It was in the mid-1950s that Justice AN Mullah castigated the police, calling it the “biggest organised goonda (goon) force” in India. Many events have occurred since then to reinforce that perception, and the sentiment expressed by Justice Mullah is probably shared by a broad cross-section of the people. News about the atrocities committed by the police, supposedly in the course of maintaining law and order is regular fare. And the worst manifestation of organised police misbehaviour is on display when they are left to deal with communal conflagrations.
Successive commissions of enquiry into communal riots have reprimanding the police in no uncertain terms for the weak First Information Reports (FIRs) it lodges or for the dereliction of duty on its part in not assisting the aggrieved parties. Over time, from merely being standoffish during communal tensions the police has graduated to playing an active role in vitiating the social atmosphere during riots.
Just a few instances will illustrate the degeneration of the force. Soon after the first major communal disturbance in Madhya Pradesh in 1961 the Justice Shrivastava Commission found that during the riots in Jabalpur, Sagar, Damoh and Narasinghapur, “the intelligence department… [was] entirely inefficient and the law and order authorities were responsible for a laxity in investigation and prosecution which resulted in large [numbers of] acquittals”. Thirty years later the situation had deteriorated. The police was no longer just inefficient and lax, it had begun to participate enthusiastically in the violence. The Justice Sri Krishna Commission, which looked into the Bombay riots of 1992-93, found specific police officers to be “utterly trigger happy”, “guilty of unnecessary and excessive firing resulting in the deaths of innocent Muslims”, “extremely communal” and “guilty of inhuman and brutal behaviour”.
Another 10 years on from the Bombay of 1993, the reputation of the police as protectors of the law has plumbed new depths. During the pogrom of Gujarat last year, police brutality surpassed all previous limits. It was the first riot in the country where the state promoted ‘retribution’ as a matter of policy. Many victims of the riot reported categorically that the police, instead of protecting them, had handed them over to the rioters. And now there is a news report of the ultimate travesty of justice—Gujarati Muslims it is who are being targeted under extraordinarily harsh legal provisions.
A report filed by the Agence France-Presse agency, datelined New Delhi, 15 September, says that of the 240 people booked under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), which carries a death penalty, 239 are Muslims. (The sole exception is a Sikh.) Gujarati Muslims have been booked for three different attacks on ‘Hindus’—the burning of the Sabaramati Express at Godhra last year, the attack on Ahmedabad’s Akshardham Temple and the murder of former Gujarat Home Minister, Haren Pandya. This report comes immediately after the Supreme Court of India’s unequivocal criticism of the Gujarat government for the way it handled the ‘Best Bakery case’ (see Himal, September 2003). The court had gone so far as to observe that it had no faith that the administration would bring to justice the fanatics responsible for the killing of Muslims.
It is worth noting that while the state government did not deem it fit to invoke POTA in cases where some of the worst massacres of Muslims had taken place (which involved many Hindutva cadres and leaders), it did not show a commensurate leniency in cases where the accused were Muslims. It may be recalled that the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), in its report, had investigated and focussed on a few of the worst massacres that took place in Gujarat—the Naroda-Patiya massacre, the Gulberg Society massacre, and the Best Bakery killings, among others. In none of these cases were the people involved charged under POTA.
The dubious role of the police was also exposed in the way it handled the Akshardham Temple case. The mythology that the Gujarat police has built around the case says that five people from Gujarat were involved in the attack and charges under POTA were duly levelled against them. But, with the arrest of one Chand Khan, by the Jammu Kashmir Police, a new version of the whole story has come out. Khan gave details of the way in which the operation was conducted and also made it clear that no local person was involved. The Gujarat police has not even bothered to listen to Chand Khan´s confession.
To make matters easier for a viciously communalised and lumpen police force, the state government recently passed the Code of Criminal Procedure (Gujarat amendment) Act. This legislation is aimed at doing away with the “formality” of producing an accused in court “in person” while in police custody and, instead, enabling cross-examination through “video conferencing” facilities in jails. This latest addition to the armoury of the police does not bode well for the future of criminal jurisprudence in India. Given the antecedents, it will not be unwise to presume that it will be used with impunity by the police against members of a certain religious community. They can now be put in jails on false charges and subject to extra-judicial punishment, and then be cross-examined not in court, but while under the physical control of the police.
