20, Feb 2013
By Teesta Setalvad
Images of the Delhi police lobbing teargas shells and water canons at protesters at India gate agitating against the gang rape of a young girl on a Sunday, December 22 2012 are embedded deep in the nation’s psyche largely the courtesy of our omnipresent twenty four seven news networks, sharpened further by the ever-prescient discussions on the 9 p.m. Newshour. Police evacuated the agitated demonstrators as they marched to Raisina Hill and Sonia Gandhi’s residence in the best way they know how, and the nation bemoaned at the refusal of our political class to blink.
Not 13 days later, also on a Sunday, about a thousand kilometres away, in faraway north Maharashtra, the town of Dhule saw a distinctly more brutal police action, SLR bullets rapid firing to kill 6 young Muslims – many or most innocent of being part of any protest or demonstration, simply caught at the wrong place at the wrong time. They paid with this twist of faith, with their young lives. In a similarly brutally uncalled for police action, three months before, four Gujarat police officers shot at and killed three Dalits, including a 17 year old, using AK 47s on September 22-23 2012 at Thangadh in Surendranagar district, not far from Ahmedabad.
Both tragedies at Thangadh and Dhule, though they cost precious lives were reduced to a media sideshow though print editions of English language national dailies did temporally highlight the incidents and issues. Despite the availability of sensationally thrilling clips from Dhule that should have pleased and fed the avaricious eye of the television camera, these clips lay buried in afternoon bulletins or showed in midnight hour shifts, cleverly bypassing the noisy news hour.
Contents of the Dhule video clips bear description. One shows a constable taking a self-loading rifle from his senior officer and aiming to shoot above the waist. He successfully aimed and fired at what witnesses say was a shooting spree in the market place and gullies of Macchipura a kilometre into the Muslim area far away from any mob or group that had gathered. The three shots fired in quick succession got Imran Ali in his collarbone, eventually leading to his death. Of the 23 other critical patients, one had a bullet fired into his cheek, narrowly missing his eye, another rupturing a liver. Other video clips show a policeman ignoring the call of duty and walking past persons begging for protection. Yet another shows policemen in uniform looting from the Muslim establishments that were being destroyed and burnt by some rioters. Thangadh unfortunately could not record such sensation though four of the Gujarat policemen responsible for shooting dead three Dalits later absconded!!
The power of the new story and television image is legendary but the selective use of this power bears some searching questions. Is criminally deviant police behaviour spotlighted only when it happens in Delhi, possibly Mumbai, but slips past the camera lense if Dalits or Muslims are involved?
The single murder of a black youth Stephen Lawrence in the UK in 1993 and the publication of the 1999 Stephen Lawrence Inquiry report in 1999 led to the critical acknowledgement that hate crimes are committed even by men in uniform, that too caused by the baggage of pre-conception and prejudice. A template was then provided for the way that hate crime is recorded and investigated in the United Kingdom. At the heart of this paradigm shift was the acknowledgement that law enforcement and protection needed to have a specifically trained, professional mindset based on an understanding of the country’s diverse communities and realities. Finally this evolved into a best practices, Hate Manual that outlined what constituted such an abhorrent practice.
Since the late 1980s, when evidence of criminally deviant and prejudicial conduct by men in uniform surfaced from several bouts of targeted violence countrywide (Nellie 1983- the massacre of 3,000 Muslims indicted the Assam police; Delhi 1984 – the systematic killings of over 3,000 Sikhs; Hashimpura 1987–51 young Muslims shot dead by the Provincial Armed Constabulary of Uttar Pradesh; Bhagalpur 1989 — a massacre that left thousands dead and evidence buried below a hastily planted cauliflower field; Bombay 1992-1993 – over 1,200 Muslims and hundreds of Hindus killed as the Bombay police turned the other way; Kandhmals 2008 – nearly 100 Christians killed in Orissa; Gujarat 2002 – over 2,000 Muslims massacred un reprisal killings all over the state) Judicial Commissions have strongly indicted India’s police for harbouring a distinct anti-minority bias, even hatred, committing crimes through its manifestation and (and this is the icing on the cake) not being punished for it. Of the 31 policemen indicted by Justice BN Srikrishna Commission report into the Bombay violence, the police and government only dismissed one errant officer; several others were promoted. Over the past decade this bias has now widened its scope, seen in the arrest of innocent youth of the minority community in terrorism-related cases. Manifestation of this bias is born out by excessive one-sided action: why the police turn to fire at one section of the population when loth to injure another? Yet this deviant behaviour is not the stuff that quality media or political discussions are made off.
In 1995 I had interviewed a senior IPS officer, V.N.Rai who taken a year’s leave of absence from his job to complete a research study, “Perception of Police Neutrality during Communal Riots.” This interview was published in over 30 Indian publications. Among other things, Rai’s interviews with hundreds of riot victims from across the country (as part of his study) 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. This piece of work ought to have been the start of the kind of self reflection that the Stephen Lawrence murder by the British police led to. Instead Rai’s study was ignored by the Indian police establishment and he had to find a private publisher to publish it into book form. What it did do however was lead to the issue being flagged by senior and responsible policemen. Former chief of the Border Security Force (BSF) and a doyen among policemen KF Rustomjee was quick to join the debate and DIG Punjab, Padma Rosha to emphasise that unless and until the Indian police confronted the issue of communal (and caste) bias, they were sowing the seeds of bitter alienation. If Rai had conducted this study today, perceptions among the minorities would reflect alienation several degrees worse.
Rai’s interview to me in 1995 traversed several sensitive incidents and areas and I asked him specifically of the police abdication of duty and criminal dereliction on December 6, 1992 when the Babri Masjid was demolished as 3,000-4,000 men in uniform watched. His reply is a chilling recall of everyday Indian reality, “The videocassette 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.” Needless to add, neither the dancing policemen or the district magistrate were punished.
Arguing strongly for the principle of command responsibility being applied and senior officers being held responsible for the non-maintenance of the rule of law, Rai quoted Napolean who 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.”
Ironically nearly two and a half decades after this serious soul searching – after the cataclysmic events before and after the demolition of a 400 year old Mosque at Ayodhya, we are still only debating (and the establishment resisting) the chain of command responsibility being applied to men in uniform when it comes to sexual violence. Worse, there is a shrill resistance to enact legislative protection of our minorities through the enactment of a law that will penalise policemen who fail to perform their duty despite evidence of consistent communal bias.
Rai in 1987 was the man who filed the first information report of the crimes committed by the PAC at Hashimpura. Fifteen years later, in 2002, in Gujarat’s Bhavnagar district when his men refused to act to prevent a Hindu mob attacking a Maddrassa, SP Rahul Sharma charged ahead with his weapon, defusing the murderous men and saving the lives of 400 Muslim children. He is at the butt of a vindictive state government today facing charge sheets and worse.
Rai or Sharma are unlikely heroes for our political establishment or television channels. Their actions and analyses spotlight a raw nerve within us, a deep-rooted prejudice that India at 65 + unfortunately lives quite comfortably with.
This article appeared in People’s Democracy and The Hindu, February 2013.