In polarised times, mob impunity and police helplessness

If you happen to see an unusual visual of a police inspector, his head hung in shame with two Hindutva zealots carrying saffron flags and a trident, you may not overcome the shock. More so if you have spent several years in khaki. This happened to me.

When I reached village Chandan Khedi with a group of human right activists — where more than a dozen Muslim houses were ransacked by a mob of volunteers with the pious intention of collecting contributions for the grand Ram Mandir at Ayodhya — everybody was eager to recount their horrifying experience. Thanks to smartphones, some of them recorded visuals and frightening sounds during the more than three hours of this spirited “volunteer” activity. One image of the many on these phones caught my attention — of that head hung in shame. From the three stars with the red-blue ribbon on the shoulders, I could identify the police inspector carrying the burden of shame for his inability to do something he has been trained and equipped for.

To his helplessness, we will have to revisit the sequence of events. Like many parts of the country, two villages — Muslim Chandankhedi and Hindu Kanvasa — are not only located side-by-side but are economically interdependent. The inhabitants are largely farmers and their fields are spread across both the villages.

The whole of the Malwa region was likely visited by processions of various sizes and these two villages were no exception. The only difference was that Kanvasa contributed enthusiastic volunteers to the slogan-shouting and flag-waving procession and Chandankhedi waited anxiously for the day to pass peacefully.

Initially, the procession was small and its provocative slogans met with resistance. A small police contingent helplessly watched and waited for them to disperse. Not expecting resistance, they retreated hastily but soon regrouped outside the village. Phone calls were made, messengers were sent out and reinforcements were organised. One huge difference this time was that the local police station sent feelers to Muslims, suggesting that they leave their houses — which fell on the procession’s route — and take refuge in nearby fields. Barring a few Muslim youths who kept watch, everybody avoided contact with highly-charged zealots. This did not help. Meanwhile, a sufficient force was mobilised with many senior police officers and magistrates along with an ambulance and fire tender.

The image that haunts me is of the expression of one of these officers. Each member of his group has been trained to react in a particular manner when a large body of hooligans is violating the law brazenly and the life and property of another group are in extreme danger. I had never met the inspector whose head hung in shame and I had no intention of meeting him except as an old comrade-in-arms. I can feel the pain in his eyes. He was ashamed that he was not allowed to react in the manner he was supposed, he had been taught to. He and his colleagues were forced to watch hooligans plundering houses, beating hapless men and women and flaunting flags — all before the ashen faces of a large contingent of policemen.

During my extensive three-day tour of the Malwa region with a group of human right activists, I found the same story repeated everywhere. Places in Indore, Ujjain and Alirajpur have witnessed a new avatar of Madhya Pradesh Police. Everywhere, there were prior inputs that something serious is going to happen and the police were well-prepared in terms of manpower and logistics. But nowhere did they do what they were supposed to. They advised Muslims not to come in the path of the communal tornado.

In Alirajpur, Christians from many villages told us that on Sundays hooligans come to disturb their prayers and on Saturdays police visit them to advice them to hide in jungles and fields when goons come. A new unwritten Madhya Pradesh Police manual has emerged, where the police are not supposed to resist the lawbreakers. Rather, it facilitates the thugs by making sufferers leave their houses to take refuge.

Rai, a retired IPS officer, is the author of Hashimpura 22 May, a chronicle of the 1987 custodial killings

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