On Friday, the Madhya Pradesh government transferred Sanjay Pathak, town inspector of Shahpur police station in Burhanpur district, where 15 Muslim men had been arrested and charged with sedition for allegedly bursting firecrackers after Pakistan’s cricket team defeated the Indian team on June 18. The police later dropped the sedition charge and replaced it with promoting enmity between groups.

The case took an unexpected turn when Subhash Laxman Koli, the man listed as the complainant, recorded two statements before the Burhanpur district court that the police had filed a false case under his name. Koli, a dish antennae repairer, lives in Mohad, the village from where the men were picked up. He said he had gone to Shahpur police station to secure the release his friend, Anis Mansuri, one of those arrested. The policemen slapped Koli and taunted him. The next day, he was made to sign a false statement.

The Madhya Pradesh police has officially denied that Pathak’s transfer had anything to do with the Burhanpur case. The district superintendent of police RRS Parihar said the inspector was transferred to Mandsaur in connection with an old departmental enquiry pending against him in that district since 2014.

But senior officers in the police headquarters in Bhopal, who requested anonymity, admitted Pathak had been penalised for the shoddy handling of the case. By this, they did not mean the fabrication of a case but the wrong choice of complainant. “That one mistake of picking a wrong person as complainant proved costly for the police,” said an officer.

Another officer pointed out that this definition of mistake is symptomatic of the communal mindset that has beset the Madhya Pradesh police under the rule of the Bharatiya Janata Party. “The policemen who slapped Koli as they learnt his purpose for coming to the police station were instinctively furious because their minds have become conditioned to think that a Hindu cannot help Muslim,” he said.

A police officer’s ‘nationalism’

Sanjay Pathak, town inspector of Shahpur police station, openly displayed prejudice against Muslims. Four days after the arrests, seated at a desk in the main room of Shahpur police station, he described Mohad as a “little Pakistan”, where since there was a majority population of Muslims, there was bound to be communal aggression.

When one of the authors of this piece (Mridula Chari, hereafter ‘this reporter’) pointed out to him that Mohad was hardly anywhere near Pakistan, he replied: “Yahi to mujhe samajh mein nahi aa raha hai ki Mohad se Pakistan itna dur hai to phir Pakistan ki itni mohabbat aur itna apnapan aur itna utsah kyun?” [That is what I don’t understand – if Mohad is so far from Pakistan, then why such love and identification and enthusiasm for it?]

A journalist who had written a report contradicting police claims about the case called him on the phone. After berating him for a while, he hung up and referred to him as a ‘Pakistani agent’.

When questioned about the details of the case and whether there was a history of communal violence in Mohad, he claimed this reporter was speaking on behalf of Pakistan.

He boasted of his stern approach to work. He said he does not permit anybody working in the police station – from constables to his private secretary – to consume alcohol while in uniform or during working hours. He spoke with pride of the six encounters he has done in his 30-year career. Two of them were against people affiliated with political parties, he said, for which he had faced criminal cases. He had done the encounters because he felt no fear in carrying out that which he felt was right, he said.

Pathak considers himself a nationalist. “If I am told that I will be hanged to death if I work as a nationalist, then I will tell them, ‘Do it faster’,” he said.

This nationalism extends to proximity with organisations that are a part of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the parent organisation of the BJP.

On the day this reporter met Pathak, the narrative of the Mohad case had begun to shift. Hindu lawyers in Burhanpur had chanted slogans in court on June 21, saying they would not represent terrorists and traitors to the nation. Only one Muslim lawyer, Ubaid Ahmed, had come forward to take their case. By the next day, the complainant Subhash Koli had begun to refute the police narrative of what had happened in Mohad and his account as well as those of other villagers had begun to appear in newspapers.

This evidently had irked Pathak. Again in the presence of this reporter, Pathak spoke on phone to a representative of the “Mahasabha” [a possible reference to the Hindu Mahasabha]. In the conversation, he berated the saffron organisation and the “Parishad” [a possible reference to the Vishva Hindu Parishad] for not making their support for the sedition case more visible, particularly since newspapers had begun to write sympathetically about the people of Mohad village – “as if they were patriots and the police were anti-nationals,” he said. He wanted to know why the Hindutva organisations were silent when the lawyers were speaking out.

