March-April  2002 

A call to conscience

(A senior serving officer of the IPS, Vibhuti Narain Rai, DIG, Lucknow, recently circulated this letter to all members of the Indian Police Service in mid-March. He has received some supportive responses but is making this public in the interests of furthuring a debate on issues of conscience within the forces):

Dear Colleague,

I am writing to you at a very difficult time as an Indian Police Service officer and with a sense of anguish. The recent events related to the communal holocaust in Gujarat are a matter of great concern for the country and should inspire serious introspection among all of us IPS officers. The terrible carnage that occurred at Godhra was an early warning of the fact that big events of communal destruction could occur the next day all over the State and the expectation from a professional police force was that it would oppose all actions of revenge and counter-violence with all the force that it could muster. But this did not happen. Not only was the police unsuccessful in containing the violence of the next few days but, it seemed, that in many places policemen were actively encouraging the rioters. The failure of the police should not be attributed to the lower ranks but must be seen as a failure of leadership, that is, a failure of the IPS.

The events that followed the beastly incident at Godhra did not surprise a person like myself who is not only a police officer but also a keen student of social behaviour. The same old story was repeated everywhere from Ahmedabad, the capital, to the rural areas. Since l960, in almost all riots that have occurred, the same picture has been painted in the same colours, a picture of a helpless and often actively inactive police force that allowed wailing members of the minority community to be looted and killed in its presence, that remained a mute witness to some of their members being burnt alive.

Whatever may be my concerns as an ordinary citizen, as a police officer, my greatest concern is the preservation of the professional character of the police force. An insensitive chief minister can pat his incompetent police force on the back and the senior police leadership can also blame the ‘misleading media’ and the ‘anti-national minorities’ for any criticism made of its handling of the situation. But the truth is that after every riot the same criticism is made of the police, that of its not only having failed to protect the lives and property of the minorities but of siding with Hindu rioters and encouraging them. And after this recent rioting also the same criticism is being levelled against the Gujarat police.

Whatever happened in Gujarat is not something new. It only once again underlines the fact that the senior leadership of the police will have to sit down and think as to why after every riot the same story is repeated: that of incompetence, inactivity and criminal negligence. Until we accept that all is not in order in our own house, nothing can be put right.

The first: institutionalised opposition to communal violence is initiated by the police. This occurs at several levels: collection of intelligence before the outbreak of violence, preventive measures while tension is escalating, use of force to stop violence and, after peace is restored, initiation of legal proceedings against the guilty. These are some of the steps taken by the police to combat communal riots. None of these steps can be taken effectively if we ourselves are infected with a communal bias.

For an average policeman, collection of intelligence is limited to gathering of information about the activities of communal Muslim organisations. It is not easy to make him realise that the activities of Hindu communal organisations also come under the purview of anti-national activities and, therefore, it is necessary to keep an eye on their activities also. It is a fact that very little input on the activities of communal Hindu organisations and their activists is to be found in the police station records.

Similarly, preventive arrests, even in riot situations in which Muslims are the worst sufferers, are restricted to members of the minority community. Further, even where Muslims are being attacked and the police resorts to firing, their main targets are Muslims. House-searches and arrests reveal the same bias.

What happened in Gujarat was a repetition of the above but on an unprecedented scale where the extent of violence and destruction was unparalleled and one-sided. The other difference was that for the first time the inaction, connivance and bias of the police were all on display on television screens in every Indian (and many foreign) homes. Now we have lost even the fig-leaf of alleged misrepresentation by the print-media.

It may be relevant to mention here that on many occassions when leadership was provided which was professionally sound and free from any communal bias, the same bunch of policemen have won confidence of various sections of society and made their organisations proud of them. The old truism is borne out that generals fail and not the troops. Very often the officers blame lower ranks of the force for their inability to control communal conflicts effectively. But we have seen even in the recent Gujarat happenings that in the midst of failures there were success stories in which upright IPS officers led their men from the front and ensured that there was no loss of life and property in their area of responsibility.

It is a sad fact that police-officers who have not just failed to control riot situations but who have actually given them their active support have not been punished in even one instance. The anti-Sikh riots of l984, especially in the capital of the country, one of the best-policed cities, saw the killings of thousands of Sikhs that could not have taken place without the active connivance of police. Despite indictments not only by the press but by several inquiry commissions, in some of which distinguished IPS officers like Sri Padma Rosha were also involved, not one police officer was punished and none of their careers was adversely affected. The Madon Commission and Srikrishna Commissions have suffered the same fate.

It is very clear that no outside agency can reform us. This is a job we will have to do ourselves. If we have any sense of pride left in the service to which we belong which has had an illustrious past and has enjoyed great prestige in the country, the time has come for us to set about this task in right earnest. We must call a general house of the Central IPS Association and demand that the government take action against Gujarat officers who have failed in their primary duty to maintain law and order and prevent violence; and against all officers who have failed in similar situations since l984. We should not treat the association as a trade union body to fight for better pay and service conditions but as a medium to improve the service itself. If the government does not take any action, the very least that we can do is remove such officers from the membership of the Association.

Hoping to hear from many of you shortly,

— Vibhuti Narain Rai, IPS (UP, RR,3 l975).

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