To prevent the recurrence of such machinated mass brutality in the future, it is also of utmost importance that all those responsible for the current carnage are identified and resolutely held to account. This has rarely happened in the past; instead the nation has seen those liable for such crimes against humanity thrive electorally and professionally, while the devastated victims of sectarian violence are denied even elementary succour and justice. If this is allowed to happen once again in Gujarat, this will not be the last time our hands will be soiled with the blood of innocents.
There are many groups of people who bear responsibility for the crimes in Gujarat. I choose to focus here on the role of only one of them—the higher police and civil services. The reasons for this focus are that it is a vocation whose central calling is the upholding of justice, of law, order and protection of vulnerable people. Default in the performance of one's duty by a civil or police officer in a riot is not only the crime of a citizen who turns one's face away from injustice, because of indifference, fear or complicity, it's a crime of much graver magnitude, akin to that of a surgeon who wantonly kills his patient on the operation table.
Until the '80s, there was an unwritten agreement in our polity that even if politicians inflamed communal passions, the police and civil administration would be expected to act professionally and impartially to control the riots in the shortest possible time, and to protect innocent lives. There were several failures in performance, and minorities were targeted in many infamous riots, but the rules of the game were still acknowledged—and in the majority of instances adhered to—which is why the higher civil and police services were regarded as the steel frame vital to preserve the nation's unity and plurality.
The '80s saw the breaking of this unwritten compact leading to the corrosion and near-collapse of the steel frame. It became a frequent practice for higher civil and police authorities to be instructed to actively connive in the systematic slaughter of one community, and to do this by delaying—sometimes by several days—the use of force. Local state authorities complied, and rioters were unrestrained by state power in their mass murder, arson and plunder.
Why is the decisive and timely use of state coercive force—lathis, teargas and bullets by police, paramilitary and military contingents—so vital a state duty in a communal situation? In every other kind of public disorder—labour, student or peasant protests—the broad consensus across a wide section of liberal opinion is that a democratic state must apply the principle of minimum necessary use of force to restore public order and security, respecting the right of democratic dissent and the expressions of public anger against perceived injustices and grievances.
In situations of sectarian violence, by contrast, the responsibility of the state is completely different from any other. A humane and responsive democratic government must apply in all such situations—of communal riots, or violence against minorities or Dalits—the principle not of minimum necessary application of force, but instead the responsible but maximum possible use of force the state can muster in the shortest possible time. This is because unlike other expressions of public anger, communal violence targets almost invariably people most vulnerable and defenceless; it is fuelled by perilous and explosive mass sentiments of irrationality, unreason, prejudice and hatred, and its poison spreads incrementally over space and time. Its wounds do not heal across generations. The partition of our country continues to scar our psyche half a century after its bloody passage. A whole decade of terrorists in Punjab traced their origins to the maraudings of the 1984 rioters. As I held in my lap a six-year-old boy in a camp in Ahmedabad recounting the killings of his mother and six siblings, I felt broken by his pain, but wondered at the same time how he would deal with his anger when he grows up. Likewise, the ashes of the horrific burnings in Godhra will stir up their own poison. But it is important to understand that the cycles of hatred did not begin in the railway compartments of Godhra, and they'll not end in the killing fields of Gujarat.
Thus it is that every moment's delay by state authorities to use sufficient force to control communal violence is such an unconscionable crime: it means more innocents will be slaughtered, raped and maimed, but also that wounds would be opened which may not heal for generations.
Civil and police authorities today openly await the orders of their political supervisors before they use force, so much so that it has become popular perception that indeed they cannot act without permission from their administrative and political superiors, and ultimately the chief minister. The legal position is completely at variance with this widely-held view. It is unambiguous, in empowering local civil authorities to take all decisions independently about the use of force to control public disorders, including calling in the army. The magistrate is not required to consult administrative superiors, let alone those regarded as political 'masters'. The law is clear that in the performance of this responsibility, civil and police authorities are their own masters, responsible above all to their own judgement and conscience. There are no alibis that the law allows them.
One could argue that this may be an accurate description of the legal situation, but the practice on the ground has sanctified political consultation before force is applied. Only to convince the reader that I speak from the personal experience of handling many riots, I could contest this with events in the major riots of 1984 and 1989, where as an executive magistrate I took decisions about the use of force and calling in the army, sans any consultation. I could similarly contest this with the experience of many other women and men of character in the civil and police services across the country, who would similarly testify to salutary application of force to control more difficult communal violence, without recourse to political clearances. There can be no dispute that given administrative and political will, no riot can continue unchecked beyond a few hours.