The 15 Muslim men who were arrested and charged with sedition. The sedition charge was dropped and replaced with the charge of promoting enmity between groups. Photo credit: Amnesty International.

A larger problem

The communal prejudice of one police officer is part of a larger problem: the state’s police force is constantly under pressure from the RSS, which wields great influence over the ruling BJP.

In April this year, tensions broke out in Sheopur town after Muslim residents reportedly objected to an RSS shakha being held near a mosque. RSS activists alleged that the Muslims raised anti-India slogans and uprooted an RSS flag post, while Muslims complained that the Sangh volunteers hurled stones at the mosque.

In this incident, the police relied on complaints from RSS volunteers to book 76 Muslims and arrest 10 of them under sections related to the defilement of a place of worship, criminal intimidation, rioting with deadly weapons, promoting enmity between groups, among others. RSS activists too were booked but none of them was arrested.

“Arresting RSS workers has become almost blasphemous in Madhya Pradesh, no matter howsoever heinous their crimes,” said LS Herdenia, convenor of the National Secular Forum, a civil society organisation.

In September last year, the police arrested Suresh Yadav, the RSS pracharak for Balaghat district, in Baihar town, for allegedly circulating an offensive post on the messaging service WhatsApp. No case was filed against him and Yadav alleged he was thrashed in the police station on September 25.

The government rarely acts on complaints of police violence but in this case it asked the Balaghat police to register FIRs against additional SP Rajesh Sharma, Baihar station in-charge Zia-ul-Haque, and five other policemen, for attempt to murder, robbery, rioting, criminal intimidation, among others. Balaghat’s inspector general of police and superintendent of police were also removed, much to the shock of the force. The state home minister told the media that he would ensure that police personnel learnt to respect RSS workers in their jurisdiction.

The Baihar case presented a sharp contrast to other cases in which Muslims were arrested for allegedly circulating provocative material on social media. In July last year, the Bhopal police arrested a bookshop owner for allegedly selling Nai Duniya, an Urdu weekly that had published the photograph of a local Bajrang Dal leader. Bajrang Dal activists had lodged a complaint accusing the magazine-seller of inciting hatred among communities. In the same month, police in Betul district arrested two men in connection with a communally sensitive message shared on a WhatsApp group. In May last year, the Bhopal police booked two men under the National Security Act after arresting them from Mumbai for reportedly posting obscene images of deities on Facebook.

Transfers as punishment

Barely two weeks after the Baihar case, some RSS workers clashed with Muslims over a procession in western Madhya Pradesh’s Petlawad town. After the police picked up three RSS members, who quickly accused the police of beating them up, the RSS shut down the entire district and blocked major highways. The government removed sub-divisional police officer Rakesh Vyas and inspector of Petlwad police station KS Shaktwat, and ordered an inquiry.

Vyas had submitted a four-page report prepared by Petlawad police on communal tension in the town, accusing RSS zila sah karyawah (district co-head) Akash Chouhan and his father of trying to “polarise Hindu voters” to win the upcoming Petlawad nagar panchayat elections.

There have been several cases of police officers being transferred out after they took on RSS workers. The superintendent of police of Neemuch district, T Amogla Aiyyar, was transferred in May last year, after she led a police team to reportedly protect a mosque from a mob of saffron activists.

Interestingly, Burhanpur superintendent of police RRS Parihar had faced the RSS ire when he was posted in Agar-Malwa district in 2014. After he arrested RSS members on the charge of fomenting communal trouble, he was shifted out. A state police service officer who was elevated to Indian Police Service in 2012, Parihar belongs to the Thakur community. It is widely believed that he used his Thakur connection to endear himself to BJP state president Nand Kumar Singh Chouhan. Chouhan, who hails from Shahpur in Burhanpur, is said to have got Parihar posted as the district superintendent of police in December 2016.