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.

Warisha Farasat is an alumnus of the National Law School, Bangalore, and Columbia University. She practises law in Delhi, and has explored the intersections between law, politics and society.

Keywords: FIR 1989 Bihar communal violence Communal riots justice Bhagalpur KS Dwivedi