INTERVIEW

First person: A police officer's account of being harassed for stopping a riot in Rajasthan

Superintendent of Police Pankaj Choudhary stopped a riot, but got a call from the Inspector General in the Chief Minister's Office to release Sangh activists arrested for triggering it.

From all accounts, Superintendent of Police Pankaj Choudhary played a stellar role in ensuring that three deliberately crafted incidents of violence in Nainwa and Khanpur in Bundi district, Rajasthan, didn’t turn into a bloody communal riot. Among the measures he took was to arrest 11 activists of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal.

Then a call from the Inspector General of Police in Chief Minister’s office of Rajasthan came to Choudhary. "Release the 11 or prepare to get posted out". The Indian Police Service officer says he refused to relent, and has been chargesheeted since then, besides being transferred three times in 15 months. In this interview to Scroll, the indomitable IPS officer narrates a fascinating story of how he has taken on the system, which is rotten to its very core.

You were the Superintendent of Police of Bundi district, Rajasthan, in September last year, when on the 12th of that month a communal riot too place. What sparked the rioting?
There was an election for the nagar panchayat due in Nainwa. Those who had interest in the election wanted to polarise voters. A rumour was spread that an idol of Hanuman had been damaged in a temple at Khanpur, which is a qasba five kilometre from Nainwa. On Sept 12, a few people came to Nainwa thana [police station] with a complaint that the idol of Hanuman had been damaged at Khanpur.

Who were these people?
They were from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Bajrang Dal and others who had a vested interest in the nagar panchayat election. They submitted a list of people to the Station House Officer and demanded their immediate arrest. The SHO told them that he would go to Khanpur, close as it is to Nainwa, to verify whether the idol had indeed been damaged.

Meanwhile, the number of those who had come to complain started to increase. There were 10 people initially. In no time it grew to 20, then 100, and soon there was a mob of 300 people.

Where were you?
I was in Bundi, holding a crime meeting. The distance between Bundi and Nainwa is about 80 km, and it takes four hours to reach from one place to the other. They (the complainants) knew I would be in a meeting, for the schedule of it is prepared and announced in advance. The time they chose to lodge the complaint shows their attempt at triggering communal rioting was pre-planned. Their idea was that since I would be involved in the meeting, it would give them four to five hours to execute their plan.

When the SHO contacted me, I told him he should verify whether the idol at the Khanpur temple had been damaged.

Who were the people whom the complainants wanted to be arrested?
Most of the people were Muslim. There is a background to it. In 2012, a few Hindus were arrested for desecrating and damaging a mazaar (mausoleum) in Nainwa. They were "challaned" and court procedure was initiated. This led them to harbour sentiments of revenge against the Muslim community.

Their planning was based on three overlapping factors. One, they wanted to take revenge for the 2012 incident. Two, there was the upcoming nagar panchayat election. Three, they chose September 12 because they knew I would be involved in a crime meeting and couldn’t, therefore, immediately leave Bundi for Nainwa with security force.

How many people did the complainants want the police to arrest?
Initially, they gave the SHO five names and then added 16 more to it.  Most were Muslims.

When did the RSS-VHP-Bajrang Dal guys come to the Nainwa police station with their complaint?
They met the SHO around 6.30 pm.

Oh, so it was in the evening?
Yes, the crime meeting was scheduled between 6pm to 8pm. As I told you, I had already asked the SHO to verify the complaint. On verification, the SHO found that no mala fide incident, as was alleged, had taken place at the temple in Khanpur. It is not even a proper temple. It is a ruin in which there is the idol of Hanuman – it doesn’t even have a door. Since the ruin is located on a hilly terrain, people don’t go there to do puja. You have goats grazing there.

Who was the SHO then?
Badan Singh. Once they realised that the events weren’t unfolding as they had planned, the mob took to pelting stones at the police station. At the same time, a mazaar in Khanpur was damaged and a bus at Nainwa was torched.

They couldn’t have fanned out to Khanpur so quickly, could they?
They had their people everywhere. Different groups owing allegiance to them had been assigned separate tasks. One group stoned the police station, another damaged the mazaar at Khanpur, a third group burnt a bus.

How many constables are there at a police station?
Nainwa police station has a strength of 25. When there is a spontaneous outburst, it is easy to control it. But when it is planned, and different incidents happen simultaneously, then it becomes difficult for an SHO to handle it. This is because you can’t know in advance what the plan of rioters is.

When did you get the news about these three violent incidents?
I got the news at 7 pm. I dispatched the Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP), then sent the Additional SP at 7.30 pm, and I left for Nainwa with security force at 8 pm. I also augmented the strength at three-four police stations near Nainwa.

When we reached Nainwa, our top priority was to ensure that Hindus and Muslims didn’t clash. Since a religious place had been desecrated, it was inevitable for emotions to run high. Mind you, it was the religious place of Muslims which had been damaged. It was also bound to revive the memories of 2012, about which I have already told you. Also, Nainwa is communally sensitive. In 1990 and 2004, Nainwa had witnessed riots. My first priority, therefore, was to assure Muslims that those responsible for desecrating the mausoleum would be rounded up. I asked them to give me four or five hours.

