Charting history of Indian Muslims and the police: From British era to AMU violence, a story of injustice

The recent death of 22-year-old Rizwan Ahmad in the Ambedkarnagar district of Uttar Pradesh, allegedly due to police beating, merits a deeper exploration of the relationship between the police and Muslims of India

Sharjeel Usmani April 27, 2020 15:45:32 IST
Charting history of Indian Muslims and the police: From British era to AMU violence, a story of injustice

Death can be scary.
Death caused by the agency that is responsible to establish law and justice, accidental or intentional, is terrifying.
Death caused by the agency in question, if is not just intentional but also communally charged is nothing but oppression.

The recent death of 22-year-old Rizwan Ahmad in the Ambedkarnagar district of Uttar Pradesh, allegedly due to police beating, merits a deeper exploration of the relationship between the police and Muslims of India.

In democracy, it is said that power rests with the people. In Rangnath Mishra versus Union of India (2003), the three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice VN Khare, the Supreme Court asserted that "the highest office in our democracy is the office of citizens; this is not only a platitude, it must translate into reality". In a democracy, it is also the duty of the State to provide peace, prosperity and justice to this metaphorical highest office — the people. To ensure this duty, the State operates on a rule of law which is put into place by the law enforcement agencies.

The burden to implement law and maintain order in society is one of the prime responsibilities of the enforcement agencies. Much of this responsibility rests on the shoulders of the police force, who being the "point of contact", have more direct involvement with citizens, unless of course the situation gets out of their control. In the twelfth chapter of the 'confidential' Bombay Police Manual (1959), under the title 'Behaviour of police officers while on duty', members of the police force are asked to regard themselves as servants and guardians of the general public and treat all law-abiding citizens, irrespective of their position, with unfailing patience, courtesy and tact.

The responsibility of police becomes especially very crucial during the times of communal tension. The role of the police at the site of communal tension is not only sensitive but also a deciding factor in the escalation or de-escalation of tensions. In a letter to chief ministers on 1 October, 1950, then-prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru said, "If they (the police officers) are competent and right-minded, nothing wrong is likely to happen. But if they are not competent, or if they temporise with communal or anti-social elements, then trouble is bound to come sometime or the other".

What Nehru possibly did not notice (at the time) in the bureaucratic structure he borrowed and adopted from what the British left, was that it was based on the "rational-legal" arrangements of the Constitution. This will be explored at length later in the article.

***

At the outset, it is instructive to look into the religio-ethnic composition of the police force in India. In his book Khaki and ethnic violence in India, the author Omar Khalidi writes that the Indian State has discriminated against minorities (particularly Muslims) for recruitment in the armed forces, police and paramilitary forces. The first part of his book carries his core argument that recruitment to the Indian armed forces is done on the basis of ethnic and not demographic principles.

According to the ethnic principle, some ethnic communities (also called martial races) are more suitable to work for the armed forces than the 'non-martial communities', and thus the recruitment should be restricted only to 'martial races'. As a result, some communities such as Sikh and Gorkha are over-represented while some communities such as Muslims, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes are severely under-represented. Khalidi mentions that in 2004, there were only 29,093 Muslims in the Indian Army that numbered more than a million soldiers and officers.

The concept of martial races was brought by army officials of British India after the 1857 uprising. The idea was to classify each community into two categories, namely, martial and non-martial, and then recruit martial races to the army as "they were brave, and more fit to fight" than non-martial races that are "physically weak and unfit to fight because of their lifestyle". The concept, interestingly, aligned with the caste or varna system prescribed in Vedic Hinduism, which essentially divides people in four orders, one of which is Kshatriyas or the warriors.

Charting history of Indian Muslims and the police From British era to AMU violence a story of injustice

Representational image. PTI

After Independence, as per a press note released by the Press Information Bureau on 1 February, 1949, the Government of India abolished "class composition based on fixed percentage" and turned the Indian Army "open to all classes". However, the phrase "open to all" does not really translate to "equal representation". In reality, the colonial practice was never reformed. Steven Wilkinson, in his book Army and Nation, argues that Independent India continued the colonial style of recruitment, and through his research, demonstrated that by the early 1970s India had "doubled the numbers of martial class units".

When discussing the composition of the police force, it was important to put in advance, the idea behind discrimination in the recruitment procedure of the enforcement agencies. Since the police force comes under the state government, it's worth examining Uttar Pradesh for two reasons: First, because it is the largest state in terms of population and second, because it has been one of the most riot-prone states in India.

