As we are approaching the end of the first decade of a century that is widely thought of as the century of the upcoming countries like India, anybody who performs a close observation of the developments in the country would agree that communal unrest and violence arising out thereof are the major roadblock in its way to living up to, or even beyond, the expectations. Naturally, this observation would prompt one to ponder over the factors that play behind the scene. Why is it that a country known for its strong inclination towards non-violence, a country that gave birth to the greatest proponents of ‘ahimsa’, from Gautam Buddha to Gandhiji, is also the one to have witnessed heavy bloodshed in the name of caste and religion? Searching for an answer, one has to start right from the birth of the present-day India.
Our country is conceived as a secular republic. However, the ‘secular India’ that our great leaders envisaged was almost never a reality as the country, in its present form, was created by dividing the people in the name of religion. It is only understandable that a country divided on religious grounds would be virtually impossible to live up to a ‘secular’ label. Rendering the clearest evidence in this regard is the fact that the newborn child called the ‘Independent India’ was plagued by communal unrest right from its birth. The bloodshed that extended over days on end following the division of the ‘British India’ to create a new country as a precursor to the declaration of independence, in effect, undermined the very concept of a ‘secular India’. In a way, communal riots in India and the country itself as we know now, were born together.
The riots that broke out even as the country was waking up to freedom were, however, not sprouted out of nowhere on a fine morning, but has its roots running back to the political tactics the British had been playing for decades - the infamous ‘Divide and Rule’ policy. The British Empire wanted to keep the people divided over caste, creed, social status or anything else possible, so that they can oppress the people’s movements aimed at attaining freedom. They knew all too well that anything with communal overtones can be a potential weapon under the Indian circumstances, all too flammable under the extensive pressure exerted by the caste system that virtually ‘ruled’ the country over centuries, and unfortunately exists even today, albeit toned-down, in many parts of the country. Then there was the division of Bengal in 1905, segregating Muslim - dominated areas. Another classic example of the British ploy of encouraging communal division among the people was seen in the famous ‘Malabar Mutiny’, which was an undeniable episode of the freedom struggle, but was contorted by the British imperialist forces as a communal clash in an attempt to utilize non - Muslim population to suppress the agitation.
Even though the large-scale communal unrest that erupted in many parts of the country following the partition of the country did calm down as time went by, the ember did remain in the thousands of minds that took the battering of the bloodshed. Instead of taking up collective efforts to instil feelings of empathy and brotherhood in the society, the leaders of some religious and political groups and organizations who feared loss of foothold that they had managed to maintain by exploiting the communal divide were unwilling to allow the gulf to close in even though they were aware of the catastrophic after-effects of their moves. They were ready to go to any lengths to ‘win’ the battle. Before long, their ulterior motives resulted in its first major casualty with the killing of the father of the Nation. As prominent leaders over the world lamented the act, one comment by an eminent personality stood out: ‘Thank God it’s a Hindu who did it…’ The one-liner, though apparently cruel, did reflect the crux of the situation. Had it been a Muslim who shot the fatal bullets, the history of the country would have been something that won’t fit into any heights of imagination.
Even though the ‘shock factor’ that stunned the country with those bullets was truly shattering, and there were large-scale efforts to contain the prevalent communal situation, anybody who thought that the efforts would bear fruits were terribly mistaken. The ‘dark forces’ continued their underhand activities, maintaining their hidden agenda of keeping the people divided over communal grounds. However, the skies were not entirely cloudy. There were a few silver linings in the form of truly secular forces, political and otherwise, over many parts of the country. The presence of such forces, armed with undying willpower of the leaders as well as the cadres, ensured that the political forces employing communal agenda were effectively stopped in their tracks. This positive influence is evident in the history of states like Kerala and Bengal (where Muslim population is a considerable force) that have a relatively blemish-less record in terms of communal harmony. (This is of special importance in case of Bengal, which had witnessed one of the cruellest bloodsheds in the days of partition.)
Even though some parts of the country successfully contained and almost exorcised the ‘communal ghost’, the situation was not that rosy in many other parts. Communal forces that played around, exploiting feelings of caste and religion, continued to enjoy the patronage of not only religious and caste-based organizations, but also mainstream political parties, the minds of the leaders of which were intoxicated by the short-term gains that lured them in the form of ‘vote banks’. They conducted ‘experiments’ on the minds of the people, mostly poor and illiterate, by feeding them information, or, rather, misinformation, suitable for propagating their agenda, laced with overdoses of communal hatred. The outcome of this ‘vote bank experiment’ was an extremely hazardous cocktail of caste, religion and politics, the perilous effects of which were happily overlooked by the power-hungry leaders in their race to ascertain dominance.
