Perceptions of retired Muslim police officers on bias

The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) along with the Quill Foundation jointly published a report titled “Muslim Voices: Perceptions of Policing in India” in December 2018. The study, spread across eight cities and several geographies, documented the extent to which Muslims perceive bias and discrimination by the police in the context of local-level realities and experiences. The report, in addition to talking to nearly 200 people from the community, also contained insights from retired Muslim police officers, based on their experiences from within the police.

This article looks into the perceptions and experiences of Muslim police officers based on one-to-one interviews with 25 retired male Muslim police officers across 10 states. CHRI did not approach serving officers and, unfortunately, was not able to reach any retired Muslim police women. The interviews were done on the basis of a semi-structured questionnaire. Of the 25, six were from the Indian Police Service (IPS), while the rest were from the state cadres. The interviews with the officers provided perspectives and insights about how they feel anti-Muslim bias is played out.

One of the most significant points to emerge through the interviews was the need for a diverse and a representative police. The officers made observations such as, “Police is not representative of society” and “Representation across all ranks is minimal. It is not at all to the desired extent”. Most police officers also pointed out that the representation of Muslims in the police was much lower than the Muslim population in the country, and highlighted that Muslim police officers were mostly concentrated in junior ranks. There is an element of truth in this. As of 2013 data provided by the National Crime Records Bureau (there is no data available since), excluding the number of Muslims in the Jammu and Kashmir Police, the total representation of Muslims in police services was a meagre 3.14% of the total police strength in the country. If the representation from J&K is included, the figure jumps to 8%, but because the bulk of this is concentrated in one state, it would not be accurate to project this number nationally. The analysis of 2013 National Crime Records Bureau data on Muslims in the police over a period of 15 years clearly shows that the numbers have remained consistently low, hovering within 3-4% (excluding Jammu and Kashmir).

Linked to this paucity in numbers was the belief that a proportionate representation of Muslims in the police would help build the Muslim community’s faith and confidence in it, while low representation could create insecurities. Some of the police officers we spoke to said,“Less representation is dangerous for the Muslim community as there will be injustice to the community in communal riots. During communal riots, I could not help Muslims even though I was a Muslim”“Representation increases the confidence of the community as people think they can approach their community in person” and “When Muslims see a Muslim officer, they feel a little confident because they tend to be insecure.” 

Most police officers also pointed out that Muslim police officers were concentrated in the junior ranks, especially in the constabulary, and were virtually absent from higher ranks and leadership positions. They expressed concern over the fact that there were very few Muslim police officers at intermediate levels at the ranks of investigating officers, Assistant Sub-Inspectors and Sub-Inspectors. This is significant because without representation at these levels, the police departments cannot implement the recommendation of the Sachar Committee to “post at least one Muslim Inspector/Sub Inspector in the Muslim concentrated thanas as a measure to build confidence in the community”[1].

A second insight shared with us was that while there was inadequate representation of Muslims in the police, this was most likely because of social and educational backwardness in the community. They said, “Not many Muslims are applying… they are not economically sound…they don’t know how to enter or apply or study for these services” and “Their motivation to join the police department is less, their participation is less and their education is also less”.

According to the 2011 census figures[2], as many as 42.7% of Muslims in India are illiterate. While this bears out statistically, respondents also said that police departments had not consciously recognised the need for greater diversity and pointed to a lack of targeted recruitment drive as a reason for low representation. With no encouragement or outreach measures from the police departments, the officers felt that Muslim youth are discouraged from even trying to join the police, believing they would not make the final cut. Here, we were told, “Muslims are applying now but they wonder who will accept them” and “There is a fear amongst Muslims that they would not be recruited [in the police]”.

Thirdly, respondent police officers displayed an acute awareness that the police, as an institution, is deeply majoritarian. This was explicit in their acceptance and internalisation of the presence of Hindu religious practices and symbols within police stations and departments. This acceptance existed even with the recognition that public institutions such as police stations should present themselves as secular places. Some officers said, “Every Saturday, there is ‘Shani puja’ in every police station. Everybody participates in this, including Muslims. If it’s a custom that unites people, then as a leader I would encourage it” and “In Karnataka, every Friday, puja is conducted. It’s a tradition. I was also part of it. I wanted to show that I am not against pujas.”

However, it appeared that such internalisation is not without its reasons and that it stemmed from perceived constraints. Muslim officers felt that any opposition could create unnecessary difficulties and would be regarded as anti-majority. They said, “If you tried to get rid of it, it would unnecessarily become an issue” and “In my presence, temples were built inside the police station. I did not take a stand and thought it was not necessary unless there is any hindrance from it.”

Fourthly, most respondents said while they had gained the confidence of the public and their supervisors, and expressed satisfaction with their roles, they also felt they had to work “doubly hard” as compared to others and constantly “prove their loyalty”. Many of them felt that especially when dealing with matters related to Muslims, their smallest actions could easily be construed as partisan or ‘communal’. Some comments that we received included, “We need to work doubly hard to prove our efficiency, loyalty and honesty. It’s not because of religion but for mere survival as we don’t have godfathers within the police department” and “As a Muslim police officer, he has to work double as hard and his character has to be exemplary… There cannot be any blot on [the career of a Muslim officer]. He has to be of impeccable integrity, work hard and be an example for others”. 

The fifth point to emerge from the study was the fact that Muslim police officers struggled with the fear of being branded partisan. Some respondents felt that Muslim police officers were tagged as communal by the majority when they were protecting or helping members of the Muslim community. This element of bias prevented them from carrying out their professional duties. Thus, they were forced to carry a double burden: their first concern was about being branded communal while protecting members of their own community, and the second was a sense of being disempowered and unable to stand up against communal illegalities. They said, “They had accused me of favouring Muslims [during communal] riots where as I was merely protecting the Muslims and not favouring them since they were at the receiving end [of violence]”, “If I had raised a voice and had been vocal, then I would have been branded communal” and “When there is a communal riot, no matter how much impartial a Muslim police officer is, he will still be labelled as partial by politicians”.

With the information that came out of these interviews in mind, the CHRI report provided a set of recommendations to state police and home departments, amongst others. This included suggestions to increase the strength of Muslims in the police, prohibit the display of religious symbols, places of worships or conduct of religious practices in any police station, unit or office, and undertake regular and periodic specialised studies on the perception and satisfaction level of Muslims and other minority communities on policing. Such studies, the report said, could be conducted in association with minority and/or Human Rights Commissions and civil society, as far as possible.



[1] Prime Minister’s High Level Committee  headed by Justice Rajinder Sachar (2006), Social, Economic and Educational Status of the Muslim Community in India- A Report, http://www.minorityaffairs.gov.in/sites/default/files/sachar_comm.pdf, Chapter 12, Para 3.3, p 253.

[2] Office of the Registrar General & Census Commissioner (2011), “Education Level By Religious Community And Sex For Population Age 7 And Above – 2011” (India & States/UTs), Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India:https://www.censusindia.gov.in/2011census/population_enumeration.html&sa=D&source=hangouts&ust=1544102308464000&usg=AFQjCN-EQqdsMs2khjArj6tylwFl5KogpIQ, as on 5 December 2018, Table C-09.



Aditi Datta,
Senior Programme Officer, Police Reforms Programme, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative

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