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Published in the 1-15 July 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Handling communal riots

One of the major complaints by the Muslim community has been the handling of communal riots. The police force is often accused of anti-Muslim behavior during communal riots. The accusation ranges from ignoring help pleas to actively participating in the riots. If in Bhagalpur the police was accomplice in the killing of over 100 Muslims, in Hashimpura PAC actually killed innocent Muslims. In Gujarat and Bombay, Hindu mobs were let loose and very little effort was made to protect Muslims during communal riots. Mass arrest of Muslims during communal riots is common, even though more Muslims have been killed in communal riots than Hindus have.

Almost all the investigations into communal riots have indicted the involved police force for its bias in one way or the other. Former police chief of Ahmedabad, P.C. Pande, admitted that the police is influenced by the environment. Police officials of caliber of Julio Ribeiro have admitted the rot in the police force. Mr. Vibhuti Narain Rai, an IPS officer, studied police behavior during communal riots as a fellow of the SVP National Police Academy, Hyderabad. His dissertation on 'Perception of Police Neutrality during Communal Riots', later converted into book "Combating Communal Conflicts", provides a very credible insight into the police functioning during communal riots. He states that briefing, preparation and weaponry of police party intending to enter Muslim locality is such that it appears to be going into an enemy territory. He says that during such exercises, he has found members of such groups full of apprehension and fear. Not surprisingly, police parties entering Muslim locality during communal riots are often treated as enemy force and attacked. Trust, or lack of it, is always mutual.

There are multiple reasons for this poisonous relationship. First and foremost, an average Hindu policeman carries the same prejudiced mindset as an average Hindu. He believes that an average Hindu is by nature liberal, tolerant and non-violent. On the other hand, the belief goes that an average Muslim is cruel, violent and anti-national. He genuinely believes that it is the Muslims who start the riots and it is the Hindus who suffer most in the riots. Given that in almost all the states, the police force comprised largely of Hindus, it becomes a de facto Hindu force during communal riots. Fact that many Muslim neighborhoods do have proportionally higher number of uneducated, unemployed youths and criminal elements does not help either. Put all these together and you end up with a force that is highly communal and a community that is distrustful of this force. Other factors that contribute to mishandling of riots to some degree are the ruling mindset of police force, the political interference and the lack of accountability.

Unfortunately, most of the discussion on the handling of communal riots stops above. Very few ask how to improve the relationship between Muslims and police force. Even fewer dare to demand action. If the solution from pseudo-nationalists - only if Muslims stop starting riots there won't be any problem - is outrageous, the solution from pseudo-secularist - elect us and there won't be any problem - is ridiculous. The real solution lies in the social upliftment of Muslim community and de-communalization of the police force. Muslim neighborhoods can't continue to be home for criminals and not expect hostile attitude from the police. The community can't afford to be on the outskirts of the establishment anymore. Muslim youths should be encouraged to join administrative and armed services. The community leaders, both political and religious, should emphasize the importance of education to the community. Social advancement via education is essential to salvaging the communal problem. At the same time, drastic changes are required in the police structure and its functioning as well. Over the period, many suggestions have been made to improve the police functioning in general and the handling of communal riots in particular. Some of these suggestions are to reduce the political interference, to increase accountability, to provide proper training to the police, to increase people to police contact and to increase the representation of minorities in the armed forces.

Changing the ethnic mix of the police is very critical to the de-communalization of the force. Both the Government and the Muslim leadership need to work together. On one hand, the Government should provide channels for the recruitment of Muslims in the police. On the other hand, the Muslim leaders should encourage Muslim youths to apply for these forces. It is important that a reasonable level of Muslim representation is achieved and maintained at all levels of hierarchy, not just the constabulary. The thinking needs to be changed from top to bottom. This demand is going to be met with stiff resistance. But this is a battle that the Muslim leadership will have to take. Only an ethnically mix force can restore the mutual trust.

Another suggestion that has been around for sometime is to raise special, possibly ethnically mix, force to handle communal riots. V.P. Singh tried such an approach in UP when he was the Chief Minister of UP. The experiment failed because the force was neither ethnically mixed nor secular. The same idea can be re-applied with few modifications. First, it may be better to raise such a force as a central force since central forces, be it CRPF or Army, seem to do better. Second, various minority groups should get proper representation. Third, the training should concentrate heavily on nationalism and secularism. Additionally, the Government could enact a law similar to "Disturbed Area Act" to tackle communal riots in a fashion similar to terrorism. The law may allow the center to take control of the disturbed areas without actually having to dismiss the state government. A gradual takeover of the state will force state governments to deal with communal riots.

Understandably, dealing with this issue is not easy. It requires confronting inner daemons: the educational and social backwardness of the Muslim society and the communalization of the police force. Neither domain is easy to deal with. Also, there is lack of understanding of the gravity of the situation. The issue is used by politicians to settle political scores and accepted as norm by Muslims. The inaction could prove to be very dangerous. Continuing mishandling of riots may drive Indian Muslim community into the arms of Islamic terrorism. If it happens, it would be the gateway to hell. Muslim politicians need to wake up and realize the dangers. They should work with the government towards getting a force that can handle communal riots before it is too late.

Zaigham Kazmi

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