The heaviest blow: Muslims, riots and the Indian police

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on March 06, 2020

Covert order: The under-representation of Muslims in the police force is an “unwritten code”   -  ANI

Several books have long shown how Muslims, acutely under-represented in the Indian police forces, can hardly rely on the men in khaki for protection during sectarian strife

On February 25, Delhi-based independent journalist Cyril Sam shared a long Twitter thread of his eyewitness account from Maujpur, in the city’s north-east, one of several areas where Muslim families and businesses were attacked by right-wing Hindu mobs last week.

Sam saw one such aggressive mob of drunken men, armed with iron rods, looking to pick a fight on the streets. They were constantly shouting slogans, one of them being, “Yeh andar ki baat hai, police hamaare saath hai!” (We know the police is on our side).

Intriguingly, the same slogan was raised by members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, at a Mumbai event in January, in a reference to the mob attack at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.

This open claim by right-wing Hindu men, co-opting the cops as their B-team, only serves to reinforce the deep-seated suspicion that the police is rarely on the side of the minorities. Down the years, there have been several published works that examined this perception of bias among the law enforcers.

Lost livelihoods: A view of burnt vehicles at Gokulpuri in Delhi   -  SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA


The unwritten rule

The late MIT scholar and research librarian Omar Khalidi’s Khaki and the Ethnic Violence in India, published in 2003 by Three Essays Collective, begins with some eye-opening numbers for the demographic breakup of the country’s police and paramilitary forces.

The inflection point in this timeline is the Partition. Before 1947, Khalidi notes, “Muslims were represented in proportions larger than their percentage in the population. For example, in the major provinces of Punjab, Bombay, and the United Provinces, they constituted fifty per cent of the total force in the nineteenth century to about the 1920s.”

After Independence, a large number of Muslim police, paramilitary and army officers, particularly in Punjab, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, chose to go to Pakistan. Conversely, Hindu officers in the North-West Frontier Province and Sind “were allowed to migrate to India”.

Khalidi then points to the near-complete absence of Muslims in agencies controlled by the central government — the Intelligence Bureau (IB), Central Bureau of Intelligence (CBI), the Assam Rifles, and the Central Reserve Police Force.

He quotes the journalist Inder Malhotra, who minces no words in describing this unofficial ban of sorts: “As a matter of deliberate policy, the Government has been virtually excluding Muslims from what are called ‘sensitive and strategic services’, such as certain sections of the armed forces, some departments of the police, especially Intelligence, and the like. Since 1970, there seems to have been some change in this policy but not enough.”

There is a half-hearted counter by former CBI director RK Raghavan, who says there are “a handful of Muslims” in the IB. But the empirical evidence points to a much-deeper malaise, as the author shows us.

According to 2002 figures cited by the author, Muslims accounted for only 3.65 per cent of the IPS (Indian Police Service), against a national population share of 14 per cent.

Vijay Kiran, another former CBI director, is quoted in the same section: “It [the absence of Muslims] is sort of an unwritten code. Everybody knows about it and it is accepted as fact.”

Crucially, Khalidi points out how right-wing Hindu leaders — including, and especially, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (the precursor to the BJP) — have historically opposed initiatives to increase Muslim representation in the army, police and paramilitary forces.

“When, on the recommendation of the National Integration Council in 1969, the Home Minister, Y.B. Chavan, merely broached the idea of recruiting Muslims in the police forces, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh [...] opposed it as an ‘invitation to disaster’.”

The book cites statewise data to illustrate the under-representation of Muslims in the police force. In Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, Muslims represented only 4.5 and 2 per cent of the police force, respectively. These are two of the worst states in terms of Muslim representation in the police forces.

Andhra Pradesh was the best in this regard: Muslims made up 16.6 per cent of the police force, despite a population share of just 8 per cent (all data from the year 2002).

According to Khalidi, lack of access to quality education was one of the main factors behind this disparity.

The concept of neutrality

What does this mean in terms of police behaviour, especially during a time of communal violence?

