On Tuesday, as the riots in Delhi flared on, ground reports showed that the police were either hopelessly outnumbered or unwilling to control the rioters. As the violence was at its peak, the Narendra Modi-led Union government, which controls the Delhi Police, was entertaining US President Donald Trump a few kilometres away. Arvind Kejriwal, who was re-elected as Delhi chief minister just two weeks ago, and his party were also criticised for being slow to react to the crisis.
At the time, a quote from 1995 began circulating on social media as people tried to understand why a communal riot in the national capital was allowed to continue for at least four days (see here, here and here): “In any city or state of the country, a riot can be controlled within 24 hours unless the state wants it otherwise,” IPS officer Vibhuti Narain Rai had told Teesta Setalvad in an interview.
Rai was the police superintendent of Ghaziabad in 1987 when the Hashimpura massacre, the biggest custodial killing in independent India, occurred. A few days after riots broke out in Meerut, 42 Muslim men were picked up by the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC), the armed wing of the Uttar Pradesh Police, and shot in cold blood—their bullet-ridden bodies were found a few hours later by Rai and others.
A survivor who was rescued by Rai, Babudin, filed an FIR, according to The Economic Times.
After years of delay, and an acquittal in 2015, the Delhi High Court in 2018 sentenced 16 former policemen to life imprisonment for the massacre, terming it a “targeted killing” of unarmed and defenceless people by the police.
Rai, who had fought for justice for over three decades by then, wrote after the verdict that he was dissatisfied with the “the conviction of 16 low-level functionaries of PAC”.
“My 36 years of experience in service tells me that a sub-inspector cannot take the decision of picking up 42 Muslims and killing them. Even if he decides to do so in all his stupidity, those under his command will not obey him. Everybody knows the consequences. One can dare to undertake such a misadventure only when one is sure of impunity,” he wrote in The Indian Express.
In a telephonic interview with HuffPost India, Rai, who retired from the IPS in 2011, said that the Delhi Police failed to intervene in a timely manner when the tension began building up after the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was introduced in Parliament.
Rai, who is an activist and writer, also spoke about the leadership crisis in the Delhi Police, and the challenges of policing after riots.
“I personally feel Delhi is the worst example of political interference in the functioning of the police.”
Edited excerpts from the interview:
1. Your book speaks about the role of communal tension building up ahead of violence. How important do you think is the need to act preemptively to prevent communal riots?
Delhi is the latest and the best example for the last two-and-a-half months. The communal tension was building up and little spark was needed. The day (the protest at) Shaheen Bagh started, police should have intervened. They did not intervene because the BJP wanted to communalise the situation. It was clear by Amit Shah’s statement that they were trying to communalise the situation. Over 1 lakh people everyday have been inconvenienced so they could get some electoral advantage. They did this to create some communal tension and get advantage in the election. They did manage to increase the seat count (in the Delhi elections) from three to eight.
Their reaction was totally different for the protest at Jafrabad. If you let Shaheen Bagh be, you could have ignored Jafrabad also. The tension in fact started building up when the CAA was introduced in the Parliament and the police did not intervene timely and effectively. The police was thinking that everything will pass naturally.
I personally feel Delhi is the worst example of political interference in the functioning of the police. I am getting an impression that all the decisions of the Delhi Police are being taken in the North Block. The Police Commissioner is not the leader of the Delhi Police, it’s the Home Minister.
It became worse when NSA Ajit Doval visited the riot-hit areas. The government has totally demoralised and politicised Delhi Police. They have not allowed Delhi Police to take action. They have not chosen good leaders for the Delhi Police. The Police Commissioner appeared thoroughly worthless. They could have brought in a better officer, but they didn’t.
(Ed— On Friday, IPS officer SN Shrivastava was given additional charge as chief of the Delhi Police, replacing Amulya Patnaik who will retire on 29 February. Doval had told NDTV that “people did not believe the intentions of Delhi Police during the violence. Even the image of Commissioner of Delhi Police was not very good for whatever reasons. But soon Delhi will have a new Police Commissioner.”)
2. When NSA Doval has become the visible face of the government in dealing with the situation, what does this mean for people’s trust in the police?
The police must be demoralised. Police is an organised force where leadership matters. For the Delhi Police, the Police Commissioner is the leader. The NSA going to the Deputy Commissioner’s office is sending a clear message that he is the leader. He is a leader without any responsibility because in case of failure, Delhi Police officers will be held responsible.
(Ed — On Wednesday, Doval held a meeting with the top officers of the Delhi Police at the office of the Deputy Commissioner of Police (northeast) in Seelampur)
3. What should the Delhi government have done the day the violence began?
Delhi government does not have control over the police. It was the job of the Central government. From what I have heard, the failure of the Delhi government was that the Chief Minister, Deputy Chief Minister, their MLAs and ministers did not go to the affected areas. They should have gone there the very first day.
(Ed—Kejriwal visited the violence-hit areas on Wednesday after the Delhi High Court asked some of the highest functionaries in the national capital to reach out to people.)
4. In your long career as a policeman in Uttar Pradesh, how important in your view is political will to curb communal violence?
I think most important thing is the political will. My personal opinion is no communal riot can continue for more than 24 hours unless the state wants it. It’s very clear that the government was trying to do politics over the whole thing.
5. What’s the challenge in policing after riots? Is it right to assume that mutual trust completely breaks down and the sense of being wronged makes communities vulnerable to even more polarisation?
After riots, the challenge increases. People must be unhappy and they must have suffered. I am convinced that there must have been bias in the reaction of the police and they must have alienated a large number of people in those areas. It is the job of the police to ensure that people don’t feel alienated. Their action should be even-handed. This is a big challenge. They should be fair to both the communities.
It’s definitely true that mutual trust breaks down. Social media should be utilised by the police and mohalla committees should be revived. I don’t know if Delhi has mohalla committees like we used to have in Uttar Pradesh.
“I think the police must not have acted impartially. When the stories filter out, we will find a lot of discrimination against the minorities.”
6. Many ground reports say that the police were either missing or tacitly encouraging the violence in Delhi. You have researched and written on the topic of ’Perception of Police Neutrality during Communal Riots’. Were your research findings borne out by the incidents in Delhi?
I don’t have any inside knowledge of what happened in Delhi. I know everything from reading or watching the media. But I think the police must not have acted impartially. When the stories filter out, we will find a lot of discrimination against the minorities. The senior police officers should sit with other men and make them understand that after wearing khakhi, they cease to be Hindu or Muslim. It’s a long process, but it’s a challenge for the police leadership. They should convince the policemen that remaining neutral is the most important thing.
7. Does the promotion of provocative politicians demoralise the police force while carrying out even basic duties?
Yes, yes. Just now, Kapil Mishra instigated the whole thing. The ministers are raising provocative slogans like “goli maaro”. I have heard some Muslim leaders also make provocative statements. Both communities should realise that they should refrain from doing this.
8. Can a proactive judiciary compensate for this?
The judiciary gives a date for three months after a case comes to them. For example, they should immediately hear the parties in the Shaheen Bagh case. No Supreme Court or High Court can say that protesters have a right to sit on the road. They have a constitutional right to protest, but commuters have a right to use the road.