Images of the Delhi police lobbing teargass shells and water canons at protesters at India gate agitating against the gang rape of a young girl on a Sunday, December 22, 2012 are embedded deep in the nation’s psyche, courtesy of our omnipresent, 24 X 7 news networks, images sharpened further by the ever-prescient discussions on the 9 p.m. Newshour.
Not 13 days later, also on a Sunday, about a thousand kilometres away, in faraway north Maharashtra, the town of Dhule saw a distinctly more brutal police action, SLR bullets rapid firing to kill 6 young Muslims – caught at the wrong place at the wrong time. They paid heavily, with their young lives. In a similarly brutal and uncalled for police action, four Gujarat police officers had shot dead three Dalits, including a 17 year old, using AK 47s on the night of September 22-23 2012 at Thangadh in Surendranagar district, not far from Ahmedabad.
Both tragedies at Thangadh and Dhule that had cost precious lives were, however, reduced to media sideshows though print editions of English language national dailies did spotlight some issues. The police were caught on mobile phone videos in Dhule, in shamefully compromising acts. Yet, despite the availability of such sensationally thrilling clips, the normally avaricious and greedy eyes of the television camera looked away. The shots slipped in to late afternoon or midnight bulletins, cleverly bypassing the noisy news hour.
One of the Dhule clips shows a constable taking a self-loading rifle from his senior officer and aiming to shoot high above the waist. Police bullet marks have been found in the market place and gullies of Macchipura a kilometre deep into the Muslim area, far away from any groups that had gathered. Three such shots fired in quick succession got Imran Ali in his collarbone, eventually leading to his death. Of the 23 other young Muslim men who were critical, one had a bullet fired into his cheek, narrowly missing his eye, another rupturing a liver. Another video clip shows a policeman ignoring calls for protection. Yet another shows policemen in uniform looting from the Muslim establishments that were being destroyed and burnt by some rioters. In Thangadh,four of the Gujarat policemen responsible for shooting dead three Dalits later absconded!!
The single murder of a black youth Stephen Lawrence in the UK in 1993 and the publication of the 1999 Stephen Lawrence Inquiry report in 1999 had led to the critical acknowledgement that hate crimes are committed even by men in uniform and that such deeds demand institutional sensitization and correction. What emerged was a best practices, Hate Crimes Manual that warned what constituted such practice.
Since the late 1980s, when evidence of deviant conduct by men in uniform surfaced from several bouts of targeted violence countrywide (Nellie, Assam 1983- 3,000 Muslims massacred in Assam; Delhi 1984 – over 3,000 Sikhs systematically killed; Hashimpura, Uttar Pradesh 1987--51 Muslims shot dead by the PAC of Uttar Pradesh; Bhagalpur, Bihar, 1989 -- a massacre that left thousands dead and evidence buried below a hastily planted cauliflower field; Bombay 1992-1993 – over 1,200 dead; Kandhmals, Orissa 2008 – nearly 100 Christians; Gujarat 2002 – over 2,000 Muslims massacred) courts and Judicial Commissions have strongly indicted India’s police for harbouring a distinct anti-minority bias, committing crimes through manifestation of this hatred and not being punished for it.
In 1995 I had interviewed a senior IPS officer, V.N.Rai who taken a year’s leave of absence from his job to complete a research study, “Perception of Police Neutrality during Communal Riots” This interview was published in over 30 Indian publications. Among other things, Rai’s interviews with hundreds of riot victims from across the country (as part of his study) produced the startling finding that in all riot situations, Hindus consider policemen as their friends while, almost without exception, India’s minorities—Muslims and Sikhs—experience them as their enemy. This piece of work ought to have initiated the kind of self reflection that the Stephen Lawrence murder had led the British police to. Instead Rai’s study was ignored by the Indian police establishment, he had to find a private publisher to publish it into a book. What it did do however was lead to the issue being flagged by senior stalwarts. The founder and former chief of the Border Security Force (BSF) KF Rustomjee and DIG Padma Rosha were both quick to lend their voice to this issue of crucial concern, stressing that unless the Indian police confronted the issue of deep communal (and caste) bias, they were sowing the seeds of bitter alienation. If Rai had conducted this study today, perceptions among the minorities would reflect alienation several degrees worse.
Rai’s interview to me in 1995 traversed several sensitive areas. I asked him specifically of the police’s criminal dereliction of duty on December 6, 1992 when the Babri Masjid was demolished as 3,000-4,000 men in uniform watched. His reply was a chilling recall of another fateful Sunday 21 years ago, “The videocassette recording by the Intelligence Bureau clearly documents that not more than 3-4,000 “kar sevaks “ were within close proximity of the mosque. In such a scenario could no effective action have been taken? The reason why no action was taken lies elsewhere. The same cassette shows policemen rejoicing with their hands held high in victory when the Babri Masjid was destroyed. The district magistrate and other officials were dancing with delight. That is why the “kar sevaks” could not be stopped. There was no desire to do so.” None of these offenders were punished.
Pitching strongly for the application of the principle of command responsibility when largescale violence results following the failure to prevent or contain communal violence, Rai quoted Napolean who said, “There are no bad soldiers, only bad generals.” So, leadership not only makes a substantial difference, it is the most vital, the most decisive factor in the functioning of a force whether we are talking of the police, the paramilitary or the army.”
Two decades after this serious soul searching – that followed the cataclysmic events before and after the demoltion of a 400 year old Mosque at Ayodhya, we are still only debating (and the establishment resisting) the chain of command responsibility being applied to men in uniform when it comes to serious offences, including sexual violence. Worse, there is a shrill resistance to enact legislative protection against the systematic outbreak of communal and targeted violence through a law that will penalise policemen who fail to preserve the peace.
Rai in 1987 was the man who filed the first information report of the crimes committed by the PAC at Hashimpura. Fifteen years later, in 2002, in Gujarat’s Bhavnagar district, it was SP Rahul Sharma who charged ahead with his weapon firing to disperse a murderous Hindu mob when his men refused to act to prevent them attacking a Madrassa. Sharma’s prompt action saved the lives of 400 Muslim children. He is today at the receiving end of blows from a vindictive state government, facing everyday harassments, charge sheets and worse.
Rai or Sharma are unlikely heroes for Republic Day bravery medals nor are they the likely face or voice of discussions on television channels. Their raw deeds and searching reflection spotlight a raw nerve,, a deep-rooted prejudice that India at 65 + unfortunately lives quite comfortably with.