In pre-Partition India, Muslims had adequate representation in the police force. At the time of Partition, Muslims constituted about 40 percent of the total police force in Uttar Pradesh. In the course of a few decades, the number of Muslims declined, and by 1990, the figure is down to less than five percent. In his study titled The electoral origins of ethnic violence: Hindu Muslim riots in India, Yale professor Steven Wilkinson revealed that by 1981, the Muslim representation in the Uttar Pradesh Police amounted to three percent senior (gazetted) officers, two percent inspectors and four percent sub-inspectors of the total police force. The condition of other states is similar, if not worse. Further, the Sachar Committee's report of 2006 also highlighted the poor representation of Muslims in the police force.

***

Returning to the Nehruvian bureaucratic structure, the relationship between the "irrational" politician and "rational" bureaucrat has been theorised. Former IPS officer and author KS Subramaniam pointed out in his book Political violence and the police in India that "this arrangement seems to have been misplaced, being totally divorced from the existing realities and the historical background". The Nehruvian bureaucratic structure adopted from the British was a "rational-legal" system premised upon the idea that the State is the realm of governance while negotiations are cast in a legal and formal framework.

That would have worked just fine for the British, but in a "political society" like India, the negotiation between the State and the population often takes place in more chaotic forms through political parties, student movements and other informal networks. One other critical drawback in this structure lies in the fact that it, and so did Nehru, put too much trust in the "rationality" of bureaucrats, including police officers.

In a multi-ethnic society like India, with such a complex social structure, where identities are build on caste divisions, religion-related classifications, regional distinctions, diversity in traditions and over 500 dialects and languages spoken by 1.3 billion people, it is almost impossible to eliminate this immediate identity from the members of the bureaucratic structure, as each of these identities are "ranked" and have a different social status. In its 14th periodic report under the International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of the Racial Discrimination (ICERD), the Government of India acknowledged that "for an overwhelming majority of people the caste system continues to be an extremely salient feature of personal identity and social relationships".

In other words, a person of "lower caste" can be a higher authority in the bureaucratic structure, but s/he will not necessarily have a higher social status than her/his "upper caste" junior authority. Hence, the "rational-legal" bureaucratic structure fails to address this social hierarchy in particular, and discrimination it brings with it, in general.

In his essay titled 'Muslims and Police', lawyer and constitutional expert AG Noorani has quoted two contributors from the Paul Brass-edited book Riots and Pogroms, noting, "The authors have been told by police officials that, outside his uniform, the Pradeshik Armed Constabulary (PAC) constable is a Hindu first and last. He belongs squarely in the traditional, folk culture of rural India. The constable's training seeks to instil in him some degree of professionalism, but it leaves untouched his hardcore Hindu identity. In times of crisis, his Hindu identity has the better of his professional identity as an impersonal instrument of the secular State."

The free hand and unchecked power given to the police officers, put minorities, especially Muslims, and people of a lower "social status" in a very vulnerable position. The situation is so grim that of the total complaints received by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), over 60 percent are related to police abuse of power and human rights violations.

Since 1960, there has hardly been any riot in Uttar Pradesh, where the role of the PAC has not been found to be partisan and anti-Muslim by the press, social activists and human rights groups. As according to Communal riots and the police, edited by Iqbal Ansari, in 1972 and 1973, there were a series of outrages inflicted by the PAC on Muslims in Uttar Pradesh — in Aligarh on 5 June, 1972; Firozabad and Varanasi on 16 June; Dadri on 21 September; Nonari on 15 November; Sajni on 12 December; Ranimau on 29 December; Durgajot on 23 January, 1973 and Gonda on 14 February, 1973.

A report by Girish Mathur in Communal Violence and Police said: "The disturbances at Firozabad, Varanasi, Azamgarh and Basti were not really communal riots; they were in the nature of the armed constabulary's crackdown on the Muslims." The bias of the PAC was explicitly on display during the Moradabad riots (1980), Meerut riots (1982) and Hashimpura massacre (1987).

***

There are more recent examples of police brutality on Muslims that will be discussed later, but the classification of 'riots' and 'pogroms' first needs to be delineated. To set the right terminologies, "riots" in general are perceived as incidents of violent clashes between two communities or ethnic groups whereas "pogroms" are pre-planned incidents of violence with full support of state machinery against one, often minority, community. Ashutosh Varshney, professor at Brown University and award-winning author, in an interview to Foreign Policy said, "Pogroms are a special class of riots when it's no longer simply a clash between two mobs or groups. Instead, the police is siding with one group either by looking away or by abetting and sometimes even directly participating in the violence." He further added, "The key difference between riots and pogroms lies in the behaviour of the State — though its police."

The reason why it is important to discuss the difference between "riots" and "pogroms" is because the shrewd usage of the terminology, shifts the blame of the violence from the State to the community that was killed. Political anthropologist Irfan Ahmad, in his informative and timely piece on the politics of usage of the word "riot" for "pogrom" suggests this is deliberately done to flatten the gigantic power inequality between India's Hindus and Muslims. Simply said, what he means is that by terming a "pogrom" as a "riot", the burden and responsibility is put on the shoulders of both groups — in the case of communal riots in India, Hindus and Muslims — for causing the riot. It also turns invisible the role of the State in orchestrating the pogrom, and leaves no space to challenge the complicity of the police.