The relative calm that apparently prevailed over the country did not last for long. In 1984, the unholy nexus between political and communal forces claimed the next major victim in the form of the then Prime Minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi. The communal forces that were for long demanding ‘independence’ of the Sikh-dominated areas had attained threatening stature in and around Punjab and had the backing of even major political parties. Their ulterior motives and activities in support thereof were so intense and had resulted in a full-fledged terrorist movement, forcing the Government to send troupes to the Golden Temple which the extremist outfit had made their hideout, resulting in the killing of their leader. This was the first instance in the history of modern India of a place of worship, that too of supreme importance to the religion concerned, was subjected to ‘invasion’ by the armed forces. The political leadership, quite naturally, was at the receiving end of the ‘explosion’ that resulted from the communal ire the action had sparked off. They had to suffer the bitter taste of the product of their own ‘experiment’ when Mrs. Gandhi was shot down.
At least after the incident, there should have been sincere efforts from both sides not to brew the deadly cocktail any more. However, the developments that followed proved beyond doubt that lessons remained unlearnt. What followed remains stamped in the country’s history as the largest - ever communal decimation. The entire community was at the receiving end as the proponents of ‘political terrorism’ sought ‘revenge’ over ‘communal terrorism’. Thousands of members of the community, irrespective of age or gender or social status, lost their lives in the largest massacre that modern India had ever witnessed. The mere fact that the then President of the Nation himself had felt that even his own life was in danger would more than suffice to prove how strong the ‘politically sponsored communalism’ was.
If anybody still had even a speck of hope of any possibility of putting an end to the unholy nexus, such hope was lamentably short-lived. Almost every communal force continued to enjoy political patronage from one corner or the other. With even major political parties openly declare their affinity towards religious sects, and coming out openly to use the religious sentiments to garner votes and grab power at any cost, it was evident that the future is not going to be what the peace-loving public hoped for.
Meanwhile, another crisis was brewing in the state of UP. Certain Hindu religious organizations had been raising claims on a piece of land that housed the ‘Babri Mazjid’ in Ayodhya following the ‘mysterious’ appearance of some idols on its premises. The land was claimed to be the birthplace of ‘Shri Ram’, who, according to Hindu belief, was the incarnation of God Himself. It was claimed that an ancient temple existed there, and was destroyed by the army of Baber, the first Emperor of the Moghul dynasty, during the invasion of the area. The organizations, the self - proclaimed proponents of ‘Hindutwa’, demanded the restoration of its ‘original status’, whereas the Muslim folk were adamant against the claims over what had been their place of worship for hundreds of years. It didn’t take long for the issue to attract political forces. Parties that had pledged adherence to the so - called ‘Hindu Ideology’ as well as those who claimed to be the ‘saviours’ of Muslim interests were quick to grab the opportunity as they saw in the supercharged issue the potential to corner the respective vote banks, whereas truth remained that none of these so - called ‘protectors’ of the people’s interests had any true interest in actually protecting them – what they wanted was power only. Fuelling the crisis even more, the government, which should have taken an independent stance and played the all - important role of ensuring and maintaining peace and harmony, instead, took a stand that was helpful to the ‘Hindutwa’ forces, may be lured by the sizeable chunk of voters who are followers of the religion.
Before long, the stage was set for more ‘political drama’ as a coalition of parties came to power in the Centre. Among the major components of the coalition, there were parties that had openly declared their intentions to take active part in the move to ‘liberate’ the ‘Ram Janmabhoomi’. It needs no expertise to deduce that this would have served as a boost to the intentions of the ‘Hindutwa’ forces. Encouraged by the newfound influence they have got on the government, they soon started mobilizing their ‘liberation army’. The move, which could have catastrophic results, however, did not succeed, thanks to the willpower the government showed, quite contrary to the prevalent custom and expectations. The government took the right step, halting the move in its tracks before it could do any damage in the explosive scenario. For the first time, the people of the country saw a government that didn’t compromise with communal forces for the sake of votes and power. However, the government had to pay the price for saving the country from the onslaught of communal forces, as the coalition was broken down and was dethroned from power.
