Police modernisation has to move beyond tokenism
Like many adults with illusions of intellect, I take most of the comments made by my father rather flippantly. But when he talks of communalism, I listen to him seriously. Since he otherwise lacks religious fervour and has contempt for communal politics, when he talks on these issues, it means that he is really troubled by them. Two examples to illustrate what I mean: In 1980, while returning from Makrana in Rajasthan, my parents decided to take a detour to the Ajmer Dargah of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti. Even as my mother shepherded the kids inside the main shrine, my father was accosted by one of the care-takers who insisted that he wear a cap before entering the shrine.My father refused on the grounds that Quran does not insist on men covering their heads. A huge argument ensued and finally we left without visiting the shrine. That was his only attempt to visit the dargah.
The second incident occurred in the spring of 2002, when the war in Afghanistan was underway. On Eid day, all male members of my family go to the mosque inside Taj Mahal to offer ritualistic prayers. As is wont with the Imams, after the prayer, the guy at the pulpit started sermonising over the microphone. With Afghanistan war raging, he started criticising the US and exhorting the Muslims to wage Jihad against the Americans. In the early years of the war, this behaviour among the imams (led by Imam Bukhari of Delhi’s Jama Masjid) was spreading like contagion.
Thankfully, not many people stay back to listen to these sermons. Even as the rest of the family members prepared to leave, my father weaved his way through the crowd to reach the pulpit. Taking the microphone from the imam, in the presence of a few thousand worshippers (some of whom could have been really devout or radical), my father lambasted the imam for his illiteracy and for instigating the people. Now to come to the point. On June 3, four villagers in Forbesganj area (Araria district) of Bihar, protesting building of a wall (that would deny the villagers access to the main road) by a private starch-making company, were killed in police firing. The firing took place when the villagers tried to pull down the wall. The victims included a pregnant woman and a child. Two months later, on September 14, following a communal strife in the Bharatpur district, Rajasthan police swung into action which resulted in the death of 10 people, most of whom were killed inside the mosque. The media reported the incident as communal violence, when actually the victims were not killed by members of another community. In an old honourable tradition, most mainline newspapers do not mention the communities of the people involved in a communal situation on the assumption that by not doing so they will help calm communal passions.
This often leads to misleading reporting, as happened in the case of Bharatpur, which like the Forbesganj incident was a case of police excess, whatever the trigger may have been. The victims in both incidents were only Muslims. While in Rajasthan, the state government immediately acted against the erring policemen, the Bihar government continued to drag its feet for several weeks, apparently at the behest of the BJP which is part of the coalition government. Finally, a petition was filed in the Supreme Court in October, which it admitted, and issued a notice to the Bihar government. Having recounted these incidents to me, my father said that while it is well established in this country that police commit a lot of excesses, what is shocking is that despite the very public trial of the Gujarat riot cases, the police continues to behave in a blatantly communal fashion. “Do you think they would have opened fire, if the agitators in both cases were not Muslim,” he said. I found this statement coming from my father hugely provocative, but he challenged me to show him one incident anywhere in the country where people of the majority community have been killed by the police, as opposed to the minority.
“I am not talking of the Muslims alone,” he asserted. According to him, the reason for this is disproportionate representation of the majority community in the police forces. “If a police squad sent to quell a communal situation have members from communities involved, they would be more restraint in their response,” he said. To say that the police are the products of the society and therefore susceptible to prejudices is merely an excuse. Does training not play any role in their mental make-up? Police modernisation has to factor in better representation of different communities. As far back as 1983, in a report on Recent Communal Riots and Role of the Police, the National Police Commission wrote: ‘there is a tendency among the police officers to shun responsibility for dealing with communal situations. They either avoid going to the spot or when they happened to be present there, they try not to resort to the use of force… or better still slip away from the scene leaving the force leaderless.’ Or use excessive force as the above incidents show. The police are our first responders. If they remain flawed, can the nation really be secure?