You mean all this was happening so late at night – you left Bundi at 8 pm and would have therefore reached Nainwa at around 12?

I was there in Nainwa at 11 pm.  People were watching and waiting to see what the police would do. Nainwa knew the SP had arrived. Whether or not the Muslims would retaliate, or express their anger in some way, depended on what action we took.

The first thing I did was to convene a meeting of eminent people from both communities, you know, people who are respected and have a good image. In the coordination meeting both groups agreed that there had been a deliberate attempt to create a communal discord.

Nainwa must have been on tenterhooks through the night
Yes, we picked up six people around 2-3 am.

Who were they?
They were members of the VHP and the Bajrang Dal. Nainwa understood that we meant business. Around that time we also took the decision to impose curfew from the morning of September 13. This was because we feared people might come out in daylight and clash.

Nainwa couldn’t have slept through the night?

Absolutely. The curfew was imposed at 5 am. It was then that we picked up another five – they were the main culprits.

Did these five also belong to the VHP and Bajrang Dal?
Yes, or to other related organisations (in other words, belonged to the Sangh Parivar). Through the night we had identified the people who had provoked the incident at the police station, to which organisations they belonged, what was their modus operandi - we had their entire profile. Subsequently, the curfew was relaxed gradually.

This means the curfew continued for at least three-four days. Were you stationed in Nainwa during this period?
I was camped at the police station for eight days. We interrogated the 11 we had picked up, filed challans against them, and initiated court proceedings against them.  The lower court rejected their bail application. Our investigation was solid.

You keep saying the communal incidents were planned. How did your team come to this conclusion?
The main accused, Sita Ram Mali, who was an accused in the 2012 mazaar incident, was one who came to the Nainwa police station to file the complaint about the Hanuman idol being damaged.

Revelations came during the interrogation. The Additional SP interrogated Radhe Shyam Mali, who has a criminal background and is also a member of VHP-Bajrang Dal. It is he who told us that the events of September 12 were all planned. We have the recording of the interrogation. He confessed and identified which team indulged in stone-throwing, which burnt the bus, and which damaged the mazaar at Khanpur. The tasks had been assigned beforehand. He also said the plan was hatched to polarise the voters before the election.

By the way, our interrogation also revealed that the Hanuman idol was damaged a little after 8 pm on Sept 12, that is, a good 90 minutes after they had come to the police station to complain about it.

Did you pick up any Muslim on that night?
Yes, we did, and it was to convey that we were acting impartially. Since they didn’t have a role in the incidents, we released them.

The experience must have been very satisfying to you
(Smiles) On September 21, I was put on APO – Awaiting Posting Order. People were dismayed. Let us face it, the communal incidents could have turned into a full-blown riot had I and my team not taken strict and immediate action. People also thought we had been transparent in our conduct, and that our aim was to see that justice was meted out. As soon as I was put on APO, people visited me and said I had been mistreated even though I had worked round-the-clock to stop the riot.

Where were you posted?
I was posted to Jaipur, where I was attached to the office of Director-General of Police. There was no work. I was told I had to come and sign (the attendance register) every morning and evening. So that was what I did. (Laughs)

Your laughter suggests your transfer was no simple matter.
On the night of September 20, I received a call from Sanjay Agrawal, Inspector General of Police in the Chief Minister’s Office. He said, "SP [Superintendent of Police] saheb, you have to anyhow release the 11 whom you have arrested."

I was taken aback. I said, "Please sir, I can’t release them. They are criminals. Our filings are complete, and even the lower court has refused them bail. Now the matter can only be taken to the High Court. How can I release them anyhow? I don’t think we would be doing justice by releasing criminals. My conscience doesn’t allow that."

Agrawal got very angry. He said, "Either you will do it or the next SP will.”

His remark was a clear-cut indication that I would be posted out in case I wasn’t willing to please them. I was put on APO the very next day. It was extremely shocking for me.

Was it only Agrawal who called you or were there others who did too?
There were others too who called. But I think I was able to convince a lot of them about the case I had against those 11 criminals. But there were some among them, those who had vested interests, who were not convinced. I don’t know to which lobby they belonged. But I told them, "No, I won’t release them."

Didn’t you take any counter-measure once you received the call from Inspector General in the chief minister's office?
I did. On the night I received the call from Agrawal, I sent a fax to the Director General of Police telling him how I had been threatened that I would be transferred out unless I release the 11 criminals.

What’s the Director General’s name?
Omendra Bhardwaj. He has since retired. I also sent a fax to the then Inspector General of my range, Ravi Prakash Mehra, saying it was unjustified to release the 11 who were criminals and whom the police had apprehended after much difficulty. In my fax to the DG, I also said that since Agrawal had threatened me with a transfer, suitable proceedings should be initiated against him. What proceedings against him? They transferred me to Jaipur. A month later, they posted me to Delhi as commanding officer of the 11th battalion of the Rajasthan Armed Constabulary.

