Vibhuti Narain Rai is a senior Indian Police Service officer. He has authored book ‘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 perception 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.
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 do not generally 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. And that is why the average policeman often thinks of Muslims in very negative terms. Many policemen seem to believe the standard stereotypical images of Muslims being ‘dirty’, ‘untrustworthy’, ‘violent’ and ‘pro-Pakistani’.
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 for nine months, and in this short period you cannot completely disabuse them of the communal stereotypes that they have imbibed from their family and society.
Q: Are there any efforts being made to provide this sort of training input?
A: As far as I know, there have been few organised 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 sensitise 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 the different minorities in the police services, where they are now 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.
But when I talk of represent-ation for minorities in the police service I also want to stress that this should only be for the backward sections among them.
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 be totally wrong. I think that, in fact, very little effort is needed to encourage Muslims to apply, and if one is serious about it one can get numerous such applications.
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, and will help increase the confidence of the minorities in the police. It will also help undermine the communal stereotypes which, as I mentioned, 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.
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.
Q: How has your book on the police and communalism been received by 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 dissensions among the police! They even alleged that findings and my conclusions were biased because they could not believe that some Hindus, too, can be aggressive, intolerant and violent. This, of course, 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.