The Yogi Adityanath government has clearly given a free hand to the UP Police to deal with Muslim protesters. But it did not train the UP Police in anti-Muslim bigotry, Islamophobia and violence. That training was received under previous Congress governments in Uttar Pradesh.
Almost half a century back, Muslims in Uttar Pradesh protesting government legislation were brutally put down by the police. Dozens were killed, their property looted and their houses burned. Although these were termed as riots, it was mainly state repression because most of the atrocities on Muslims were committed not by members belonging to the majority community but by the police.
So, when we look at the recent police atrocities on Muslims under the Adityanath government, it is useful to place it in a larger historical context.
It was 1972, Indira Gandhi was the prime minister (and the home minister), and Muslims were protesting a law curtailing the autonomy of the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU). Before the elections, Indira Gandhi had promised to restore the minority status of AMU, so this legislation was viewed as a betrayal. This prompted Muslims to begin one of the first big protests against the government since Independence. The secular Congress government showed little patience for these protesters and set a template of state action, that is now being followed by Yogi Adityanath.
This history of police violence in UP is important — not as empty whataboutery, but to gain a fuller understanding of the present in light of a blood-soaked past.
Previous Congress governments displayed a shameful record of shielding policemen accused of atrocities, whether in the 1972 state-wide ‘riots’, the Moradabad ‘riots’ of 1980, or the Meerut riots/Hashimpura massacre, as A.G. Noorani pointed out in an article in the Economic and Political Weekly. The institutional sense of impunity that allows the UP police to run amok now was developed during the Congress regimes.
In 1972, there were allegations of police atrocities in many cities of Uttar Pradesh such as Aligarh, Firozabad and Varanasi. The opposition leader Charan Singh alleged that Muslim houses were burnt by the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC). In Firozabad alone, as many as 66 people had been killed, according to N.G. Goray, an MP at the time. “The Muslim community in that town seems to have been the target of every conceivable form of cruelty: looting, stabbing, shooting, burning, molesting, raping. The most shameful thing is that all this was freely indulged in by the forces of law and order in collusion with local goondas,” Goray wrote in a letter to Indira Gandhi.
Much like Adityanath today, Indira Gandhi backed the police force. “The commissioner and the Inspector General of police did not find any substance in the allegation that the police, in general, had run amuck,” Gandhi dismissively replied. In Moradabad in1980, she deflected from ghastly police excesses by characterising it as “a conspiracy to undermine the government”. Indira Gandhi defended the notoriously anti-Muslim UP PAC again during the 1983 Meerut riots, lamenting the sweeping allegations against it.
The stain of Hashimpura
Hashimpura is one of the biggest stains on Congress’ murky record of secularism. “Hashimpura was to Congress rule what the 2002 Gujarat riots was to the BJP government in the State,” author Ziya Us Salam wrote in his book Of Saffron Caps and Skullcaps.
The Delhi High Court recently sentenced 16 former Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) men in Uttar Pradesh to life imprisonment for killing 42 Muslims in Hashimpura area of Meerut in 1987. This long-delayed justice was despite the efforts of then state Congress government, which tried to bury the cases.
The UP government at the time, under pressure from the Rajiv Gandhi government, withdrew hundreds of cases from Meerut. Vibhuti Rai, who was then superintendent of the police overseeing Hashimpura, later wrote a book Hashimpura 22 May explaining how the PAC had rounded up dozens of Muslims from riot-torn Meerut and had killed them in cold blood. “Hashimpura remains a disgraceful instance of the merciless and barbaric use of brute state force and a spineless, politically expedient government lying prostrate before its own men- the killers,” Rai wrote in his book.
In the 29 riots reported in Uttar Pradesh, the UP PAC was accused of massacring Muslims in 13. As late writer and activist Asghar Ali Engineer wrote — “In all UP riots the PAC plays anti-Muslim roles”.
Reckoning with the past
The UP PAC was implicated in horrors across UP in the 1970s and ‘80s ranging from Firozabad (1972), Muzaffarnagar (1975), Sultanpur (1976), Sambhal (1978), Aligarh (1978 and 1980), Moradabad (1980), Meerut (1982, 1986 and 1987), Bahraich (1983), Mau (1983), Pilibhit (1986), Bara Banki (1986) and Allahabad (1986).
Despite that, not only was there no attempt to reform the PAC and cleanse it of its anti-Muslim bias, but the PAC was actually called in by successive administrations as the first resort to counter any ‘disturbance’.
The naked communalism of Yogi Adityanath’s government, the brutality of the UP Police, or the political marginalisation of Muslims have not sprung up from a vacuum. They share important continuities with the state’s‘secular’ past. Regardless of who it implicates, only an honest reckoning with this past can provide a pathway to a more just and inclusive future.
The author is a research scholar in political science at the University of Delhi. Views are personal.