By Smita Nair
July 17, 2014
A survey done in a southern state, key inputs from three states with sizeable Muslim populations, and intelligence from state police chiefs — all put together by three officers of the rank of director general of police (DGP) — in 2013, speak of a situation where in the entrenched perception of a police bias against the minority community could, if not corrected immediately, affect the country’s internal security.
The report, prepared by the DGPs of Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, and a senior IB official, is now with the central government, awaiting action.
The report is a summary and compilation of police and intelligence inputs received from states across India, along with the content of interactions with the community, public utterances by community leaders, and articles published by them.
To bridge the “police-community” gap, the report recommends implementation of a comprehensive “community policing plan”, improving “interface levels” between the Muslim community and police, improving and encouraging “participative policing”, and developing standard operating procedures (SOPs) to prevent communal riots.
History, Social Media and Activism
The report begins with an analysis of the wounds of Partition which, it says, “poisoned the relations between the two communities, leaving both suspicious of each other”. The scars were deepest in northern India, and the Ram Shilanayas Yatras and Ramjanmabhoomi agitation also “communalised otherwise peaceful parts of South and East India”, thus polarising the entire country, it says.
“The razing of the Ram Janam Bhoomi/Babri Mosque disputed structure saw communal riots erupting in most of the country. The use of terror as a retribution for the demolition and communal riots that followed the demolition further sharpened the conflict. Communal riots after Godhra were a watershed event.”
According to the report, “any place with a minority population above 15 per cent has become communally surcharged and susceptible to communal riots.” Police attitudes haven’t helped either, it says.
“Revolution in communications and information technology”, the report says, “are being exploited by various groups in various communities to spread discontent in the minorities by use of social media and mobile telephony to spread information of perceived wrong to community anywhere leading to tensions in other far flung areas.”
Attacks on students from the Northeast in various parts of the country, allegedly in retaliation for attacks on Muslims in Myanmar and Assam, are examples, the report says.
The report is critical of the role played by some NGOs and “activists” and of media “hungry for news in spreading “distrust” among minorities. The police, it says, lack an official mechanism to counter this “propaganda”.
“Role of NGOs and some ‘activists’ in spreading distrust about law enforcement agencies have also come to light. An active media hungry for making news has eagerly projected the views of such groups, lending credence to their statements and projections,” it says.
“Bereft of any strategy to counter such propaganda and lacking any official mechanism to deal with it, the police image has continued to plummet… NGOs and ‘activists’ giving statements after every case of terrorist attack, alleging that their members will be falsely implicated, makes the situation further complicated.”
Iconography and Perception
The study looked into perceptions of several minorities across states, but focused mainly on Muslims, the largest minority. No state except Tamil Nadu has commissioned a study on the ways in which minorities perceive the police.
“Minorities view police as being communal and allege that they deal with situations involving two communities in a partisan manner favouring the majority community. All states are affected by communal virus in small or large measure and every riot appears to strengthen the feeling that police are communal.
“Barring Tamil Nadu, police forces of all states suffer from this adverse perception about them,” says the report.
The community questions nearly every police action, the report says. “Dispersal of crowds and use of force, arrests of accused, registration of criminal offences, applications of sections of law, preventive arrests, enforcement of curfew and providing security to minority members are some of the issues which are viewed with suspicion and allegations of unprofessional and prejudiced conduct made.”
It adds that “unfortunately for police, demeanour of some police officers and men in several serious communal riots in recent and not so recent past has served to strengthen such beliefs about the police”.
The report makes the point that the “presence of Hindu temples and prominently displayed photographs of Hindu gods and icons in precincts of police stations and in other police offices often strengthen the charge that police are communal.”
It says that “wearing ‘Tilak’ and other Hindu symbols even in uniform in clear violation of departmental rules make the police vulnerable to such allegations”.
The Law, Custom and Sensibilities
Sometimes the mere enforcement of laws brings the police into conflict with minorities, with accusations that the police are insensitive, says the report. “Nothing epitomises this better than the situation that prevails around Id-uz-Zuha (Bakr-Eid). The religion demands sacrifice of animals and demand for the animals for slaughter far exceeds the supply and animals have to be transported in large numbers just around the festival in violation of transport rules,” it says.
“Inadequate facilities for slaughter of animals in the abattoirs in cities force members of the community to slaughter the animals in their houses, often in violation of the laws… Their enforcement by police brings it in conflict with the minority community, earns the ire of community and strengthens the perception that police are insensitive to the needs and sentiments of minorities.”