Hashimpura 22 May (Penguin Random House India, 2016), by former IPS officer Vibhuti Narain Rai, is an account of a mass murder committed by officers of the Uttar Pradesh Provincial Armed Constabulary.

The victims, Muslim men living in Hashimpura, Meerut, were rounded up from their homes in the middle of the night and shot to death. The massacre came in the wake of widespread communal riots in Meerut.

At the time, Rai was the superintendent of police, Ghaziabad District, and the experience changed him. He would go on to research the role of the police in various Indian riots/pogroms down the years.

In Hashimpura 22 May, he writes, “The communal sentiment is so deeply entrenched in the mind of the average Hindu that he will refuse to accept that Muslims are badly affected [...] The average Indian policeman is usually in the age group of eighteen to twenty-five years when he joins duty after having been raised in such an atmosphere. By his joining age, his perceptions about Hindu-Muslim relations have largely been firmed up and, like many others he would have also come up with the same belief that the Muslims are usually the culprits in communal riots.”

Rai also states that during meetings between senior officers at police control rooms, magistrates and police officers refer to Hindus as ‘us’ and Muslims as ‘them’.

Explaining the wide-reaching implications of a divisive mindset in the police force, American sociologist Richard Lambert writes in his bookRacial Violence in the United States (1969) that law enforcers act “not as neutral arbiters of social disputes operating within a system of legal redress for grievances, but rather as armed representatives of the communities from which they were originally recruited”.

Years after the Hashimpura massacre, Rai conducted an opinion poll among both Muslims and Hindus in Uttar Pradesh. The findings were stark.

Asked whether they were likely to seek police help during a communal riot, the majority of Hindus said yes. But most Muslims said they would not seek police help — they believed it would make matters worse.

Another writer who throws light on this issue is the Americanpolitical scientist Paul R Brass, who has over a dozen books on Indian politics to his credit. These include The Production of Hindu-Muslim Violence in Contemporary India (2005) and Forms of Collective Violence: Riots, Pogroms, and Genocide in Modern India (2006).

The latter, in particular, focuses on the role of the police and the State in communal riots. Brass’s scholarship is based on 20th century instances of communal violence (both riots and pogroms) across India.

Notable examples include the Kanpur Riots of 1931-32, the Varanasi riots of 1939, Direct Action Day, Calcutta (1946), the Ranchi riots of 1967, the Worli riots of 1974 and so on.

According to Brass, the sequence of events in most ‘riots’, especially in north India, are “practically rehearsed”, such is the degree of complicity.

He writes in Forms of Collective Violence, “The two most important and interrelated aspects of riot production and control are political will and police administration. The kinds of riots discussed here [...] are produced by political organization, as just said, but their success or failure — measured by the number of days they can be sustained and the losses inflicted on the side attacked — depends on the exercise of political will to terminate the riots and the effectiveness of the police in doing so. Furthermore, everywhere in India where such political coordination and direction of the police has been provided [...], it has been demonstrated that riots can usually be prevented and that where they cannot be prevented, they can be terminated quickly with minimal damage and loss of life.”

Brass’s work also provides valuable insights on pre- and post-riot scenarios, most notably the dynamics of curfews in India.

The targeted harassment of Muslim men during curfews, the destruction of Muslim-owned businesses, how the curfew period ends up becoming a conduit for an exodus of Muslim communities — these are just some of the ways in which a curfew ends up becoming a post-riot (or post-pogrom, in many cases) limbo of sorts, a state-sanctioned window of time where further offences are committed against minorities.

Earlier this week, even as Delhi was convulsed by violence, a 23-year-old Muslim man, Faizan, died of injuries at Delhi’s GTB Hospital. Faizan was among a group of young men seen, in a now-infamous viral video, lying on the ground, severely injured and bleeding, even as a group of policemen hit them with lathis, taunted them and ordered them to sing the national anthem.

What shocked millions in India and globally was not just the cruelty of the act, but the very brazenness of the supposed law-keepers who were recording it themselves.

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Published on March 06, 2020
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