How the Bihar Police Colluded With Hindu Mobs During the 1989 Bhagalpur Massacre

10 January, 2017

In their book, Splintered Justice: Living the Horror of Mass Communal Violence in Bhagalpur and Gujarat, Warisha Farasat, a lawyer practising in Delhi, and Prita Jha, a legal activist and researcher based in Ahmedabad, closely examine the state’s accountability in two instances of mass communal violence. The first occurred in 1989, in Bhagalpur district in Bihar, when clashes between Hindus and Muslims continued for over two months, resulting in nearly 1,000 deaths, of which over 900 were Muslims. The second was the Gujarat riots of 2002, when Hindu mobs led attacks on Muslims in the state, resulting in the deaths of close to 1,100 people, including nearly 800 Muslims and over 250 Hindus. “A recurring feature of such episodes of bloodletting is that elected and selected public officials fail to uphold their most sacred constitutional duty—to provide equal protection to every citizen,” write Harsh Mander and Navsharan Singh in their introduction to the book. Mander is an activist and writer who works with victims of mass violence and the director of the Centre for Equity Studies, and Singh is a senior officer with the Canada-based International Research Development Centre. “They fail not because they lack the mandate, authority or legal powers. They fail because they choose to, because of the pervasive prejudice and bias against these disadvantaged groups that permeates large segments of the police, magistracy, judiciary and the political class.” Splintered Justice builds upon the findings of a 2014 book, On Their Watch: Mass Violence and State Apathy in India, in which scholars from the CES collated information they had gathered, through RTIs and extensive study of case files, on various incidents of mass violence in India.

In the following excerpt from the first part of the book, which focuses on Bhagalpur, Farasat recounts how the accounts of the victims and survivors indicated that the police had colluded with the rioters. Several witnesses said that they heard police officers encouraging the attackers. Farasat writes that the police also misled the Border Security Force and the army—both of which had been called in to help contain the violence—by giving them incorrect information about which villages to reach. Many survivors noted that KS Dwivedi, the then senior superintendent of the police, played a key role in enabling the Hindu mobs—an allegation that a commission of inquiry later upheld.

The police’s role in the Bhagalpur carnage was questionable, if not downright criminal. Instead of protecting Muslims, they watched as mobs put them to sword, or worse still, joined the perpetrators. This eroded whatever trust Muslims had in the enforcers of law, so much so that eyewitnesses preferred to lodge complaints in courts rather than with the police.

Mohammad Iqbal, now nearing 75, of Rampur village in Rajaun, watched as his nephew Salim was slain. “Upon Ajay’s order they started hitting Salim, relentlessly on the head with axes and sickles. At that time we all were at an approximate distance of about 150 yards,” he recounts the horror. Before Iqbal and his fellow villagers could do anything to save Salim, the rioters saw them and leapt in their direction. They fled, ran into a police contingent and sought their help to save Salim, to no avail. Iqbal and his companions crossed the river and, from the other bank, watched as the rioters killed Salim, cut his body into small pieces and threw them into the river. Sometime later, the police did visit Rampur village, but did not take any action against the rioters; the visit was a mere procedural formality.

The Muslims had no faith left in the police, but even had they wanted to approach them, it was fraught with great risk: passing through Hindu neighbourhoods to go to a police station was suicidal. So, when the situation improved, Iqbal, Adil, and other villagers approached the Banka court to register a complaint; that too only when two Hindu friends from Nandlalpatti, Raipokhar, agreed to go along. Approaching the police was unthinkable, Iqbal says, after how they had behaved when his nephew was killed. For Iqbal, there was no difference between the rioters and the policemen. On their plea, a case was registered in the Banka court on 11 December 1989 in the name of Adil. In the plea, Adil had named 14 persons as accused. The accused were prosecuted on the basis of testimonies of the three witnesses and sentenced to life imprisonment by a court in Bhagalpur. They, however, appealed their conviction in the Patna High Court and got bail, pending disposal of their appeals. All of them are still out on bail.

The shameful stories of police indifference, or worse still, complicity, in the carnage were repeated across Bhagalpur. When Terah Mile, a village in then undivided Bhagalpur now falling under Banka district, was attacked, the police did nothing to stop the rioters. Instead, eyewitness testimonies reveal, they encouraged the mob to kill and pillage the Muslims. In the police contingent present on the spot, three personnel were Muslim, and they did try to stop the rioters, but their efforts came to naught as the overwhelming number of their Hindu colleagues abetted the rioters.

Bibi Fareeda, 65, from Nurpur Mohalla in Nathnagar village, is still struggling to overcome the trauma of the carnage. She lost her younger son Ashraf, 20, to the riots, while her older son, Asad, was shot and critically injured. She vividly remembers the horror she witnessed on 25 October 1989. She remembers overhearing Inspector KK Singh instigating rioters, and asking them to not only loot but also kill Muslims.