In the recent Delhi violence, it was noticed that the politics of terminology also creates a binary, where those who term the violence a 'riot' are good and ones terming it a 'pogrom' are branded as 'radicals'. While academicians and scholars have historically held the complicity of the police in incidents of violence against Muslims, and the usage of misleading terminology while talking about the violence, it is still an alien concept in the mainstream media and in the imagination of people. Nonetheless, the institutional bias of the police against Muslims occasionally reveals itself to the public eye.

***

Between the end of November and the first week of December in 1997, Coimbatore witnessed communal violence. The violence, lasting for three days, involved murder, arson, loot, and police firing while 18 Muslims and two Hindus were reported dead. This could have been a 'common' case of communal violence, frequent in India, except the fact that it involved a "revolt of police personnel" against Muslims. Frontline reported that "when the violence erupted, Hindus and Muslims were facing each other, and the police opened fire against Muslims". Ten Muslim youths were killed in police firing. The Frontline report also revealed that "with the situation heading towards anarchy following the mutiny by police personnel, the Tamil Nadu government called in the army and the Rapid Action Force (RAF)". Then-director-general of police, FC Sharma, had to come out and deny the allegations that the "police in Coimbatore was communal".

Commonwealth Human Rights' Initiative (CHRI) and India-based Quill Foundation jointly published a detailed study in 2018 documenting the perceptions and experience of policing of Muslim citizens in India. The study revealed that "in 2013, a group of three police chiefs presented a report at the annual conference of police chiefs, stating that minorities viewed the police as 'communal, biased, insensitive, ill-informed and corrupt', and also raised questions on the conduct of the police during riots". The study also revealed that the report, however, was never made public.

Although, the police itself doesn't admit its prejudice against Muslims, various national committees, court judgments have pointed it out. In 2018, Delhi High Court convicted 17 former PAC personnel for murder and of kidnapping, criminal conspiracy and destruction of evidence under the Indian Penal Code in the Hashimpura massacre (1987) case. The judgment termed the massacre as the "targeted killing" of unarmed and defenceless people by the police.

Further there's evidence to suggest that not only is the conduct of the police during incidents of communally-charged violence prejudiced, but also during the investigation of these incidents after the violence has ended. On the morning of 18 February, 1983, more than 1,800 people were killed in Nellie and 13 other Muslim-dominated villages of Nowgong district of central Assam. The event is known as the Nellie Massacre. Then-prime minister Indira Gandhi and president Zail Singh visited the makeshift refugee camp based in a government school in Nellie village, and promised adequate compensation and an investigation into the violence.

However, of a total of 688 FIRs registered, the police filed charges in only 299, each ending with zero convictions. In the same year, the Tewary Commission was set up to investigate the matter, which submitted its report in May 1984. The report was never tabled. The "adequate" compensation, however, roughly amounted to Rs 5,000 to the next kin of the deceased, and Rs 2,000 to the injured.

During the Delhi violence in February this year, several fact-finding reports recorded that police played a partisan role in orchestrating the violence. In fact, videos of rioters shouting "Delhi Police zindabad (Hail Delhi Police)!" along with their war cry of "Jai Shri Ram" surfaced on the internet, revealing the support rioters had from the police. Soon after the violence ended, as reported by the Youth for Human Rights Documentation (YHRD) in its fact-finding report, the Delhi Police filed 654 cases and either detained or arrested at least 1,820 people, mostly Muslims.

The Srikrishna Commission's report on the 1992-93 riots in Mumbai stated that the police is often biased against Muslims and that special efforts are needed to recruit more people from minority backgrounds as well as to "de-communalise" the police. In the previously mentioned study by CHRI and Quill Foundation — based on interviews of 25 retired Muslim police officers, it has emerged that "Muslims within the police also perceive and deal with bias based on their identity, indicating bias at an institutional level".

***

On the afternoon of 13 December last year, 2019, 50-odd policemen led by Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) Akash Kulhari stopped a crowd of 10,000 students, mostly Muslims, who were rallying towards the Aligarh district headquarters to protest the recently-passed Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) at the gates of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU). The SSP addressed the students and rightly warned them not to disrupt the law and order of the city.

He sympathetically said, "I have no problem with you protesting, if you do it democratically and constitutionally, but if you disrupt law and order, I will have to take necessary action." The students ultimately withdrew their call to gherao the district headquarters and the student leaders made their protest speeches at the gates of the university itself. The video of the SSP's address became a social media sensation a few hours after it was delivered.

