions, conduct and behaviour need introspection.
It is my strong personal view that it is the deep-rooted communal bias in the police and the administration that prevents us from controlling communal flare-ups within 24 hours. Statistics also bear this out.
Muslims have been the worst sufferers, the victims of every riot since Independence. Some 20- 25 per cent of those affected might be Hindus but over 76 per cent are Muslims. Similarly, it is Muslims who constitute the large majority of victims of police bullets in each riot. Despite this, statistics also show that more Muslims are arrested before, during and after a riot than Hindus. How can this happen, unfailingly, each time, unless there is deep-seated communal bias?
What kind of action do you think is needed to put the house in order as you put it?
The action will have to be manifold. For example, I would recommend that, first and foremost, minorities must be given proper representation in the police force. We must have reservations for this. This kind of affirmative action has been adopted in countries like the USA and the UK for blacks and other racial and ethnic groups, and they have found it useful. In Indian society, which is a plural society composed of so many ethnic, linguistic and religious groups, I think that fair representation of all these groups is a must. It is absolutely necessary.
Many senior police officials argue that reservation is not the answer. Why do you feel such a step is justified?
I do not find any force or justification in these arguments. I find that those who put forward these arguments are basically trying to hide their own communal bias under the guise of maintaining discipline or morale of the force. They argue that in fact having reservations might encourage fights or dissensions within the force, that it may lead to a situation where the lower rank policemen might refuse to obey the commands of an officer from another community etc.
I find these arguments utterly baseless. In fact, I feel that if there is a representation within the police force of members from each segment of society, it will help them to understand "the other point of view." If there is representation of Muslims, Sikhs and Christians among policemen posted at the district level, I am sure there will be a marked change in the overall behavioural pattern. I feel certain of this.
What have we achieved by not having reservation? Despite recommendation after recommendation made annually by the National Police Commission, why are we reluctant to implement this basic safeguard?
May I give you a tragic example of what the lack of reservation can do? Within days of the 1980 communal carnage at Muradabad, the then UP chief minister announced the creation of five battalions of a special unit, the Vishesh Sewa Dal, “especially for the protection of minorities.” Seven years later, it was the 41st PAC battalion, consisting of these same five battalions of the Vishesh Sewa Dal, ostensibly constituted for the protection of minorities that was responsible for the atrocities at Hashimpura. Can there be a clearer example of what lack of reservations can do?
Could you explain how a more representative force will make a difference at a practical level?
Our police functions on the basis of minimum strength. For example, the PAC of Uttar Pradesh will not be split in less than a section and the BSF will not be split in less than one platoon. A section means 11-12 persons. So, imagine if these 11-12 persons are stationed at one particular place, and out of this number there are 2-3 belonging to the minority community. They sleep together in one barrack, relax together, dine together. Through all this, a sort of camaraderie, a sort of brotherhood, develops that affects their behaviour in a communally tense situation also.
You say that a quality leadership within the police force can make all the difference in controlling a communally tense situation. What is needed to ensure this quality leadership?
Forces are run by their leaders. As Napoleon has so rightly said, "There are no bad soldiers, only bad generals." So, leadership not only makes a substantial difference, it is the most vital, the most decisive factor in the functioning of a force whether we are talking of the police, the paramilitary or the army.
If the leader becomes communal, his actions are tainted with bias, it is certainly going to reflect in the behaviour of the force also. Certain interventions are needed. Among the remedies, I would rate training as the most important. New training inputs will have to be evolved.
At the end of the police training we have to be able to create a conviction in the probationers that once they don khaki, they seize to be Hindu or Muslim. Their faith remains their individual faith but once they sport their uniform they are simply police officers with one solitary duty: to maintain law and order.
You were serving in UP at the height of the Ramjanmabhoomi mobilisation. Can you tell us bristly how the communal virus came to infect the various segments and institutions of society?
Those were the Worst years. Communalisation had flowed down from the upper classes and castes to even lower caste Hindus. Those were the worst days. I had never seen anything like it. Every segment of society was deeply affected by the virus: the media, the police, lawyers, the magistracy, the bureaucracy.
Lawyers of the Allahabad High Court had led a procession screaming pro-Godse and anti-Gandhi slogans during that time. Professors and lecturers of the Allahabad University had issued letters and joint statements in favour of the demolition and the construction of the Ram temple.