With the overthrow of the government, the communal forces resumed their exercises even more ferociously. As the governments that followed displayed sheer lack of willpower, and the state government came to be controlled by the parties that had active interest in the issue, the stage was set for the next major communal calamity. On December 6, 1992, the Babri Mazjid (referred to as a ‘disputed structure’ by those who stood by the ‘Ram Janmabhoomi’ claims, and, surprisingly, by those who played ‘smart’ by not taking an open stand) was demolished by a mob that identified themselves as ‘karsevaks’, allegedly motivated by the leaders of some religious organizations as well as some firebrand leaders of the political parties that had long stood by the ‘Janmabhoomi’ claims.
The incident turned out to be a major turning point in the history of communal developments in India, with far - reaching consequences that haven’t died down even today. As the proponents of ‘Janmabhoomi’ agenda celebrated their ‘victory’ and the opponents contemplated modes of retaliation, the days that followed were drenched in the blood of hundreds of innocent people across the country. As if the politically motivated riots were not enough, a new threat also surfaced in the form of ‘religious terrorism’. Communal forces that enjoyed support from across the border started spreading havoc among the people all over the country, contrary to the earlier situation where the operations of these forces were restricted to the border areas like Kashmir valley. The most disturbing aspect of these ‘operations’ was the series of bomb blasts that ripped through cities like Mumbai, Coimbatore etc. Till then, communal violence was somewhat easier to contain since it involved groups of people attacking each other and it was relatively easy to identify potential targets and attackers, whereas this new ‘brand’ of violence made it virtually impossible.
Even after the riots and bomb blasts wrecked the country, the political parties and leaders who took sides with the communal forces didn’t learn the lesson; neither did they cut down on their discrete support to the communal interests. The result was obvious: Communal clashes became more and more frequent and widespread. In many parts of the country, communal forces grew in strength - strong enough to control the government. Even some secular parties either aligned themselves with those having communal links or adopted communal - coloured stance, with eyes well set on seats of power. This move served only one purpose: The communal forces gained more foothold and became bold enough to carry on with their ‘operations’ without impunity. Another round of show - off was round the corner.
Before long, the fears came true. A fire that ‘mysteriously’ broke out in a train in the railway station at Godhra in Gujrat set not only the train but also the state itself ablaze. As the news of the death of a number of ‘karsevaks’ who were killed in the fire broke out, large mobs set out seeking ‘revenge’. Nobody seemed to be interested in looking at what caused the fire - whether it was an accident, or was it the handiwork of forces attempting to disrupt peace or were there indeed the dark hands of any communal elements – nothing mattered to the mobs inebriated by communal agenda. The most alarming aspect of the riots was the way the state government handled - or, rather, mishandled - the scenario. Adding fuel to the already burning situation, the government machinery failed inexplicably in - or even kept away from - their duty. There were widespread complaints that law enforcement was hopelessly one – sided, whereby many cases were not even recorded, and even those registered were tactfully hushed up. The outcome needs no elaboration. The unprecedented levels of violence not only tarnished the image of our nation, but also invited internationally sponsored terrorist organizations to seek revenge, inflicting a severe blow of a series of bomb blasts in the city of Mumbai. Once again, it was the nation that ended up on the loser’s side.
Meanwhile, communal forces did make a few attempts to sneak into the otherwise peaceful areas like Kerala, again with political support. Some petty incidents in some areas were blown out of proportion and given communal colours. The communal forces did succeed in sparking violence in some instances, as some political parties, either in power or those who were never in the ‘power race’, tried their hands. However, thanks to the political orientation of the state, wherein parties maintaining secular ideals have strong upper hand over communal forces, such attempts were effectively thwarted.
Communal unrest in India has flourished throughout its history with ample support and protection from political parties that used them to their own gains. However, we can’t ignore the underlying social aspect as well wherein communal tension sprouts from. A ‘Root Cause Analysis’ on the communal developments in India would lead to the centuries - old caste system. Right from ancient days, Indian society was dominated by the so - called ‘upper classes’ who systematically suppressed the lesser privileged sections with muscle - power as well as money power. Those who belonged to the ‘lower’ castes were denied even the bare minimum necessities and even the right to a decent life. With denial of education, the upper class ensured that the lower classes were kept in the dark and continued to suffer silently.