The media reported that the Rajasthan government has chargesheeted you. Has it?
Yes, on September 21 this year, the government provided me the chargesheet, which is issued against officials for misconduct, say, for being careless while discharging duty. I have been chargesheeted under Rule 10 of the All-India Service Rules, 1969. The charge against me is that there was a delay on my part to reach Nainwa and Khanpur because of which the incidents of rioting took place. So if the charge is proved against me, minor penalty under Rule 10 would be imposed on me. This means I would be either censured or an increment due to me would be stopped. I was given 15 days to explain my conduct.

I did the "receiving" of the chargesheet on Sept 28 and asked for documents pertaining to the charge. The interesting aspect of the case is that I am the only officer among all those who were posted in Bundi who has been charged.

What documents did you ask for?
I asked for all call details, such as when did I receive the call telling me about the incidents in Nainwa, for the call details of Additional SP, IG etc, which would show who called whom. I demanded the logbook of the vehicle I took to reach Nainwa, the distance between Nainwa and Bundi, and the time generally taken to cover the distance. Isn’t it obvious that it would take me time to reach Nainwa? I couldn’t possibly have flown on my own wings there. I also asked for the reports filed by the IG and District Magistrate, as also those I wrote and filed.

I have sent four reminders to them, but I haven’t yet heard from them. I haven’t got a single document from them yet.

Why did they take a year to chargesheet you?
It is an attempt to harass me, victimise me. First, they posted me out of Bundi to Jaipur, then I was sent to Delhi. A year later, not only have I been charged, but I have been transferred now to State Crime Records Bureau in Jaipur. I go there tomorrow (Dec 10). In the one year I have been in Delhi, I did a lot of constructive work, undertook several welfare measures for the jawans. But suddenly, without intimation, they have, again, transferred me out. After all, I had been sent to Delhi only a year ago. What else is this but harassment?

I have applied under the RTI [Right to Information] for the documents which I told you about. Once I receive the documents, I will send my reply to the chargesheet. In that reply, I will say that what is being done against me is unjustified, and that I should have been awarded for ensuring that communal rioting did not take place. Instead of awarding me, they are harassing me. The people in Bundi still say that had I not acted with resolve, rioting would have happened.

Yes, but why did they take a year to chargesheet you? They could have done this a year earlier, at the time they transferred you to Jaipur.
It is because I have named officers – Agrawal, Bhardwaj and Bundi’s district magistrate. The district magistrate was then a lady officer. She was on leave. On the night of Sept 12, I spoke to her for good 30 minutes. She didn’t care to come to Bundi for the next three days. She availed of her leave. In fact, I wrote to the seniors saying that while I have been chargesheeted for delay in reaching Nainwa, no action has been taken against the DM who was absent from the district for three days. Today, in India, you can reach anywhere in a few hours. After all, DM and SP are the mai-baap [lord and master; literally, mother and father] of districts. In not taking action against the DM, they have shown their mala fide intent. Is this what you call justice?

All this constitutes my letter to the chief secretary and the DG. I also wrote to them asking whether they were contemplating any action against Agrawal who threatened me and mounted pressure on me to release 11 criminals. I haven’t heard from them.

But isn’t it a case of your word against Agrawal’s? You don’t have proof against him, do you?
Oh, I recorded him when he called me on the night of Sept 20.  But this is not all – within three or four days of another SP taking over from me, all the 11 criminals were released.

Don’t tell me. Did the court release them?
I don’t know what procedure was adopted to release them. But they were released. So in the letters to my seniors I have asked why, and under which procedure, the 11 criminals were released. No reply from them yet. In fact, I wrote to the DG asking whether it was our way of acting justly, of demonstrating to people that this was our idea of dispensing justice. How could they release the 11 criminals? Either I was right in arresting them or my successor was in releasing them. Both of us couldn’t be right simultaneously.

You have written all this to the DG?
Yes. If I don’t get hear to from them, or their answers are not satisfactory, then I plan to go to court. If they don’t care to reply to an IPS officer after four reminders, you can very well imagine the treatment meted out to a common man.

Are other officers supporting you? Do you feel isolated?
Those who are honest and dedicated to their service, they are supporting me. Not others. Frankly speaking, the latter are in majority. They have a very negative attitude towards me.

Have they told you anything?
No, they haven’t said anything to my face. But I can sense their negative attitude towards me. It is like they are communicating to me that I have stepped out of the system.

You didn’t try to petition the chief minister?
I have written to the Chief Secretary, the DG, and the IG, but I haven’t yet got a reply. On top of it, I had a threatening call from the Inspector General in the Chief Minister's Office. The mindset (of those in power) is clear. Well, my mind too is made up as to what I have to do. I have two demands: one, criminals who have been released should be sent back to jail and, two, those involved in releasing them should be suspended – and action should be taken against them. Otherwise I plan to take this issue to court.

Do you think officers are committed to the party in power
Unfortunately, it is true. This is what has hurt and harmed our society the most. As police officers, we take the oath to uphold the Constitution of India, not of any party. But to nurture their career, to remain, say, an SP of a particular district, they become amenable to being managed (by their political masters). You have to treat criminals as criminal, but officers forget this rule in order to protect their own interests. It is clear to me that 90% of officers can be managed.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is available in bookstores.

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