THE majority of the people killed in this month's violence in India were shot by police, according to a preliminary report issued yesterday by one of this country's leading human rights activists.
Ravi Nair, executive director of the South Asian Human Rights Documentation Center (SAHRDC), also asserts that "the overwhelming majority" of the people killed by police were Muslims. "Somehow the police bullet only hits the Muslims, not the Hindus," he says.
The government says 1,190 people were killed after militant Hindu nationalists destroyed a 16th-century mosque in the north Indian city of Ayodhya on Dec. 6, although officials concede their toll is probably conservative.
But Sunder Rau Narendra, the Indian government's chief spokesman, said yesterday that Mr. Nair's preliminary figure for the number killed by police - 652 - was too high. He said a more accurate statistic "would be 100 to 200 or so," and denied that police killings were motivated by religious bias.
About 11 percent of India's 843 million people are Muslim and 85 percent are Hindu. Tensions between the two groups have been heightened recently by the rise of a Hindu nationalist movement whose supporters say Muslims have exerted too much political influence in a predominately Hindu country. The mosque at Ayodhya was razed by radicals who want to put a Hindu temple in its place.
Nair's report, based on news media reports of official statistics released in 13 states most affected by civil unrest, underscores a litany of anecdotal accounts of police misbehavior in the aftermath of the Ayodhya mosque demolition.
Ten days after the conflagration began, Muslims in a part of New Delhi hit by unrest were complaining bitterly about the role the police played in the violence.
One man, interviewed as he surveyed the charred ruins of his timber shop, said, "Police escorted people of the other community, who set the fires." Muslims and Hindus in India typically refer to each other as members of "the other community."
Touring the area as this man spoke, leaders of one of India's opposition political parties stopped to listen to his complaints. "Every person we have talked to here blames the police," observed I. K. Gujral, a former Cabinet minister and a member of Parliament.
But S. Ramakrishnan, a senior police official in New Delhi, would not tolerate any suggestion of police malfeasance. "As far as fire is concerned, it doesn't differentiate between Muslim and Hindu," he said, adding that he knew of no instance where officers used excessive force or acted on the basis of their own religious inclinations.
Nonetheless, Nair concludes that "there has been excessive use of firearms in disregard to all guidelines on the subject, both national and international," and that police too often act on the basis of religious bias.
The SAHRDC report reprints an oft-repeated quote from a Muslim teacher interviewed by reporters in Bombay, one of the cities where the most extreme violence took place: "This is not a Hindu-Muslim riot but a police-Muslim riot." Nair's group says police killed 87 people in Maharashtra, the state that includes Bombay.
The daily Economic Times goes further, saying that "police firing [in Bombay] claimed 98 lives from the `minority' [Muslim] community," in a special report on police force published Sunday.
Adds Mr. Narendra, the government spokesman: "In Bombay and in [the state of] West Bengal Muslims were the ones who were starting the rioting. Whosoever is in the street gets killed. The police have to just act, they don't look to see anyone's particular religion."
Nair says his organization is documenting individual cases of police violence on its own, and looking into reports of arbitrary arrest and detention by police.