As years went by and relationships with foreign countries developed, there was an inflow of people who belonged to different religions. Interaction with the ‘outsiders’ gave the long - suppressed masses a new insight. The absence of caste system among the foreigners and their access to education gave a new direction to the thoughts of the common people. Being fed up with the atrocities imposed by the upper classes, the backward class masses were naturally attracted towards them, whereas the foreigners were all too happy to lure the locals into converting into their religion with an array of promises. With the establishment of the British Empire over the country and active drives by the Christian missionaries, there was dramatic change in the social status of those who crossed over the religious barrier in contrast to the suppression they had been facing. The missionaries, while maintaining their agenda of promoting religious conversions, strived to stretch helping hands to the downtrodden masses, boosting their lifestyle and self-esteem. Naturally, more and more members of the backward classes were prompted to shed their religious slavery. This exodus was unbearable to the high-handed upper classes. They started making efforts to prevent the soil beneath their feet from shifting off. Instead of understanding the ground realities and reasons behind the mass conversions, they chose the path they had been using throughout – violent suppression, sparking off riots now and then.
While conversions – voluntary as well as induced - were going on one side, on the other side, the backward communities had started their quest for uprising. Questions started rising against the high-handedness of the upper classes. In most cases, this sudden uprising forced the upper classes to go to the extremes to maintain their control, leading to more conflicts and clashes between classes within the same religion – riots of a different kind.
As the ‘minority religions’ grew in strength, and the majority continued their attempts to suppress the growth, a new ‘brand’ of communalism was born - religious extremism. Groups came up in various religions, whether majority or otherwise, the members of which took the religious concepts to the extremes. Instead of propagating their own religion, they favoured decimation of other religions as the ‘shortcut’ to attain supremacy. In their attempt to persuade fellow followers into taking their side, they freely contorted religious scripts and teachings. Terms that had broader meanings were reduced to be used in very brief senses – the best and most ‘infamous’ example for which is the word ‘Jihad’. The word denotes the ‘holy war’ that every Muslim must undertake to protect the religion and beliefs when (and only when) the very existence of the religion itself lands in jeopardy. Instead of this ‘last resort’ sense, the word has now become almost a synonym for terrorism in the hands of the extremist fanatics. Those who claimed to be the ‘wholesome owners’ of religious pride, even as they threw religious teachings to the winds, became ‘terror merchants’ spreading communal hatred among the people. The Holy Qur-Aan says: “He who has killed an innocent person is (treated by Allah) as if he has killed the entire mankind; He who has saved the life of an innocent is like he’s saved the entire mankind.” With such a clear-cut Divine Directive, which true follower can even think of being a terrorist, let alone actually becoming one? While religion teaches to respect the concepts and feelings of those who belong to other religions, these ‘self - proclaimed proponents’ of true religion invented their own interpretations for the Holy Scripts and went on with their fanatic interests. On the other side as well there were extremists who believed in the ‘eye for an eye’ kind of justice. In the name of countering the ‘religious terrorism’, what they themselves carried out was nothing short of propagation of ‘counter terrorism’. The fact that many religious outfits are conducting ‘camps’ wherein the ‘cadres’ are being given training in armed combats is by no means something that can be taken lightly or written off easily.
WHAT POLICE CAN DO?
Given the present scenario in our country and considering the major factors at play, the simplest answer to the question, may be ironically, would be both ‘a great lot’ and ‘nothing’. Of course, Police force, with their skills and powers, can serve a great deal in preventing and handling communal unrest. However, as long as police forces are subject to political pressure, there is little that they can do. Presently, instances of political leaders or even followers trying their high-handedness on the police over various issues are plenty. With even some of the major political parties sharing feelings with communal forces, and especially when such parties have control on the government, the hands of the police force get tied down, denying the chance to even handle effectively, let alone prevent, communal disturbances.
Given the importance of the role played by political factors behind communal riots, there could be no differences of opinion regarding the need of freedom for police force from political ‘bosses’. However, the concept of ‘freedom of police’ is somewhat like a ‘double - edged sword’ – too little freedom would render the force ineffective whereas absolute freedom can be dangerous as well, since chances, even though rare, of some members of the force misusing the freedom can’t be written off.
