An Indian police officer walks past a burning tire during a protest after Friday prayers in Srinagar on May 25, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Danish Ismail
An Indian police officer walks past a burning tire during a protest after Friday prayers in Srinagar on May 25, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Danish Ismail

The small number of Muslims in India’s police force has led to claims of discrimination and victimization by some sections of the population.

According to the 2011 census, the percentage of Muslim policemen and women in the Uttar Pradesh police force was less than 5%, while Muslims make up more than 19% of the state’s population.Uttar Pradesh is not the only example of the disparity. The figure for all of India, minus Jammu and Kashmir, for the percentage of Muslim policemen and women is only 4%. 

State-wise, for Delhi police it is 2%, Maharashtra 1%, Bihar 4.5% and Rajasthan 1.2%.

A detailed study titled “Status of Policing in India Report 2018 – A Study of Performance and Perceptions recently released in Delhi showed the ratio of Muslims in the police force to the population was abysmally low and reflected on people’s overall trust and perception of discrimination. 

Only two states from a total of 22 showed figures which were mildly reassuring, while among the 15, 562 respondents interviewed, 26% of Muslims and 16% of Christians believed police discriminated against them.

The study, carried out as a joint exercise between civil society organizations Common Cause and the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), takes into account 22 states and tracks the data for a period of five years between 2012 and 2017.

It notes that for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes, there is a provision for governmental affirmative action, or reservation or quotas. There are no provisions for Muslims, however, who are present in all states of India, but whose representation in the police force, calculated in proportion to their population in the states, is constantly less than half the size of their population in the country.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau’s (NCRB) Crime in India Reports, since 1999 the nation-wide percentage of Muslims in the police – excluding Jammu and Kashmir – has hovered between 3% and 3.14%. Meanwhile, Muslims in India number more than 170 million, or 14.2% of the population.

This has caused concern, notably because of the disproportionately high Muslim representation in prisons. Since 2013, the National Crime Records Bureau has stopped providing data on the number of Muslims in the police force – “the absence of information on this crucial aspect of diversity further clouds the possibilities of improvement in this aspect of policing,” the report states.

Trust in the police

Data from the report suggests that the perception of police as diverse or representative did not significantly influence people’s trust in the force. The survey found that often people were not aware of the level of representation their respective communities have in the police force. In fact, their perception of the degree of representation vastly differs from the actual representation of their communities in the police.

Devika Prasad, the co-ordinator of the Police Reforms Programme at the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) – an organization that works in the field of police reforms – said: “There is no public discussion on the urgent need to make police diverse towards better police response and as a democratic feature.

“Diversity in itself is not seen enough as the needed goal – the priority in the minds of policymakers remains limited to meeting quotas. There also has to be a recognition of the need to root out biases of policymakers and police leaders themselves as the first step to address bias institutionally within police departments”, Prasad told Asia Times.

However, although no direct relation could be found between representation in the police force and trust levels, it does seem to be positively associated with satisfaction with the police. For instance, in the case of Muslims, in those states which were ranked “very good” in terms of the representation of the community, 30% of respondents stated that they were fully satisfied with the police. Meanwhile, states ranked “very bad” showed the highest level of dissatisfaction – 14%.

Perception of discrimination

In the study, respondents were also asked about the prevalence of discrimination by the police on grounds of religion. One in every five respondents, or almost 19%, said it does take place, while three in every five denied its occurrence; 20% did not answer the question. This could be due to the fact that most of the respondents belonged to the majority Hindu community, members of which are found in dominant numbers in the police force.

Among all religious communities, Muslims were the most likely to hold the view that the police discriminate on religious grounds, especially during communal riots – one in four respondents stated so in clear terms. Among Hindus, this figure was much less – 18% – and it was 16% among Christians. Sikhs were the least likely to hold the opinion that the police engage in religion-based discrimination – only 6% said so.

Samsher Khan Pathan, who retired as Assistant Commissioner of Police in Bombay and has served in situations when communal riots engulfed the city, said that having more Muslims in the force acts as a bulwark against Hindu officers and personnel running amok and taking communalized actions.

Doing so could have averted incidents like the shootings in the Suleman Usman Bakery and Hari Masjid during the 1992 Bombay riots, in which armed posses of policemen fired on innocent, unarmed Muslims, especially when they were offering prayers. 

Pathan also gave the example of the recent riots in Maharashtra’s Aurangabad district, during which a group of police allegedly assisted Hindu mobs on a rampage against Muslims, and said this would never have happened if there was a sizable number of Muslims in the contingent.

Basant Rath, a member of the Indian Police Service (IPS) which is India’s elite police cadre, and is now serving in insurgency and communalism-ridden Kashmir, agreed with Pathan. Speaking in a personal capacity, he said members of the IPS must wake up and accept the fact that the police force is afflicted with a majoritarian bias and there is a serious diversity deficit. 

“Policing is a labor-intensive enterprise. Technology can’t replace the people interface. Greater diversity in a police force will ensure better communication between the local police station and community neighborhood. The community policing experiments in the USA are a case in point. The IPS are a victim of the MAFA syndrome (mistaking articulation for achievement). They need to know what works and what doesn’t,” he said.

Maja Daruwala, a former Director of CHRI and a veteran of police reforms programs, told Asia Times: “Especially when the state is engaged in conflicts with its own citizens or there is frequent sectarian violence, one of the simplest ways to assuage feelings is to have diversity across all ranks of the police force.”

Giving the example of Northern Ireland, where one of the terms of the Good Friday Agreement required the police to become much more integrated with a healthy mix of both Catholics and Protestants, she asked: “Why would you want to alienate rather than integrate? Not having diversity sends a sure signal of state and institutional bias. That is shameful.”