Kashmiri Muslims have to be treated as an integral part of India: Julio Ribeiro

Vijayanand Gupta/Hindustan Times/Getty Images
13 September, 2019

At 90 years old, Julio Ribeiro has had an illustrious career. He has served as the director general of police in Gujarat, as the Punjab DGP during the insurgency in the 1980s, as the commissioner of police of Mumbai, and as India’s ambassador to Romania. In 1987, he was awarded the Padma Bhushan, one of India’s highest civilian awards. He retired from the Indian Police Service in 1989. Since 1994, Ribeiro has worked towards building communal harmony in Mumbai. In this regard, he was instrumental in the formation of and work carried out by the Mohalla Committee Movement Trust—an umbrella body of several local committees spread across Mumbai that have worked towards developing peaceful inter-faith relations in the city.

In a conversation in early September at his Mumbai residence, which later continued over the phone, Ribeiro spoke with Abhimanyu Chandra, a PhD student at the University of Chicago. They discussed, among other things, the current situation in Kashmir, the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat, and prejudices held by the police. He said that while a communal bias against the Muslim community has long existed among India’s police forces, it has come to the fore under the regime led by Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party. Partly as a result of this, Ribeiro noted, there is an increasing fear among India’s Muslim community. “That is not a good thing for governance,” Ribeiro said. “I can’t understand how any government can govern an alienated community.”

Abhimanyu Chandra: Given your experience in fighting unrest and insurgency in Punjab, could you comment on the Indian state’s actions in Kashmir?
Julio Ribeiro: My own view is very clear: the militaristic policy is not going to work. The way that we are going hammer and tongs at them—going at it with force is not going to work. Terrorism is not solved with force alone. Force is to be used only against brainwashed people. But the large mass of people has to be won over. The only way to fight terror is to bring the great mass of people behind you. And that is done by maintaining their dignity, by ensuring that justice is given to each person.

AC: As a former senior police officer, what do you think about the current use of the army and the police in Kashmir?
JR: The army has never been trained for fighting its own people. They are trained to fight the enemy. If you are saying that the Kashmiri Muslim is an integral part of India, you have to treat them like that. The army is important there because of the border. If you use the army also for action where you are fighting your own people—that is to be avoided.

AC: You are currently involved in efforts towards nurturing communal harmony in Mumbai. How are communal relations in the city today?
JR: There’s always an undercurrent. We are sitting on a tinderbox. One never knows when [something might happen].

AC: History has shown us that when a political leader targets any community—for instance, with Mumbai’s political leaders, the Thackerays, and their movements against South Indians and Muslims—it is usually instrumentalist. The purpose is power. So why is it that the people fall for it? Why do people not see that they are being used as pawns in a quest for power?
JR: Well, they always take advantage of the economic situation at any particular time. At the time that they [the Thackerays] began their quest, you had a lot of South Indians who were in the white-collar business [in and around Mumbai]—you know, clerks and things like that. And they were better candidates for those jobs. But these people [who supported the Thackerays] thought that they should get it because they are sons of the soil. They always smarted about that. So he [the Shiv Sena founder, Bal Thackeray] took advantage of that particular phenomenon to get people on board.

AC: The nature of public discourse today seems to indicate that a large percentage of Hindus have subscribed to Hindutva. What do you think has brought about the public emergence of this harsher Hindu identity?
JR: It has been cultivated—very, very carefully cultivated. And unfortunately, it has caught on. Not because they are intrinsically interested in Hindutva or communal politics, but [because] they have been provided with so many goodies and facilities. [Narendra Modi] has done a lot of work also, let us not forget. He has given some roads, he has given electricity—electricity was being done even earlier, he finished that. He has a very good propaganda machine, which shows that [his welfare schemes have been successful].

AC: Do you believe that Modi and the home minister Amit Shah have also acted with disregard to communal tensions in their pursuit of power?
JR: Mr Modi—Mr Shah is his hatchet. All the dirty things that have been done have been done by [Shah]. I mean, [Shah] has been doing it from the very start, since [Modi] has been the chief minister [of Gujarat]. Mr Modi tries to keep his own hands clean. But those who know, those who are in the know, about how these things work, they are aware of how they [operate].

For example, in the 2002 riots, I went there and I asked the senior leaders of the police who had all worked under me [in the past]. In confidence, they told me that they were certainly told not to, not to take any action for one day [during the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat]. But these things [mob violence] never end if you give them permission. Then it’s difficult to stop it. It’s like a storm. Until the eye of the storm abates, you can’t do a thing about it.

What was worse, he put one minister in the DGP’s control room and one minister in the [commissioner of police’s] control room. That means the minister is going to now decide what to do on the ground, what the police should know on the ground. That means you [the police] have totally given up your authority. So I asked them, how did you allow this? This is one thing I’m sure I would not allow—even if I was there today. You can’t come because it’s my control room and I’m in charge of the streets, not you. But they did it.

AC: What was their answer when you asked them why they allowed it?
JR: This was what they told me: “You have worked in a different time.” They said, “This Modi is not what you [are used to], it’s not going to be just a transfer.” They said that he’ll go much beyond that.

AC: Fire them?
JR: No, he goes much beyond that.

AC: Harassment?
JR: Different things. I know the type of things he is capable of doing. So they were, they are living in a different time. There were junior-level officers who stood up and didn’t accept those orders. They carried out what they have to do according to law. And they were all thrown out immediately. Within fifteen days, he got rid of them.

AC: The police forces, in many instances, have shown communal tendencies. How do we make sense of this?
JR: See, I joined the service in 1953. That bias was there even at that time. So it has nothing to do with this government. They have only shown that they are themselves so biased that now people are doing it openly. But otherwise there has always been a bias.

The same thing [is evident] in the city of Mumbai. Would they stick to the law wherever there was a Muslim angle involved? I don’t think so. But I have noticed that if you give an order, they would carry it out, because that is also ingrained in their psyche and their training—that you march on orders. I have given orders about the arrest of Shiv Sena leaders and shakha pramukhs and all that they have carried it out. But they would rather not carry it out. And they have a lot of sympathy for them. The bias is there.

AC: So if I am the average police officer with biases, and my senior confirms my biases, then I get a free hand. I can act out my prejudices on the street.
JR: I have seen not much of this tendency in senior ranks, and I have seen that normally in the olden days, they would give the proper instructions. And the policemen would carry it out. Now I feel that things have changed quite a bit. Particularly when they find that the government itself is biased against the Muslims.

There is a lot of fear among the Muslims. A lot of fear. And that is not a good thing even for governance. I mean, I can’t understand how any government can govern an alienated community. It’s going to be very difficult.

This interview has been edited and condensed.