As a significant aside to one of the cases under which Muslims are being targeted, Vithalbhai Pandya, father of the slain ex-minister, Haren Pandya, had at the very outset held Chief Minister Narendra Modi responsible for his son´s death and had charged that it was a political murder. He reiterated his allegations at a rally on 15 August in Patan, Gujarat. But looking at the way the police has been domesticated by the political establishment under Modi and trained to be selective in its investigations, no further enquiries in this direction are expected to be launched.
Justice delayed and denied: Uttar Padesh
Can a government declare members of its own Police Force or Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) who are still on the duty rosters and receiving regular pay, ‘absconders’? Can non-bailable warrants issued by competent courts against these accused be returned unserved, not once or twice but 18 times? Further, would it dare to ignore the court’s orders to have their property confiscated?
To witness such absurdities one does not have look very far. It can be found in Uttar Pradesh. And the event in question that invited the court’s actions is the massacre at Hashimpura- all of 16 years ago- and its investigation. It was only in 2002 that the Supreme Court had asked for the immediate transfer of the case pertaining to the Hashimpura massacre from the Ghaziabad Sessions Court in UP to the Delhi Sessions Court.
There was good reason for the Supreme Court’s sense of urgency. The massacre at Hashimpura, when 42 innocent Muslims were killed in cold blood by the UP police had taken place 16 years ago. The circumstances of the massacre are telling. There was communal violence at Meerut, in 1987, when the Congress Party ruled both in the state and at the centre. Both police and PAC pickets were posted in the town to bring the situation under control. A 1994 confidential report of the Central Bureau of Investigation sheds light on the sordid turn of events:
On 22 May 1987 around 8.00 p.m. they herded 40-42 ‘rioters’ in PAC Truck No. UR 1493 at Hashimpura, overtly for taking them to Meerut Civil Lines or Police Lines. However, the Platoon Commander SP Singh drove to the Upper Ganga Canal, Muradnagar (Ghaziabad) ignoring their protests. On reaching there, they started unceremoniously shooting them down. When a few tried to escape they were shot down on the spot and their bodies were cast into the Canal. Rest of them were taken to the Hindon canal and there the sordid show was re-enacted.
This action of the police was basically to terrorise and brutalise the minority population, as pointed out in an article on the massacre in the Peoples Union for Civil Liberties’ Bulletin of February 2001. Iqbal A Ansari, Secretary-General, Minorities Council, observed that the massacre took place “while there was no rioting in that area of the city”.
That was more than 16 years ago and the delay in judicial proceedings has threatened to make it the “forgotten massacre”. The Supreme Court in its judgement had chastised the concerned authorities in no uncertain terms, because despite the fact that a decade and a half had passed no charges had been framed.
This long history of delay smacks of an administrative cover up. The state government had initially directed that the incident be looked into by the Criminal Investigative Department (CID). This internal investigation was completed in 1993, six years after the massacre. Its findings were drawn up a year later. Then there was procrastination in implementing the action recommended. Orders on the matter were issued only in 1995 and 1997. Even these delayed orders were limited in scope since action was only recommended against 19 officials as against the 66 named in the CID Report. Finally, the matter was taken up by the National Minorities Commission, which made its recommendations to the UP government on 12 October 1999, directing it to give adequate compensation to the families of the dead, and to ensure that all those found guilty are punished.
Even this had no effect, and eventually the Supreme Court had to intervene to try and expedite the matter. But even this is no guarantee that the guilty will be punished or that the next of kin of those killed will get adequate compensation. The bitter fact is that, while the accused responsible for the killings of Hashimpura are openly moving about, the few surviving witnesses constantly face danger to their lives. So far, the Sessions Court in UP had exhibited a strange reluctance to summon the police top brass in the state. Now that the case has finally been transferred to the Sessions Court in Delhi, how soon justice will be done remains to be seen. Given the tendency on the part of the state administration to brazenly ignore judicial summons, there is little hope for a happy ending.