Provided there is no undue political influence, Police can achieve commendable success in containing and preventing any kind of - communal or otherwise - unrest. The first and foremost step police need to do is to go to the people – interact as close as possible with the public. Taking the public into confidence is of supreme importance in foreseeing and preventing any kind of crime that involve some level of conspiracy, as people is the single largest source of information for the police. However, to be able to effectively interact with people, there has to be a great deal of change in the image of the police in the minds of the people. The general view that has long been established among the public about police is that of an implement of torture in the hands of the rulers. As if to strengthen this feeling, there are a number of instances of police personnel showing high-handedness on the public, either on impulse under pressure or to stamp their ‘authority’. Such impulsive behaviour, whatever the reasons may be, need to be curbed. The image police should reflect in the minds of the public should be not of ‘masters’ but of servants. All possible measures must be taken to ensure that there is smooth interaction between police and the public. When people can approach police with confidence, the forces certainly stand to gain. With a deeper bonding between law – enforcement forces and the law – abiding public, detecting and suppressing any surges of communal tension can be achieved effectively and efficiently.
‘Prevention is better than cure’ - goes one of the most - used and clichéd yet irreplaceable sayings. Like most other unwelcome scenarios, the saying goes well in case of communal riots. From any point of view, the best thing to do with riot would be to prevent it, and there is no better agent than the police force who can achieve it. Like any other cases, the first step in preventing a riot is to detect the chance of its outbreak right at the beginning. And that needs a powerful and efficient intelligence system. Of all sections / wings of the police force, the intelligence wing commands the highest level of importance and hence is the wing that needs to be the sharpest in functioning. The police intelligence wing must be on highest alert in not only the areas that are known to be prone to trouble or at times when some major developments are expected, but also on other areas and times as well. It can be observed that most of the times, communal forces spark off their action at times when they are least expected and over most trivial incidents – which means every incident that can have communal implications, however simple they might seem, needs to be watched out for and there needs to be an efficient system that passes the information on at the earliest and without raising alarms uncalled for. Again, building a confidence - based relationship with the public is of cardinal importance from the intelligence point of view. An intelligence wing that fails to interact efficiently with people is as good as an engine with its fuel inlet broken.
A major trend observed during times that are expected to be communally sensitive – like the anniversary of a previous incident – is that the police appears to being extra careful on a couple of days around the ‘marked’ day, and then everything falls back to ‘normalcy’. This gives the communal elements ample chance to plan their actions in a time – bound manner – they would keep an uncharacteristically low profile during the times when police is on vigil, and then strike when they return to the lax mood under the false relief that nothing undue has happened. Such chance should not be given at any cost. Vigilance should be much stronger and sharper not on the ‘expected’ day(s), but on a few days thereafter, thereby upstaging the plans of such elements. Further, special attention must be paid to the activities of organizations and groups, even though not exactly communal at the outset, which are conducting special camps, either for their cadres or otherwise. Chances are that such camps may be the hatcheries of trouble, and can’t be taken lightly, especially if the area or the group under consideration has suspect history.
Even with the maximum efforts to prevent undue incidents, it is still possible that something might still go wrong. In such scenarios, police will have to take up the other role – that of trouble - handlers. Given the hypersensitive nature of the issue, the police needs to perform an utmost careful ‘balancing act’. Communal forces playing behind the scene should not be allowed to have a ‘free run’ and must be forced down with ‘iron firsts’ while taking care not to inflict injury to the feelings of any community involved. To achieve success in this direction, it will be better to develop a well – trained team of efficient and uncompromising officials who have proper knowledge regarding the social and communal pulses of the area in question, instead of employing a large posse of personnel, most of whom may not be aware of the intricate realities. In other words, ‘crisis management groups’ should be kept ready for deployment depending on the situation and the nature of the area.
Another aspect where police need to work out in handling communal riots is providing relief to the people affected by the riots. Conducting relief camps and providing security to the camps is one thing, while building confidence among the affected people on the activities of the police forces in containing the disturbances is of equal, if not higher, importance. Sincere efforts should be taken up to give assurance to the public that such incidents will not be allowed to repeat, at any cost.
Another major step in riot - handling is preventing the riots from spreading to areas that are not affected. Police can play an important role in urging the people to calm down and not allowing rumours to run another ‘riot’. Again, this needs very close and continuous interaction with people and taking them into confidence.
In short, police should be able to operate with all necessary freedom, devoid of undue pressure from any corner and, in turn, should be able to ensure the support and confidence of the public for successful efforts in preventing as well as restraining communal riots. For the first, the onus is on the political leaders to show the willpower not to succumb to the agenda of communal forces, whereas to achieve success in the second part, police must become more public - friendly. Put in simple terms, PEOPLE, NOT Politicians, should be the real Master of police, and police should serve, not oppress, the public.