Citizen Matters and Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, in collaboration with the Bangalore International Centre (BIC), held a panel discussion on ‘Preventing Riots, Ensuring Harmony’ on December 7, 2020.
This was the seventh in a series of discussions, held as part of the Bengaluru Solutions Series, and dedicated to urban issues. It made significant observations on the role of the police and state response while expressing concern over the misuse of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.
The panel comprised of Vidbhuti Narain Rai, former IPS officer and author of ‘Curfew in the City’; former public prosecutor and independent advocate Venkatesh Bubberjung; Taffu, a resident of DJ Halli who witnessed the rioting in August; Madhu Bhushan, activist who was part of a civil-society fact-finding team to DJ Halli and KJ Halli; Aditya Bharadwaja, a Bengaluru-based journalist who covered the August 11 riots and Sneha Visakha, research fellow with Vidhi Legal. Raksha Kumar, Consulting Editor, Citizen Matters, moderated the discussion.
Potent mix: Mistrust, bias, inefficiency
Setting the tone for the debate, Raksha noted that Karnataka has seen more religious tensions that the other southern states. In the last 30 years, it had riots not only over religious tensions, but over language and water-sharing, as seen in the Urdu riots and Cauvery riots.
The lasting after-effects of such violence were state retaliation, police brutality, economic stagnation and mistrust among communities, she said.
Vidbhuti Narain Rai said that the DJ Halli and KJ Halli disturbances seemed to be a case of violence between the police and the Muslim community, following anger over the delay in filing an FIR.
Drawing on his 37-year career in the police force, he said such violence often starts in a spontaneous manner, mostly between the Muslim community and the police. The police often display an in-built bias against the community, and is exacerbated by a huge trust-deficit between the State and the Muslim community, he said.
Lamenting the absence of good policing, Venkatesh Bubberjung called for “policing the police”. The system of intelligence-gathering by beat constables, with an ear-to-the-ground approach, was lacking, he said.
Transfers had led to politicisation of the police department, Venkatesh said. While it is riddled with systemic inefficiency, the State is arming the police force with extraordinary laws. The inability of the State and its institutions to understand and address the concerns of the community is at the heart of the issue, he said.
Breaking a community’s back
On the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, he said that in “draconian” laws such as this, the process operates as punishment, with the accused being treated as guilty until proven innocent. Sessions judges are under pressure to not acquit accused in these cases, leaving High Courts to deal with it, he said.
When innocent people from the community are picked up and slapped with UAPA, it breaks the back of the community, leading to a cycle of social and economic deprivation, Venkatesh said.
“We are ghetto cities. It is a global, urban phenomenon with segregated living; the most marginalised communities living together cohesively in working class neighbourhoods like Padarayanapura in Bengaluru, where violence does not happen. There is no Dalit-Muslim, Tamil-Dalit, or Tamil-Muslim violence… it doesn’t exist between groups from economically deprived strata.” Venkatesh Bubberjung, advocate.
Taffu spoke of innocent street vendors, wholesale market workers, young Muslim men employed in BPOs and IT sector who, unaware of the curfew, set out to work the next morning, being arrested. They were slapped with the UAPA, a law whose provisions resulted in their being incarcerated without bail, he said.
Many of them are sole breadwinners, he said, pointing out that their arrest has rendered women and children in their poor households in a precarious financial condition. On the other hand, Naveen Kumar, who created the Facebook post that set off the series of events, is out on bail, Taffu said.
Police as peacekeeper
Madhu Bhushan noted that on deeper engagement with what appears to be a complex issue, the solutions are simple. She said, “Every time there is a riot or targeted violence, we need to hold the government in power responsible and accountable directly. To ensure harmony, we need to empower local communities to evolve ways of co-existence between diverse people as an intrinsic part of local governance and ensure that the police don’t become an extended part of the state.”
Highlighting the need for a paradigm shift in policing, she advocated strengthening the force’s capacity for peacekeepers as against arming it further.
Madhu emphasised the need for solutions that emerge from the ground up. One should pay attention to the root of every outbreak of violence in the name of language, religion, caste, ethnicity etc. and see what works to realise sustainable peace initiatives on the ground.
The biggest riot in the country’s history — during the Partition — was caused by the ‘divide and rule’ policy of a receding imperialist power, Madhu said. “That legacy is continuing in the form of a neo-liberal, majoritarian, hyper-masculine State that is exploiting every existing fault line in our culture, be it caste, religion, gender, ethnicity or class,” she said.
Build-up to August 11
Aditya Bharadwaja said the violence in DJ Halli and KJ Halli in August should be seen in the context of biased coverage of the Muslim community in the media. Noting how regional media covered the Padarayanapura protests, he said that it demonised and blamed the Muslim community for the spread of Covid-19.
A series of events, from the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act, Covid-19 lockdown, job loss and socio-economic devastation, had set the stage long before the violence. Kannada television media’s coverage further incited violence, he said.
Aditya laid out the series of events that took place on the night of Augut 11, starting with the controversial Facebook post hurtful to the Muslim community. The post by Naveen Kumar, nephew of the local MLA, led to a group of Muslims going to the police station and demanding filing of an FIR. The delay in police response led to mistrust. Before any incident that set off violence occurred, hours of police inaction led to the building up of an agitated atmosphere, he said.
Sneha Visakha said systemic conditions often precede incidence of community violence. Urban researchers, she noted, found economically and socially deprived neighbourhoods in cities being inhabited mainly by SC, ST and Muslim communities.
Marginalised populations are concentrated in specific areas, thanks to the creation of segregated cities through decades of urban planning, Sneha said. Imposition of curfew in these areas feeds into an ongoing cycle of social and economic deprivation.
The police, Sneha said, are not exempt from prevailing social biases and prejudices including casteism, patriarchy and islamophobia. Lawyers need to engage with geography, in terms of how laws operate in and affect neighbourhoods and communities, she said.
Watch the entire panel discussion here: