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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 43 New Delhi October 17, 2015

Lessons from Meerut

Monday 19 October 2015, by V R Krishna Iyer

V.R. Krishna Iyer, former Judge of the Supreme Court of India and Home Minister in the CPI-led government in Kerala (1957-59), visited in 1982 Meerut where communal tension had been persisting for over two months. On his return, Justice Krishna Iyer wrote a letter to P.C. Sethi, the Home Minister, Government of India, giving his impressions and suggestions. He forwarded a copy of this letter to the Prime Minister of India, with the observation: “After all, the integrity of the nation, the solidarity of the people and the co-existence of our religious denominations are too dear a value for us to be indifferent about. I know your deep concern for the cause. So I write this letter.”

Below is the text of the letter sent by Justice Krishna Iyer to P.C. Sethi, the Home Minister, on November 11, 1982. It was published in Mainstream (November 20, 1982). The letter was referred to in N.C.’s Editor’s 

Notebook in Mainstream (December 25, 1982).

o o o

V.R. KRISHNA IYER’S 1982 LETTER TO UNION HOME MINISTER

Dear Sethiji,

You will recall my telling you on the phone that I was visiting Meerut and you had volunteered that the Home Secretary would inform the District Collector. Unfortunately, the Collector did not know about my visit until I called him. Of course, he met me at the Circuit House and we had a very useful talk.

I visited an area where people had been killed by police firing. Mr Shah Nawaz Khan, one-time member of the Central Government and belonging to the Congress-I party, took me around. My impressions are formed by what I saw and heard and so, cannot be treated as firm conclusions, because I could not meet all sides nor make detailed investigations. Nevertheless, my prima facie feeling is strong that the PAC had got into the narrow living spaces of the huddled Muslim families and shot several males in cold blood. I met the women and children in their tragic mood and could not resist thoughts too deep for tears. Many young people—all but one or so Muslims, all of them poor and all of them certainly defenceless—were shot by the PAC constables from inside dwellings. How can one console these miserable souls? Those who died were innocent casualties of police excesses, it seemed to me; and communal clashes and mob fury leading to dispersal by police action were not the cause of these killings. I heard stories of armed policemen brutally shooting persons crouching inside dingy dwellings.

I have been a Home Minister 25 years ago in a small State in the South. I know the need to control the police lest they should run berserk. There is a strong feeling in the Muslim sector of Meerut that the PAC behaved like a chauvinist Hindu force. If this were true, there is need to investigate into the roots of recruitment and training policy, the professional culture and social milieu and other influences which deflect their secular discipline.

I talked to the Collector at length and asked him if any Hindu had died, which should ordinarily have happened if the episode were a communal clash. I asked some Hindus in Muslim localities. They were living in safety and security in locations of essentially Muslim majority. It is a pity that the victims were almost all of one community all from miserable familes and from places where even stray Hindus were residing in amity and without scare. Basically, our people are not given to communal violence unless engineers of religious rabidity inflame, inflate, fuel and fan incendiary religious insanity. And if the police become trigger-happy and non-secular our finer values are martyred. If the salt loses its savour wherewith shall it be salted? It looks as if a new non-communal police culture and people’s ethos must be cultivated actively. Too much dependence on ex post facto official activism and public enquiries can hardly do good except as opium of the people.

There is a story—which is symptomatic of what happens in many other places—that an innocent pipal tree became the triggering point for the Meerut communal outburst. The Hindus claimed a Mandir and the Muslims claimed a Mazar on perhaps the same spot. This is a typical communal syndrome. It appears some priest was killed and the case is under investigation. Some days after, unconnected Muslims were killed, with this thin alibi. I do not know how the first can be a justification for the next. All that I would conclude is that we cannot take secularism—even of officials—for granted and the saner sector of society, including public servants, must be constantly vigilant to see that communal friction, even trivial in character, are not allowed to fester or blow up. May be, the Muslim is right or the Hindu is right, but both are wrong towards society when a communal clash is the sequel.

Active monitoring by standing committees composed of both communities and local statesmen is necessary as an exercise in vigilance. Every police station, every District Superintendent’s office, every Collectorate must have a map of the sensitive spots, frictional festivals and provocative occasions. Likewise, they must have a list of the suspect elements and agents provocateurs and communal chauvinists who go into action on the slighest opportunity. I plead for a code for communal amity which will consist of two parts, one statutory and the other convention-based. Legislation vesting special powers to meet communal situations, pre-emptive provisions for any eventualities setting up sensitised machinery to anticipate, locate, pre-empt and punish with blitzkrieg effect must all be part of the Code—taking great care to inhibit over-zealous misuse and erosion of civil liberties. Simultaneously, there must be realisation that the official element involved in the process of implementation must be totally secular and must appear to be secular so that they may create credibility in the common people regardless of religion.

It is significant when the PAC was replaced by the CRP confidence in security crept back into the minority psyche.

At the grassroots level, we must culture a strong consciousness of secular fellowship by exposing them to healthy influences, creating conditions of life which will bring contentment and vaccinating them against communal temptations. All political parties must help the process. Moreover, amity committees of responsible citizens and officials and representatives of organisations must meet frequently even if there be no sign of tension. These committees may organise joint celebrations on festival occasions of particular religions. If Christmas celebrations, Muslim Ids and Hindu holy days are celebrated by friendly visits, common public meetings and rejoicings, regardless of religious denominations, a new spirit of integration will come into the broad community. It is a shock and a shame that in spite of Gandhi and Nehru, our secularism is skin-deep.

I daresay you will not misunderstand my motives. I speak with some little experience because I have faced Muslim-Hindu tensions in Kerala in 1957-59 when I was a Minister and have tackled them with some success. My heart bleeds when I remember the sorrowing faces I saw in Meerut.

I addressed the Meerut Bar Association and told them that they had a role to play in protecting human rights when communal riots take place. They must have a legal aid wing specially devoted to the cause, while will go into action when communal orgies erupt. I told the Collector and the Bar that it was violative of law and human rights to keep juveniles under 18 in adult prisons. I was told that there were cases of teenagers being kept in jails. This is illegal and inhuman. They should be forthwith released. Likewise, the sole male bread-winner, leaving behind a wife and children, should not be kept in prison. They are all poor people who have no means of living and if released, with condition to report to the police station daily, will involve no risk. After all, the police can shadow them to ensure that there is no breach of the peace.

There are many other steps like leaders and senior officers vising and consoling, enquiring and relieving distress, which if taken timely can heal the wounds. I recall my visit (when I was Kerala’s Home Minister) to a bereaved family where a plantation worker had been shot by the police in the course of a strike. I called on the family immediately and consoled them. Life is dear and death is irrevocable and therefore it a part of the culture of reverence for life, that we make the police more humane. Many of the killings in Meerut could have been avoided. I remember changing the police instructions from ‘shoot to kill’ to ‘shoot not to kill’. All these are more relevant in Meerut because the killings were from inside the houses and not in dispersing a mob in the streets. There are Meeruts and Barodas and Bhiwandis on the increase.

My visit was a fleeting one. My perceptions were perhaps perfunctory and my conclusions ill-founded. All that I want to do is to convey to you that much more has to be done and a much deeper probe into the police working must be undertaken if communal amity and secular solidarity were to become a functional fact of Indian life.

With regards,

Yours sincerely,

V.R. Krishna Iyer

(Mainstream, November 20, 1982)