Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Muslims and Police in India - An interview of Vibhuti Narain Rai taken by Yogendra Sikand and published in online and print media.

Vibhuti Narain Rai is a senior Indian Police Service officer and editor of 'Vartaman Sahitya', a Hindi literary magazine. He is also a novelist. 'Shahar Mein Curfew' (Hindi) is his most well-known book which has been translated and published in English ('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 perceptions 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. Not surprisingly, I discovered over the course of my study 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 generally do not 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. That is why the average policeman often think of Muslims in very negative terms; they seem to believe the standard stereotypical images of Muslims as being 'dirty', 'untrustworthy', 'violent' and 'pro-Pakistani'. From this, it leads them to think 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', 'non-violent' and 'law-abiding'. Therefore, they never initiate violence themselves. This perception seems to be deeply rooted in their psyche. My argument is that if you analyze the history of various riots that have taken place in India since the 1960s or so, you will find that there has probably been no single riot in which less than 90% of those killed have been Muslims. However, this point is generally not accepted by the average policeman, even though I am basing my claim on official records. I am not surprised that many police officers do not wish to recognize this fact. They, like an average Hindu, would disbelieve these figures. These are official figures and no government on earth would release false data.
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 nine months long 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 only sufficiently long enough to train a person to handle a weapon. In any case, the course devotes little attention to history, culture, religion and other social issues. There is also no regular training component after this initial period. There is also the factor of infiltration by the RSS in the police, 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

A: As far as I know, there have been few organized 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 sensitize 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 different minorities in the police services, where they are currently 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. 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. This has not worked though because it has not been made mandatory. 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 Muslims, the Muslim elites or 'Ashraf' do not want to recognize the fact that caste differences exists 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 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 not be the case. I think that, in fact, very little effort is needed to encourage Muslims to apply. If one is serious about it, one can get numerous such applications. After all, unemployment, even among the educated, is rampant among Muslims. Additionally, 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. Not only will it increase the confidence of minorities in the police, it will also help undermine the communal stereotypes. As I mentioned, they 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 as '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- during 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, as it poses a grave danger by deceptively appearing to champion their interests.
Q: How has your book on the police and communalism been received by the 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 dissentions among the police! They even alleged that my findings and conclusions were biased because they could not believe that some Hindus too can be aggressive, intolerant and violent. This, 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.


Amitabh Thakur said...

This is in response to what Sri Vibhuti Narain Rai has said as regards the Indian police and the minority groups.
Sri Rai is an officer of rare caliber and his credentials as an officer producing results in riotous situations with utmost neutrality and steadfastness has been universally appreciated. Way back in 1980, when posted as the SP of Allahabad, he faced a riot where his tough stand and quick reaction saved much of the planned damages. He repeated this performance many times in his illustrious career. If not content with his individual performance, he decides to pen down the situations and conditions he found and faced as a serving officer. His “Shahar mein danga” is now a seminal book on the topic of communal riots. Extending his efforts, he did an extensive research at SVPNPA where he came up with his own deductions and conclusions which have become a valuable treatise for those who are often placed as Left-oriented, secular minded people in the ideological spectrum. He could be seen very much in action only a few years ago during the Kar Seva program when as the IG Zone of Lucknow, he himself took the command of the entire episode and made the entire process pass so peacefully.
Unlike many of the paper-tigers, wishful thinkers and drawing room debaters that a large number of us, including the undersigned are, Sri Rai is a man of action and acts exactly as he says or thinks. Retired officers are another ballgame. They seem to gain sudden moral courage and conviction and a voice to iterate it with all loudness the moment they know that they are not responsible for their words and don’t need to supplement them with action, just the way the Indian politicians, immediately out of power, realize how much corrupt, one-sided and biased the police is and how much relevant such safeguarding mechanism as the Judiciary and various Commissions are. But are we witness to such rare courage of a serving IPS officer going to a site of communal riot as a member of a Fact-finding team and come out loudly with many conclusions which are not exactly conducive to the government in power under which he has to serve day in and day out? This is exactly what Sri Rai did when he went to Mau in the year 2005 along with along with Prof Rooprekha Verma, known for her iconoclastic and anti-establishment credentials.
Thus, when Sri Rai makes any deduction, it is not through some hearsay evidence or studied material. It is through his own experience down the journey of life as a police officer, a writer and a thinking scholar.
But when he says- “Indian Police has failed to earn the confidence of minorities”, it seems to me that he is making a statement too much generalized in a much sweeping manner. Since the majority population of India are Hindus and because of historic reasons, of which we are all very well aware that led to higher educational rate among the Hindus and their higher acceptability of the British system of education at all levels, there is a much higher proportion of Hindus in the police force than the Muslims, the one notable section of minorities in India. A Hindu constable or a Sub-Inspector, despite all his police training and job-related tutoring, remains a Hindu somewhere in his heart. It does affect his/her functioning at times, particularly at crucial instances. But, this factor does have a limitation, firstly because policing is a work that can’t tolerate much shifting from the sense of neutrality that is required. Not many policemen go for this because while they are attached to their religion, they are much more attached to their service, a bit because they are proud of the police service and its tradition and also because they are human beings and don’t want to be dubbed as a failure in their required job. Thirdly they don’t want to lose their job just because of their religious affinity. Thus, these moral and pragmatic reasons keep the policemen within a certain limit.
This, in my opinion, is the general tendency of the Indian police and if they have failed to win the trust of the minority in India, they have failed to win the trust of the majority to more or less equal measure. The reasons for this loss of confidence of various sections of the society are matters that need detailed studies. But, religion seems to play only a minor and limited role in this aspect.
If that were not the case, the policemen would not have got beaten up, stone pelted, murdered, burned or complained against in completely Hindu localities, even at the drop of a hat.

Amitabh Thakur,
UP, India
# 94155-34526

evision said...