September 25, 2006

A Vicious Cycle - The communal bias of some policemen

(Hindustan Times
September 25, 2006)

A Vicious Cycle

by AG Noorani

‘Though the law itself be fair on its face and impartial in appearance, yet, if it is applied and administered by a public authority with an evil eye and unequal hand, so as practically to make unjust and illegal discrimination, as between persons in similar circumstances material to their rights, the denial of equal justice is still within the prohibition of the Constitution.” The United States Supreme Court delivered this stinging rebuke in 1868 in the celebrated case of Yick Wo vs Hopkins.

Of San Francisco’s 320 laundries, 240 were run by Chinese nationals in buildings constructed of wood, as were nine-tenths of the houses in the city. The country ordained that licences were required “except the same be located in a building constructed either of brick or stone.” All applications for licence by Chinese laundrymen were rejected. All others, bar one, were accepted.

The order was struck down. “The court held that the very idea that one man may be compelled to hold his life, or the means of living, or any material right essential to the enjoyment of life at the mere will be another, seems to be intolerable in any country where freedom prevails, as being the essence of slavery itself.” How much greater should be the outrage if ‘the public authority’ happens to be the police force with wide powers of arrest and detention and extra-legal powers of harassment?

The indiscriminate arrests of Muslims in the wake of the Mumbai blasts of July 11 this year were a repeat of a similar performance by the police after the 1993 blasts. They were grave enough for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to ask the Chief Ministers, on September 5, to “embark immediately upon a proactive policy to ensure that a few individual acts do not result in tarnishing the image of an entire community and remove any feelings of persecution and alienation from the minds of the minorities.”

Five days after he spoke, came the Malegaon bombings near a major mosque and a graveyard, on an auspicious day when Muslims throng these places for prayer. It also happened to be a Friday.

People recalled recent events in Maharashtra which had a bearing on Malegaon. At Nanded, on April 6, two Bajrang Dal activists, Naresh Rajkondwar and Himanshu Phanse, were killed while attempting to make a bomb in the former’s house along with three others. The police reportedly recovered a second bomb, timers, switches, detonators and gunpowder, as well as evidence that they had struck before. A diary recovered had pictures of all ex-RSS chiefs and notes on bomb-making techniques. It also had mention of the Bajrang Dal-sponsored camps that Himanshu had attended. Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) Joint Commissioner of Police KP Raghuvanshi told Communalism Combat that the incident could have “frightening repercussions”.

The warning was overdue. Kondwar and Phanse were suspected to be key figures in a bombing incident at Parbhani that very month, in which 25 persons had been injured. It was at a mosque, as were the bombings at Parbhani and Jalna in April 2004, where 18 persons were injured.

These incidents obviously formed a pattern. A reasonable, though not conclusive, presumption arises that Malegaon formed part of this pattern. Pointing fingers while investigations are on is unfair and hazardous. Fingers accustomed to pointing in one direction, however, pointed in the same direction after Malegaon.

From the very next day, ‘sources’ in the police began pouring out pet theories. On September 9, Raghuvanshi of the ATS said “our probe would include not only Simi but consider all other groups that might be involved.” An unattributed source in the ATS said Simi activists committed the crime to create communal tension. This became a running theme in later ‘disclosures’. ‘Police sources’ told the press that “the police are beginning to rule out the possibility of the Bajrang Dal’s involvement in the Malegaon blasts” because “the bombs used in Parbhani were of the crude variety. The Hindutva organisation does not have access to the type of sophisticated bombs and timers used in Malegaon”.

On September 13, two unidentified packages of fake bombs were discovered. The Additional Commissioner of Police, ATS, Subodh Jaiswal, gave the following explanation. “The aim was to unleash panic”. The motive: to create “rage against the police and Hindu residents so that riots could break out”. With equal speed he asserted: “They were planted by the same terror outfit that triggered the Friday blasts.” This gave the game away. By then no ‘outfit’ had been identified officially. Evidence was admittedly scant. The investigators seemed to be groping in the dark. Yet, Subodh Jaiswal was all certitude.

On September 16, the Additional SP, Rajwardhan, attacked the media: “There seems to be a deliberate attempt in a section of the media to pressurise the police into taking a line of investigation — of Hindu fanatics being involved — but we will go by the ground reality and the rule book, and explore all the possibilities.”

Precisely what he had in mind became clear when he added: “But it seems to be the handwork of organised terrorists who want to destabilise the country and incite communal violence.” The patriotic Bajrang Dal was exonerated.

An informed correspondent found, however, that in Maharashtra, “the problem is that the intelligence gathering mechanism is focused on Islamic terrorist outfits. The Maharashtra police have few dossiers on Right-wing Hindu militants”. Despite the arrest of a Bajrang Dal activist, Sanjay Chaudhari, in Nanded for the bomb blast outside the Parbhani mosque, “the probe has not progressed.”

What has ‘progressed’ is the confidence in police assertions. ‘Local police backed by the ATS’ flatly told a noted correspondent that the Malegaon blasts “resemble the handiwork of Islamic terrorist organisations”. According to one correspondent, the Intelligence Bureau is also “working on the theory” that the LeT was behind those blasts and its men were at large

These pronouncements do nothing to narrow the trust deficit. None of the 32 police officers and men named in the Srikrishna report on the 1993 riots in Mumbai has been convicted.

Muslim MPs called on the PM after the Mumbai blasts and on Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh after the Malegaon blasts to represent the community’s grievances. They were entitled to do so and discharged a duty. But they must not stop there.

Every injustice to any group is a deviation from Indian ideals. The communal bias of some policemen is part of a wider problem affecting secular values as well as the probity and effectiveness of the police force. It concerns all Indians.