For the first time, the police admits its inaction to save Muslims during riots, and legal action to arrest and detain them has alienated the largest minority community
By Neeraj Mahajan
It was probably the first-ever admission of police biases against Muslims. In a startlingly candid statement, a report by three DGPs (directors general of police)—Sanjeev Dayal of Maharashtra, Deoraj Nagar of Uttar Pradesh and K Ramanujam of Tamil Nadu—along with an Intelligence Bureau representative, admitted that there was a trust deficit between the Muslim community and the police.
The report, “Strategy for Making Police Forces More Sensitive towards Minority Sections”, said: “Poor representation of the minorities in the police forces has contributed to this distrust and suspicion. It has to be admitted that the conduct of some members of the police forces in various states during communal riots had only served to strengthen and heighten these suspicions and distrust in the minority communities.”
Presented at the 2013 DGs’ conference in New Delhi, the report called for urgent correction, as it impacted the internal security of the country. It awaits action from the central government.
This distrust of the police, despite Muslims forming 13.4 percent of India’s 1.21 billion population, is a sad commentary on the state of our police system. A report of a fact-finding team in one of the worst communal strifes in Muzaffarnagar in 2013 said: “There was a plan to end decades of coexistence and cleanse certain villages of the Muslim presence.… The police response has been too little and too late…. Mobile patrols and static pickets have been absent where they may have been most required…. And even if a number of complaints and FIRs have been registered, there seems to have been no attempt to arrest the perpetrators of the killing and violent expulsion of Muslims…. The outcome is a complete loss of faith in the agencies of the state, with the police now
castigated as an accessory of caste and communal violence.”
In the Mumbai riots of 1992–1993, the Justice BN Srikrishna Commission came down on the police, saying: “The response of police to appeals from desperate victims, particularly Muslims, was cynical and utterly indifferent. On occasions, the response was that they were unable to leave the appointed post; on others, the attitude was that one Muslim killed was one Muslim less…. The treatment given (to Muslims) was harsh and brutal and, on occasions, bordering on the inhuman….”
This scathing indictment of the police has had dangerous consequences. A common refrain among Muslims is that the police simply vanish during riots or fail to protect minorities. They arrive late and even when they do, often arrest the victims for inciting violence. A report by the Chennai-based Hindu Center for Politics and Public Policy (HCPPP) stated: “When the police remain passive in a communal riot, more people die.” It based its observation on the reports of three commissions of inquiry—anti-Sikh riots (1984), and Mumbai and post-Godhra Gujarat (2002) riots—where police inaction and passivity contributed to a worsening of the communal situation and led to a higher death count. Titled “Passive Police-Institutional Learning through Inquiry Commissions”, the report was handled by Vasundhara Sirnate, HCPPP’s chief coordinator of research. She laments: “I find that there is a striking similarity in police response in all three cases and it is apparent that lessons were not learnt.” She adds: “The police have biases and are politicized, and hence take sides and lose any sense of perceived impartiality which leads to a spiral of violence.”
To make matters worse, the loyalty of Muslims is suspect. This prejudice and the belief that they are sympathetic towards Pakistan, translates into mistrust and excessive use of force against them during communal riots. In India, some 40 major communal riots have taken place after 1990. Among the most shameful examples of paramilitary partisanship were during the Meerut-Maliana riots (1987), those in Mumbai following the demolition of the Babri Masjid (1992), and Gujarat (2002).
On May 20, 1987, after the killing of 53 people in week-long rioting in Meerut, curfew was imposed and Meerut City handed over to the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC), which was given powers to shoot at sight. This resulted in 117 extra-judicial killings of Muslims, despite a fairly high number of their brethren being in the PAC. They were reportedly ordered to surrender their weapons and remain absent from duty.
Similarly in Gujarat, on February 27, 2002, the Sabarmati Express was attacked and set on fire by a Muslim mob at the Godhra station. As retaliatory attacks on Muslims began, curfew was imposed in 27 cities. Thousands of troops were reportedly ready to move in from neighboring Rajasthan, but were not provided any transport. Security forces watched, as mobs tore through Muslim areas, with some even encouraging the rioters. The police commissioner of Ahmedabad had urgently asked for more troops for the state, but orders for their deployment were deliberately delayed by the state government. When the army did finally arrive in Gujarat, there was no one to guide them in unfamiliar cities there. This delay could have been avoided and several lives could have been saved.
Unlike the police, the army’s presence often restores order. In Muzaffarnagar, calm was restored by its presence and violence abated. Women and children trapped in their homes told a fact-finding team from the Center for Policy Analysis that they were rescued by the army from the burning villages.
Biases against Muslims are seen even in commissions of inquiries. The Liberhan Commi-ssion to investigate the Babri Masjid fiasco originally had to submit its report within three months, but after 48 extensions and an expenditure of `700 million, took 17 years to do so.
Commission or omission?