What was the role of the media during this period?
The role of the media was the worst of all. Newspapers like Aaj, Jaagran, Amar Ujala have been severely censored by the Press Council for their role. For example, reports on the news of the death toll of kar sevaks in 1990 revealed the worst bias in the media. Hardly 25-odd persons had been killed. But thanks to the local press, the figure reached 25-30,000! Some papers began by exaggerating the figures - just another name for lying - to 500, then 1,000, 2.000. Within a few days these figures had- reached 25-30.000. You just could not believe what was happening. The aim of these publications was clear – to whip up anger and frenzy.
There is the other example from Aligarh. Local newspapers around the same time published a complete lie stating that in the hospital attached to Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), all Hindu patients had been killed. The "news" appeared one morning. Immediately riots started in and around Aligarh, spreading to neighbouring districts and villages. Imagine the effect ... violence breaking out on the basis of a totally false report, maliciously printed.
Within a few hours, a respected couple from Aligarh, G. P. Singh and his wife, Mamta Singh (writers in Hindi) went to the hospital and found each and every patient safe. Patients even told them that after this rumour had been systematically spread, Muslim doctors and medical college students guarded them the whole night. They were actually worried that people may take inspiration from the rumour.
And what happened to the newspaper? It escaped unscathed, except for a reprimand from the Press Council. And what would a reprimand do to a publication like this? It made no difference.
What was the conduct of the UP police during this period?
Policemen too were reading the same papers. Almost the entire police force in UP began believing that 25-30,000 had been killed at Ayodhya when they had gone for kar seva.
The fascist way of preparing ground and gaining support from the majority community works like this: it results in ordinary people starting to believe that they are victims and under threat. Through insidiously planted propaganda it secures the participation of ordinary persons in violence against the other, in the belief that they are actually defending themselves. The media, especially in that period, served the fascist cause admirably by printing blatant lies.
You said that part of your research work was to explore how the RSS functions before, in and during a riot situation. What are your findings in' this regard?
The most recent example of the RSS' manipulation of the mass psyche was evident in Hubli (Karnataka) in the flag-hoisting controversy. I was there by January 19, several days before Republic Day, as part of my research. It gave me firsthand knowledge, yet again, of the manner in which lies are assiduously propagated, and a myth systematically sown deep into the mass psyche. It bore close similarity to the myth and lies that were manufactured, for the Ramjanmabhoomi mobilisation.
Until about 1984-85, we always read or heard the words Babri Masjid used to describe the monument around which Hindutva forces had launched their mobilisation. This was the case with the private as much as the official, government-controlled television and radio media.
Then, gradually, the terms of reference changed: it first began to be referred to as the Babri Masjid-Ramjanmabhoomi dispute then to Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute; finally, by the time we reached 1990, most of the media -including the government controlled television and radio - had begun to refer to it as vivadit dhancha (disputed structure).
Similarly, in Hubli, the Idgah maidan had been given in 1922 on a 999 year-long lease to the Anjuman-e-Islam. Since then the location has been referred to as Idgah maidan. Even all the cases that have been filed contesting the claims of ownership, including the one by the RGSS (Rashtriya Gaurav Samman Samiti) refer to the location as Idgah maidan.
But now, suddenly, they have found a different name. There is a local historical figure, a symbol of resistance to British imperialism, Rani Chinamma. A statue of this historical figure, a woman locally respected for her struggle, has suddenly been installed within 100 yards at the structure at the crossroads. She is a powerful local symbol who has been sought to be appropriated by the local forces of Hindutva.
Now, this park which has for 72 years been called ldgah maidan, suddenly been re-named Rani Chinamma maidan! The local press has followed suit and begun to refer to it as ldgah maidan-Rani Chinamma maidan. I recently told a friend in Hubli that very soon it will be renamed Rani Chinamma-ldgah maidan and, finally, a disputed maidan.
This is how the RSS creates a mythical dispute, works on the minds of a vast majority of Hindus who then begin believing falsified accounts and accept them to be the truth.
(Archived from Communalism Combat, February 1995 issue. This interview appeared as the Cover Story and was reproduced in over 32 Indian publications)