I was posted as collector and DM in Indore early in December 1967. Indore is the premier city of Madhya Pradesh and a place where law and order issues often crop up, be it agitations by students, by workers in the textile mills or conflict situations arising from communal tensions. When law and order situations occur, other matters take a back seat and the focus of the district administration is directed on dealing with the situation and bringing it under control.

Prior to the communal riots that broke out in June 1969, Indore did not have a history of major communal disturbances, though some clashes between the two communities had occurred in the distant past. In the earlier part of 1969, however, communal tensions had surfaced. In January that year, a Hindu woman was murdered and when her body was carried in a procession, anti-Muslim slogans were raised, which had led to tempers flaming. However, vigilance by the police and the administration prevented a clash between the communities. Later on, the celebrations of Mahavir Jayanti and the Barawafat (or Milan-un-Nabi) festivals generated some tension between the communities because of provocative slogans shouted by processionists who were taking part in the celebrations, but there was no violence.

While relations may not have been entirely amicable at that time between the members of the two communities, the district administration had no reason to apprehend that there would be violent clashes in the proximate future.

With this backdrop, the district administration had given permission for two public events to be organised on June 2, 1969. The first was a programme to felicitate a well-known wrestler, Master Chandgi Ram who had been crowned “Bharat Kesri” (Lion of India) after defeating a wrestler known as Meher Deen. This programme had been organised by a body known as the Dugdh Vikreta Sangh. Permission had also been granted for holding a free-style wrestling event at the Nehru Stadium in Indore on the same day in which some well-known wrestlers, such as King Kong and Sardara Singh Randhawa, were taking part. Necessary police arrangements had been made at the venues to prevent any breach of peace, while magistrates had also been assigned duties along with police forces that had been deployed.

As far as Master Chandgi Ram was concerned, the plan was that after being received at the Indore railway station, he was to be taken in a procession through the town to the designated spot where he was to be felicitated. Late in the evening after 9.00 pm when the procession was passing through an area known as Bombay Bazaar, a predominantly Muslim area, it was attacked by miscreants using soda water bottles and iron bars. The city superintendent of police (CSP) was accompanying the procession, with a police force of about sixty policemen, but this proved to be inadequate to bring the situation under control. The processionists counter-attacked and full-scale rioting ensued. While Master Chandgi Ram was safely escorted out of this melee, many people were injured, some of them seriously.

CSP Shukla rang me up at about 9.30 pm when I had just come back to my residence after taking a round of the city and overseeing the arrangements for the free-style wrestling bouts at the stadium. He informed me he was unable to contact anyone in the Police Control Room and requested me to help in sending a reinforcement of police forces from the stadium. I remember that since my driver had left for home, I jumped into the official Jeep and drove myself to the stadium where the free-style wrestling show had just concluded and the crowd was still dispersing from the venue. The police personnel were also getting into their vehicles, ready to depart from the place. The most senior police officer I could find was an inspector, whom I asked to proceed immediately with his thirty-five-strong force to Bombay Bazaar to assist CSP Shukla there. I then proceeded to the Central Police Kotwali along with one or two other police officers, so that we could assess the situation and set up the Control Room at the Kotwali.

On reaching the Kotwali, sometime after 10.00 pm, we were inundated by various local leaders rushing in and many telephone calls informing us of clashes between the two major communities, as disturbances spread to several parts of the town

I will not go into the details of the events of the communal disturbances as they panned out that night and in the subsequent days. I will confine myself only to describing the major developments and issues we dealt with.

On reaching the Kotwali, I had to take control of policing functions too since the SP, Indore, was on leave and out of station. Meanwhile, the trouble spread from Bombay Bazaar to certain other localities, such as Juni Indore and Malharganj. By 3.00 am on June 3, the Control Room had become functional at the Kotwali and the Internal Security Scheme for Indore city was formally put into operation. The station officers were directed to commence preventive arrests of listed anti-social elements who were likely to indulge in rioting and arson. The city was divided into sectors, each under a police officer, along with a magistrate.

We were short of police forces so frantic requests were made to police headquarters at Bhopal to send reinforcements and these started trickling in from the neighbouring districts from the morning of June 3. However, the situation did not come immediately under control and, in fact, spread to more localities. The textile mills at the time employed some 22,000 workers of whom about 500 were Muslims. The Muslims workers were ostracised and could not go to work. In fact, this problem persisted for many days with an informal economic boycott preventing Muslim workers from reporting for duty.

Since in my assessment the situation could deteriorate further, I decided to request the army station commander at Mhow Cantonment to send an Internal Security column of the army to Indore to assist the civil administration in controlling the situation.

As a precautionary measure, curfew had also been imposed. Additional police forces that arrived from other districts were deployed at strategic points in the town and the army column demonstrated their presence with a flag march. With all these measures, the situation was gradually brought under control, but rioting at places continued to occur up to June 6 and the police had to resort to firing in several instances to control the mobs.

By June 7, the situation improved to the extent that no further clashes from any part of the town were reported. During the riots, there were many instances of arson and wilful damage to properties by the rampaging mobs. In all twelve persons were killed in the riots, ten of whom were Muslims. In terms of damages to residential and commercial properties too, the Muslims were the major sufferers.

With use of force wherever necessary, the rioters were quelled and the situation in Indore brought under control. However, there were several facets of the Indore riots that may be of interest to the readers. The first relates to seeking the assistance of the army in controlling the disturbances. As DM, I had taken the decision very soon after the rioting had started, to call in the army to assist the civil administration. This was done as in my judgement the psychological impact of the presence of the army and the army column doing a flag march in certain sensitive areas, would be immensely helpful in bringing the situation speedily under control. This, indeed, proved to be the case. However, the police officers present at the time were not happy about this. While they did not overtly express their dissent, I could easily make out that they would have preferred the army not to be called in. This reaction is understandable since the police officers may have felt that their competence was being questioned.

We have seen how the delay in seeking assistance of the army has been the subject of criticism in the case of major communal conflagrations such as in 1984 in Delhi, 1992–93 in Bombay and 2002 in Gujarat. Given these experiences, it can be asserted that it is preferable to err on the safer side by seeking the assistance of the army well in time, before the trouble escalates to an extent that it totally goes beyond the control of the civilian police forces.

Another aspect which needs to be commented upon is the role played by the media. A Hindi daily Swadesh, which was aligned to the right-wing Jan Sangh and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), published false and inflammatory news which was designed to promote disaffection between the communities.

The matter was reported to the state government to take action under the Public Security Act. The state government took its time, but eventually issued a formal warning to the newspaper. Action was also taken by the police to prosecute the newspaper under Section 153-A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). After some time, in a delayed reaction, the state government issued a notification stopping the publication of the Swadesh for one month on July 9, 1969. Action was taken against another publication Saptahik Matribhoomi under Section 153-A of IPC and the declaration of Dainik Kiran published from the same Swadesh press, was also cancelled by the sub-divisional magistrate.

It is unfortunate that at a time fraught with tension, when a responsible media should play a part in portraying facts truthfully and without bias, some sections of the media with the motive of improving their circulation published exaggerated and distorted versions of the incidents. They also helped to spread false information and rumours targeting a particular community. While our Constitution guarantees the freedom of the press, it has to be aware of its responsibilities, so that it acts in a manner that helps the administration in restoring peace instead of fuelling the fire.

Excerpted with permission from A Tide In The Affairs Of Men: A Public Servant Remembers, Prateep P Lahiri, Roli Books.