In contrast, the Srikrishna Commission formed to probe the Mumbai riots, took only five years. The Maharashtra government rej-ected its report on the plea that it was only a commission, not a court of law and as such, its findings were not binding on it. Till date, the recommendations of the commission have neither been accepted nor implemented. Many indicted policemen have been promoted by the government, while tainted politicians continue to hold high offices.
After the Godhra train carnage, the Gujarat government initially wanted a one-member commission headed by Justice KG Shah, a retired Gujarat High Court judge, supposedly close to then Chief Minister Narendra Modi, to look into the events. However, on May 21, 2002, retired Supreme Court (SC) judge, Justice GT Nanavati, was made chairman of the Nanavati-Shah Commission to look into these riots. Its fairness was suspect when, in a Tehelka tape, Arvind Pandya, Gujarat government’s counsel, said that Hindu leaders need not bother about the findings of the commission as Shah was “their man” and Nanavati could be bribed. Though the initial term of the commission appointed on March 6, 2002, was three months, even after examining 40,000 documents, 1,000 witnesses and 21 extensions, the final report has not seen the light of day.
The biggest blow to the commission’s credibility was that out of the 94 accused named by it in interim reports, 63 were acquitted by a special fast track court. Only 31 were found guilty; all of them Muslims. The whitewash job of the commission became evident when Justice Nanavati wanted to come up with an interim report stating: “There is absolutely no evidence to show that either the chief minister or any of the ministers in his council or police officers played any role in the Godhra incident.” Later, this was proved wrong.
Succor from courts
The biased attitude of the police is also evident when courts release innocent Muslims, who have been unfairly charged. In the 1993 Surat bomb blast case, where a woman was killed and several injured, 11 were arrested. A two-judge SC bench acquitted all of them. The SC also reversed a TADA court verdict which had sentenced them to 10-20 years in jail.
In 2000, three Muslims were charged with sedition for making and planting a bomb at Sahkarita Bhawan in Lucknow and spent several years behind bars. Almost a decade later, they were acquitted, as no evidence was found against them. The police had also accused them of being associated with the Students Islamic Movement of India and the Pakistan-based Hizbul Mujahideen.
In yet another landmark case in May 2014, the SC acquitted all six accused, including three who had been sentenced to death by the Gujarat High Court, in the Akshardham case. Justice came after 10 years of imprisonment.
Sadly, the bias against Muslims is seen even in prison statistics. A National Crimes Record Bureau (NCRB) report, “Prison Statics India-2012”, shows that 28.02 percent of detainees, 21 percent of undertrials and 17.8 percent of convicts in India are Muslims. More than half—53.5 percent—of convicted Mus-lims were lodged in Madhya Pradesh, Maha-rashtra, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. The percentages are higher than Muslims’ share of total population.
Jailed for what?
Many Muslims remain in jail without facing trial for a long time. For instance, 7,330 people from minority communities were found languishing in different correctional homes in Murshidabad; in neighboring Malda, 3,682 Muslims were in jail for over five years, awaiting trial. There are cases where they have been incarcerated for 10-14 years and finally acquitted. But even then, life is hard for them, as they don’t get jobs. And so, they continue to struggle through life.
In the Batla House encounter in Jamia Nagar in Delhi, the police had a weak case against those they suspected to be Indian Mujahideen terrorists. In it, two suspected terrorists, Atif Ameen and Mohammad Sajid, were killed, while two others, Shahzad Ahmad and Junaid tried to escape, but were later arrested and charged with killing inspector MC Sharma of Special Cell of the Delhi police on September 19, 2008. But the police version had many inconsistencies. Blunt injuries on the two dead indicated that they were probably caught alive but killed later. The bullets found in the Sharma’s body did not match those of the gun retrieved from Shahzad.
The biases start from the top echelons of the police force. In December 2007, Hydera-bad Joint Commissioner of Police (Adminis-tration) Harish Gupta wrote to the CBI, annexing the confessions of 25 accused in connection with the Mecca masjid blasts. These included 19 local Muslims and six Bangladeshi nationals. Gupta alleged they were followers of the Ahle Hadees sect and Lashkar-e-Taiba, and had been trained in Pakistani terror camps. However, when the CBI interrogated the suspects, it found the confessions bogus. Though some of the accused were radicals, they were not behind the blasts, CBI officials wrote in their report. As a result, in all the three cases registered by the Hyderabad Police, the accused were acquitted.
And in August 2008, when a panel comprising Justices SN Bhargava and Sardar Ali Khan examined cases of police excesses and torture in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan, it indicted the police. Their report said: “In most cases, the persons picked up are not shown to be arrested by the police until many days after their arrest in gross violations of the law. Their families are also not informed. In many cases, they have been tortured in police custody and made to ‘confess’ and sign blank papers.”
The panel came down heavily on courts too. “In most of these cases, the courts are routinely allowing police remand and not granting bail. They do not examine whether there is any evidence against the accused.” No wonder Colin Gonsalves, a well-known human rights lawyer, alleges: “The Indian police is a body of organized crime. You cannot re-train a force which is trained in criminal activities.”