Reviewed By : Yoginder Sikand
Name of the Book: Communal
Conflicts: Perception of Police Neutrality During Hindu-Muslim Riots in India
Author: Vibhuti Narain Rai
Publisher: Renaissance Publishing House, New Delhi
Year : 1998
Pages : 140
Price : Rs. 270
Recent decades have witnessed the escalation of incidents of inter-communal violence all over India, and regions where relations between different religious groups were hitherto relatively peaceful are now increasingly being threatened by the growing strength of communal and fascist groups. A salient feature of communal violence in India today is the increasing role of the police, meant to be the upholders of peace and the law, in organising, abetting and even perpetrating indiscriminate violence against minority and marginalised groups. The killing of several dozen innocent Muslim youths by the police in Hashimpura, Meerut, and the involvement of the police in the massacre of several hundred Muslims in Bhagalpur in 1989 are only the two most gruesome of the many instances of the active role of the police in the escalating persecution of minorities in India. Besides the Muslims, the involvement of the police in the suppression of other marginalised groups such as the Dalits is only too well-known to need any reiteration here.
This book is a pioneering attempt to document the role of the police in abetting communal violence, being structured around the theme of perceptions of police neutrality during Hindu-Muslim riots. The author is himself a senior officer of the Indian Police Service and has served in several communally sensitive districts of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most communally volatile state. He combines his official work with social activism, having written several novels dealing with the issue of communalism itself, and editing a Hindi literary journal. He thus brings with him in this book crucial insights of an insider in the police service along with a spirit of passionate social concern.
Rai places his study in the broader context of the emergence of the phenomenon of escalating communalism and inter-communal violence in the British period, and, with the help of selected case studies, shows that it is not religion per se but largely worldly interests that fuel the flames of inter-communal antagonism. He sees the further exacerbation of communal violence in the post-1947 era as related to India’s lop-sided process of capitalist development and the consequent strengthening of the influence of communalist groups. In particular, Hindu fascism is seen as playing the most critical role in this regard, with the rise of the Hindutva lobby reflecting, at root, the interests of the ruling class and castes in the face of the growing struggle of marginalised groups against oppression.
Based on intensive interviews with Muslims and Hindus involved in or faced with riot situations and discussions with police officers and men, Rai highlights the fact that, in general, Hindus tend to see the police as their friends while Muslims generally look upon them as their enemies. Rai writes that such a perception of the police is actually deeply rooted in the actual behaviour of the police force in general. The police, he says, routinely blame Muslims for rioting, and see them in terms of extremely negative stereotypes as wild fanatics and untrustworthy anti-nationals. This, he says, is actually quite contrary to the facts as they are, for in almost all the cases he has studied, Muslims are not the first to start the riots. Moreover, they suffer a disproportionately far more loss of life and property in communal rioting than the Hindu brethren. They, rather than the Hindus, also become the targets of the police, ostensibly sent to restore peace. The number of Muslims killed in police firing over the years is considerable, and these include cases of perfectly innocent women and children as well. “In all the riots discussed in this study”, he writes, the police “did not act as a neutral law enforcement agency but more as a ‘Hindu’ force”.
In concluding his study, Rai proposes several remedial measures to help promote police neutrality. These include increasing the now dismally low representation of Muslims in the police services; periodic training courses for the police in handling riot situations and helping to combat communal prejudice in their ranks; tough action against erring police men and officers guilty of engaging in or abetting persecution of the minorities; and setting up the peace committees consisting of Muslims, Hindus and the police in various localities.
The book suffers from certain methodological weaknesses. The findings have not been presented in a systematic manner; the questionnaire administered to the respondents is not well structured or detailed; the chapter on perception of police neutrality is extremely short although it is meant to be the main theme of the book; and the analysis of communalism in the British period could have been summarised into just a few pages instead of taking up almost half the book.
Rai’s disturbing findings need to be taken with the utmost seriousness, but he himself confesses that even senior police officers are reluctant to take any remedial action. He reveals that it is this ‘mental barrier’ and ‘rank communal prejudice’ against Muslims of top police officials that prevented him from gaining access to many documents that would have helped in his study. He writes that the police top-brass is ‘not prepared to accept these mistakes’, and that it was probably because of this that the institution that had sponsored this study, the SVP (National Police Academy), itself refused to publish his findings. A striking reminder that communal and fascist groups that have no regard for the rule of law and little concern for social justice have made large inroads into the institutions of the Indian state. If the book succeeds in waking up its readers to this frightening fact it would have served its purpose.