The protest rally was a part of what was then a week-long movement — having started on 7 December — against the CAA and the proposed National Register of Citizenship (NRC). A large number of students saw the CAA and NRC as part of a project to disqualify Muslims from their membership in Indian society. A day before the rally, activists Yogendra Yadav and Dr Kafeel Khan had addressed students at the protest site. Activist Umar Khalid was to accompany Yadav, but had to cancel at the last moment. So he suggested that Khan be invited instead.

On 11 December, activists from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Sharjeel Imam and Afreen Fatima, along with two other Bahujan activists had travelled to Aligarh to give their support to AMU students. The day Sharjeel arrived, my father was summoned by the SSP in the presence of the university vice-chancellor Tariq Mansoor. He was asked to "control" me, and I was asked to "withdraw from the movement". Failure to do so, the SSP warned, would lead to the draconian National Security Act (NSA) being invoked against me.

At 6.15 pm on 15 December, students gathered at the heavily-surveilled library canteen of the university to discuss the brutal police aggression against students of Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) in Delhi. Most of them were emotionally charged, and demanded that a protest be launched. Within the next 45 minutes, thousands of students assembled at the university gate (which was also the protest site) chanting slogans against the Delhi Police, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah.

Over the course of the next quarter of an hour, the police fired assault rifles and pellet guns at students, and threw tear gas cannisters and stun grenades at them. The police and Rapid Action Force (RAF) continued to attack the students inside the university premises for more than four hours. More than 60 students suffered varying degrees of injuries and trauma. A fact-finding report jointly brought out by the Human Rights Law Network (HRLN) and Quill Foundation later described it as a "shocking display of police brutality and impunity in the face of peaceful protests by AMU students". The report also held that the police action seemed not only brutal, but also vindictive, motivated by a desire to "show [Muslim] students their place".

A case against Khan was filed a couple of days after he came to AMU. On 29 January, he was arrested from Mumbai by the Uttar Pradesh Special Task Force. In the two weeks after his arrest, he was slapped with the stringent NSA. It should be recalled that Yadav also addressed the students, along with Khan, but escaped any charges. Later, a policeman told a friend of mine that the police "had nothing to do with Khan. We arrested him because Baba (referring to Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath) ordered it".

By this point, I had left Aligarh along with four others, following the violence on 15 December, after my friends warned that the police might be looking for us. A week later, I saw my photograph on Aaj Tak, where anchor Chitra Tripathi stated that the Aligarh SSP had named me the "mastermind" of the Aligarh violence. Back in Aligarh, the protests continued, and were led by, among others, Mohammad Amir Mintoee — a former AMU student and a known social activist. On 15 April, Amir was arrested by the Uttar Pradesh Police, while he was distributing food to the poor in a hospital. He (and I) were charged with Sections 147, 148, 149, 153, 188, 189, 307, 332, 336, 504 and 506 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) among other serious offences. At present, I am facing over 70 charges in three separate cases.

***

The high-level committee, headed by Justice Rajinder Sachar, which examined the social, economic and educational status of Muslim community briefly pointed to a police bias against the Muslim community in the following words: "Concern was expressed over police high-handedness in dealing with Muslims. Muslims live with an inferiority complex as 'every bearded man is considered an ISI agent'; whenever any incident occurs, Muslim boys are picked up by police and encounters are common'."

In the CHRI and Quill study mentioned earlier, researchers have concluded that "a common perception emerged that police sees Muslim localities as dens of criminal or terrorist activity, perpetuating a constant suspicion and distrust of the community. Across all the cities we visited, we heard the repeated complaint of pejorative characterisation of Muslim areas as 'mini Pakistan', lending insight into how Muslim community believes itself to be viewed by the police. It is not limited to being seen as coming from a crime-infested locality, but extends to being viewed as potentially anti-national, separate from mainstream and feeling that your locality is always suspect".

On 28 December, Meerut superintendent of police (SP) Akhilesh Narayan was caught on camera threatening anti-CAA protestors to "go to Pakistan". It was during the same time that dozens of innocent Muslims, too numerous to be named individually, were killed, thousands were arrested and more than one lakh, mostly Muslims, were booked for protesting against CAA and NRC in Uttar Pradesh. In retaliation, civil society groups protested in the National Capital.

It was during this protest that a "heartwarming" image of a girl offering red rose to a police constable as a gesture of peace had gone viral. Although it was a kind gesture, it was also akin to giving silent consent to the police to carry out human rights violations. The police constable who received the rose is an individual. The police is an institution. The case being made is that the police as an institution is communally biased in its behaviour and anti-Muslim in its conduct. It is only after this is acknowledged that possible reform measures can be conceptualised.

The author is a Delhi-based AMU graduate and activist associated with the Fraternity Movement of India

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