However, I will not substantiate this with my own experience, or those of older officers. It gives me greatest pride and hope, amidst the darkness that we find ourselves in today, to talk of the independent action taken by a few young officers in Gujarat and neighbouring Rajasthan during the present crisis itself.
Rahul Sharma was posted as Bhavnagar SP for less than a month when the Godhra killings and the subsequent rioting all over Gujarat happened. Following Godhra, he deployed a strong police contingent for the Gujarat bandh called by the VHP the next day on February 28. Unlike the rest of Gujarat, the day passed off without much trouble in Bhavnagar. A day after, Rahul learned that a 2,000-strong mob, armed with swords, trishuls, spears, stones, burning torches, petrol bombs and acid bottles, was about to attack a madrassa with around 400 small Muslim boys between ages 12 and 15.Rahul rushed there with a police force of some 50 people. Seeing that the force was hesitant to open fire on the armed mob, Rahul himself took the rifle from a fellow constable and did so. As some attackers fell to police bullets, the crowd stopped in its tracks and faded away.
Rahul then made an entry in the logbook saying he had fired from the constable's gun to save the children's lives. He also gave an order that any policeman with a gun not opening fire to save human lives from a violent mob would be prosecuted for abetting murder. This gave his men a clear signal that the SP meant business, was willing to take full responsibility for his acts and prepared to stick out his neck. This had an immediate effect on his force, and Bhavnagar was one town where more rioters were killed in police firing than innocent victims in riots. For this, Rahul was moved out from Bhavnagar within a month of assuming charge. He is quoted in Outlook as saying, "I'm not one to run away from transfers. I take these things in my stride. Other than controlling the riots, I did no mischief."
In neighbouring Rajasthan, Ajmer SP Saurabh Srivastava, with a young sdm in his first charge and his small force, doused communal fires in Kishangarh on March 1, 2002, which had the potential of inflaming the tinderbox in the entire state. They controlled an enraged armed mob of over a thousand men bent on attacking minorities in a pitched battle for over four hours.
Another defence we often hear is that lower police forces have become hopelessly charged with the communal virus and thus it is impossible to deploy it as a non-partisan instrument of coercive force to control riots. True our men and women in khaki work under conditions of great stress, long hours, inadequate facilities and uninspiring training. Even so, whenever commanded by leaders of character—non-partisan, professional, fearless and leading from the front—the same forces are known to protect peace admirably.
It is sometimes also argued that the entire higher civil and police services are now politicised beyond repair, therefore whatever their legal and moral duties they today lack the conditions in which they can reasonably be expected to perform them. Once again, I'd strongly contest this. I've spent 20 of the best years of my life in the civil service, but have always found that despite the decline in all institutions of public life, there remain democratic spaces within to struggle and act in accordance with one's beliefs without compromise. I do not regret a single day. One may be battered and tossed around, the way young police officers who opposed political dictates to control the recent rioting in Gujarat were unjustly transferred. But in the long run, I have not known upright officers to be terminally suppressed, repressed or marginalised. On the contrary, I value colleagues, in the civil and police services, usually unsung and uncelebrated, who have quietly and resolutely performed their duties with admirable character and steadfastness. Few in the civil and police services can in all honesty testify to pressure so great that they could not adhere to the call of their own conscience.
It is not as though there are no costs, but then if the performance of duties was painless, there would not be many who would fail in its pursuit. The costs are usually in the guise of frequent transfers, and deprivation of the allurements of some assignments of power and glamour, which are used to devastating effect by our political class to entice a large part of the bureaucracy today.
Today, when I stand witness to the massacre in Gujarat enabled by spectacular state abdication and connivance—or to the national disgrace of people living at the edge of starvation even when godowns overflow with foodgrains—I recognise the cold truth that the higher civil and police services are in the throes of an unprecedented crisis.The absolute minimum any state must ensure is the survival and security of its people, and elementary justice. If state authorities wantonly let violent mobs target innocents without restraint and do so with impunity and without remorse or shame, then basic questions need to be asked. By all of us. Because injustice involves us all.
(The author, an IAS officer, resigned in the wake of Gujarat riots.)