The report cites a lack of sensibility on the part of the police. Examples: “Eating before members of the community called to police stations for interviews during the period of Ramadan while they are fasting, rigorous interrogation during fasting, or denial of water at the time of breaking fast, use of police dogs considered dirty by Muslims in their homes and offices or other checks.”
Allegations of bias and communal stereotyping have been levelled against the police by most minorities, including Sikhs and Christians, apart from Muslims. Muslims have pointed to pronouncements of suspicion by senior officers soon after terror attacks. Opportunities of interaction with various communities during passport verification, character verification and licencing “are frittered away by poor communication skills and thoughtless remarks”, the report say.
The problem, the report says, is that “police officers across the country are not exposed to basic education on religious backgrounds and traditions, which have further worsened situations… This lack of adequate knowledge leads to certain acts which hurt the sensibilities of minorities.”
The report gives the example of the demolition of an illegal structure by a local municipal body, during which members of the minority community discovered “some burnt pieces of pages of scripture”, which they brought to the police station. “Not realising the relevance of the burnt pages, the police station officers dealt with it in a routine manner of depositing them in Malkhana without taking steps to ascertain significance of the pages and neither did they try to ascertain circumstances in which they were burnt, nor register an offence.”
This, the report says, led to an escalation. “Had the police officers realised what significance the pages could hold for the minority community, a law and order situation could have been averted.”
Law enforcers in different places have dealt with similar situations differently, the report says.
“A public toilet constructed by the road transport corporation was paved with ceramic tiles with pattern that appeared to some to be in Arabic script. A panicked leadership without getting it confirmed whether indeed it was an Arabic script or not, got the corporation to break and remove all the tiles.
“As opposed to it, in a communally volatile unit, scraps of papers were found after members of majority community had burst crackers in a religious procession. These scraps were found with something written in Arabic and rumour soon spread that Koran pages had been used in making of the crackers. Police requested religious leaders of the community to read and decipher if the pages came from the Holy Book. After reading the same they concluded that the writing had no connection with the Holy Koran and when the same was disseminated, the tension subsided.”
Problems and Solutions
Police officers have attributed “lack of access” to minority dominated areas as one of the reasons for the disconnect. The committee has recommended that such areas need to be patrolled like any other area, without any apprehensions. Old wisdom has been stressed by the committee: that schools, private dispensaries, religious places, and social occasions should be utilised to interact with the community. Simple patrol measures such as collecting phone numbers and building a connect through regular conversations have been suggested.
Reviews by state police chiefs have shown that the police-community interface often exists only at higher levels or, in the rural areas, involves only the senior most station officer. To achieve desired levels of confidence, beat constables, officers at the police stations, station house officers, sub-divisional police officers, and superintendents of police must be involved. Senior police officers must build multiple levels of interface at rank levels, the report suggests.
Analysis of the working of Mohalla Committees, a platform to bridge the society-police gap after the 1993 terror attacks, has shown that the initiative worked best when the police refrained from interfering. “This experiment is, however, successful when people of the neighbourhood are encouraged to form committees on their own rather than police or some other authority imposing some committee from top,” the report says.
The report suggests that police can, and should, act only as catalysts, and such efforts would not yield results until such committees sprang from within society.
Identifying Slum Panchayat as an “extension of Mohalla Committee”, the report says that slums were poorly policed because policemen on the ground are “loathe to venture deep inside slums”, either due to inhibitions or a lack of resources. The report encourages slum schemes, where the colonies form alternative dispute resolution mechanisms, supported by the local police.
The committee found that the police often took the “easy way” while trying to manage traffic in crowded areas dominated by the minority community — allowing rules to be broken despite spotting chaos. Traffic wards drawn from the community could be “beneficial” in convincing its members to abide by traffic rules, the report says.
Police reports from states have pointed to “aggressive competitiveness” during religious processions. Policing then has to factor in “religious sensitivities”, and be mindful of potential law-and-order situations emerging out of police high-handedness. Suggestion includes involving community members as the first point of contact for processionists.
Sports can be an important part of building mixed community socio infrastructure, says the report. Suggestions include sending young police recruits with local community teams for matches, and sports competitions among mixed teams consisting of players from multiple communities, organized by the police.
A crucial policing aspect demanded from all units is that inputs, intelligence and thoughts of all ranks be taken on board while making decisions in field matters, especially where minorities are concerned. “Decisions made without taking them (junior staff) into confidence or consulting are executed without real interest, and either abandoned or reversed when leadership changes,” says the report.