Bibi Fareeda is in no doubt that the Bihar police were complicit in the pogrom. They gave police uniforms to the rioters and incited them to kill Muslims. As in Terah Mile, the police were divided along religious lines across Bhagalpur. Muslims in Nurpur were lucky; a Muslim Inspector, Mohammad Rehman, commanded the contingent of the two-dozen policemen posted there, and that was the only reason most of its Muslim residents survived. Shah Bano of Bhagalpur town says the rioters entered her house while the police watched. In fact, she heard the Station House Officer urging the mob to not leave a single Muslim alive. Shah Bano says when the survivors sought refuge at the police station, the personnel there screamed at them, bundled them into vehicles and dumped them at the Marwari school relief camp. Shah Bano’s mother and grandparents were killed in the carnage; her mother and grandmother were dragged out to Budhanath Mandir Chowk, barely half a kilometre from the Kotwali police station in Bhagalpur, and killed. Her 75-year-old maternal grandfather was tied down on a cot in their house and burnt. His body was later thrown into the Ganga.

The Bihar police did not just participate in the carnage of Muslims, but also prevented armed forces sent to contain the riots from doing their job. They misled both the army and the Border Security Force (BSF), who were heavily dependent on them for information about the prevailing situation, which resulted in the anti-Muslim violence spreading to rural areas of Bhagalpur. Instead of guiding the army and the BSF to a village where Muslims were being attacked, the police deliberately sent them to a different village. By the time the security forces reached the affected village, it would be too late.

Hours before Muslims were massacred in Chanderi village, the local police had asked the army to leave and patrol ahead, falsely assuring them that they would ensure the safety of Muslims. But as soon as the army left, the police joined the rioters and participated in the bloodbath of Muslims. The army returned to find 66 Muslims In localities where the police did not participate in the carnage, they watched as the Hindu mobs ran riot. Senior officers were as complicit as the constabulary. Survivors have maintained that the then Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) of Bhagalpur, KS Dwivedi, played a direct role in the riots. As the top officer in charge of law and order, he not only failed in his duty to stop the riots, but also issued instructions to his force to target the Muslims. This is not just an exaggerated claim made by the survivors, as the government’s Commission of Inquiry (CoI) in its final report also held Dwivedi “wholly responsible” for the carnage, saying he was “communally biased” against the Muslims. Indicting Dwivedi, the CoI noted:

We would hold Dwivedi, the then Senior Superintendent of Police, Bhagalpur, wholly responsible for whatever happened before October 24, 1989, on 24th and after 24th. His communal bias was fully demonstrated by his manner of arresting the Muslims and by not extending adequate help to protect them.

The CoI report stated that Dwivedi’s communal bias was apparent from an infamous incident, sometime before the carnage. On the occasion of Moharram, he had delivered a hate speech, saying he would make Bhagalpur another Karbala, implying a massacre of its Muslim residents. At the time, the district magistrate had to seek Dwivedi’s apology for this statement. The CoI report also named several other public officials for not taking adequate steps to control the anti-Muslim violence, either deliberately or due to incompetence. The carnage took place when the Congress was in power in Bihar and its veteran leader Satyendra Narayan Sinha was Chief Minister. When Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi visited Bhagalpur during the riots, he ordered the immediate transfer of SSP Dwivedi. This triggered protests from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and other Hindu right-wing groups, forcing Rajiv to revoke his transfer order. The vehement protests against Dwivedi’s transfer, by Hindu fundamentalist groups, should have come as proof of the officer’s complicity in the carnage. Instead, the government buckled under pressure and let him continue. Even today, survivors emphasise that had the transfer of Dwivedi not been revoked, many lives would have been saved.

Besides the findings of the CoI report, the definitive account of the survivors about the shameful role of the local administration, particularly the police, in the carnage comes from the report of AK Singh, the then Additional District Magistrate (ADM) of Bhagalpur. Singh reported that as soon as DIG Ajit Dutta—one of the few officers who stood out as honourable exceptions to the police’s general conduct—left Charha Bargaon in Shahkund, four Muslims, who had brought him to the village to recover their belongings, were lynched. One of them was a polio-affected man and two were elderly women. This happened on the watch of ASI RN Jha and his subordinates, who stood laughing as the four Muslims ran towards Radhangar in a futile attempt to save their lives. Yet, despite their complicity in this gruesome crime, no action was taken against Jha and his constables.

Across Bhagalpur, says Salman Ali, the police supported the rioters. And where they did try to help, it did not make much difference. Had it not been for the Border Security Forces (BSF), many more Muslims would have been killed.

This is an excerpt from Splintered Justice: Living the Horror of Mass Communal Violence in Bhagalpur and Gujarat, by Warisha Farasat and Prita Jha, published by the Three Essays Collective. The excerpt has been condensed.