'If You Treat Minorities as Second-Class Citizens, the Country Cannot Go Forward'

Former policeman and Indian ambassador to Romania Julio Ribeiro speaks to The Wire.

Julio Ribeiro has a distinguished career behind him, as a top policeman in Mumbai, Punjab and Gujarat. After retirement, he was posted as India’s ambassador to Romania. He has continued to be in public life and has never hesitated before speaking his mind.

Lately, Ribeiro has expressed his dismay at the rise in intolerance and the growing attacks on minorities. He recently  said that India was in danger of becoming a ‘Hindu rashtra‘. The man who dealt with criminals and terrorists speaks to The Wire about his fears around what is going on in the country.

Full transcript of the interview:

Sidharth Bhatia (SB): Hello and welcome to The Wire, I am Sidharth Bhatia. We have a very special guest for you today, Mr Julio Rebeiro, the well-known policeman, civil servant, ambassador and now, more and more, a speaker on public issues.

Mr Rebeiro, you’ve been intervening a lot in very, very important issues and concerns of late and only recently you wrote a very scathing article where you talked about the insecurity that the minorities are feeling. You’ve used strong phrases like ‘Hindu rashtra‘, ‘second-class citizens’, and in fact at one place you’ve talk about how fascist forces operate. This must really mean that you have some very, very strong concerns about what is going on.

Julio Ribeiro (JR): Well, I always thought that we are living in a different world from the time I was born here in Bombay and I grew up here. But I interacted with numerous people – in the beginning of course mainly relatives and friends, from the community – but after ) joined service, I mean now most of my friends are not Christian. But I felt like there was no difference between us.

SB: All these years.

JR: All these years, I never felt the difference and particularly in service. Nobody ever treated me differently, nor did I treat anyone differently. We were all part of the same Indian society and we were working for the nation. And then suddenly we get this little bit of an entry of a communal aspect and that’s what really worries us, worries the community. It’s a small community as you know, and it doesn’t have any particular political clout or anything like that, but it is very prominent in the health sector, in the education sector in particular…

SB: Definitely.

JR: …the social service sector, working for the poor. I mean these are sectors where you address poverty to some extent, to the extent you can, individuals and groups can. That is what we have been, the Christian, what we call missionaries, the priests and the nuns, they have been attempting to do. Very often they are suspected of trying to convert people. That is the main problem I think which the Hindutva…

SB: One of the main problems.

JR: …the Hindutva forces have with the Christians. But personally I have not seen that happening. I studied in St Xaviers school, all my eight years of schooling were in that school and there were of course a number of christian boys but mainly there were Hindus and even many Muslims and Parsis, there were many Parsis. And I don’t think anyone got converted and there was no attempt, as far as I could see, of anyone trying to convert somebody.

SB: So this you’re talking about a certain kind of old India that you were used to…

JR: That is what I grew up in.

SB: …where you grew up, where you were in a police force which was extremely secular and mixed and subsequently also after your retirement you must have seen. What has changed? How did it change?

JR: Well, We didn’t see this change right, we had a BJP government of Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee…

SB: In the 90s.

JR: …and I didn’t see any change. We felt as comfortable that time as any. In fact, Mr Vajpaye as soon as he took over, I do not know whether you know this, within a week he phoned me, asking me to come and meet him. He wanted me to go as governor of Jammu and Kashmir. So I told him that I am so involved in work over here for communal harmony. He said I didn’t hear, didn’t know about this. So I told him of the work that I was doing.

SB: That was the advance locality management that you were doing.

JR: No, no, no, advance locality management is with Agni. We do mohalla communities, it is for communal harmony; we work mainly in the slums, trying to get the communities to understand each other. Hindus and Muslims, we never thought about Christians at all. So that they don’t fight like they did in 1993, it is shameful thing that happened. So I said, I consider this to be my city. And I said, why should people fight like this, and that is how I got involved in that work.

SB: So in ’98, ’99 when you met Mr Vajpayee things were different and now not only you, a lot of people are saying that this India is a different place. But is it changed so much that you actually feel that people could feel second class?

JR: I will be very upfront and candid with you. I have met Mr Modi earlier when he was the chief minister of (Gujarat) and I was very worried about what happened in 2002.

On the day that Godhra happened, the district magistrate of Godhra, she was a girl called Jyoti Ravi. I didn’t know her, she phoned me from there, on that very day saying, ‘This has happened, can you come and help us’. So I said ‘Madam, how do I help you? And it will be misunderstood, I can’t, I work for communal harmony, I do earlier to a thing like this’. But then I asked her how that happened and she explained to me the train left Ratlam seven hours late so the theory that everything was planned cannot be true because there was a mechanical failure of the train, so it reached Godhra early in the morning, when actually it should have reached around midnight. And then all these people got down from the train including the karsevaks. Karsevaks have nothing to do with any communal this. They are Ram bhakts and we have to be sympathetic to them. They’re really people who were taken there. There were, I’m told, 3-4 VHP karyakartas and one of them I think pulled the beard, that is what Jyoti told me of one of those vendors. You see there is a community called the ghanchis who are on that station. They live in Signal Phata, a very notorious place and they usually live by, you know, stealing things from the train, petty thefts, or by picking pockets. They are well known to the police ,and those are the ones who probably did that, I am almost sure, they did it because of revenge for having pulled that beard.

SB: But you’re saying that you at that time went, much later and met…

JR: So I was just telling you about that. Later I thought of going to Ahmedabad because I found that the police had failed. How could the police fail to that extent? I was surprised. Because you had notice, the girl had phoned me, so obviously they knew that something was going to happen. You can’t burn 58 people and not expect a repercussion. It’s bound to happen, so you’ve got to be prepared for that.

So first of all they allowed those bodies to come to Ahmedabad, that was the first mistake. Second, they did not arrest anybody who is likely to have committed (such a crime). And I have been DG of the state, I have been DG of Gujarat and I knew these officers. And I said, you know what I did when I was there, how I handled the matter of communal riots, why did you not do the same thing? And then they told me in confidence what instruction they got.

I don’t want to compromise that, because they did it in full confidence knowing that I’m not going to speak, because they still haven’t got the same courage or whatever you call it. There were some officers who really did their jobs as police officers, as they are supposed to do under the constitution. And those Mr Modi transferred out within 15 days. It was quite clear that he didn’t want them there.

SB: So what you’re suggesting is that that portents of what is happening to today…

JR: Exactly, so with that knowledge of Gujarat. Now another thing I want to tell you about which is very significant, it remains in my subconscious. The Gujaratis are very friendly with me, in fact I was offered a ticket from the Congress party, they said I could take any ticket, any constituency in Gujarat, and the BJP won’t put up a candidate against you. But I said that I had no interest in politics and I don’t want to join politics, so please forget it. But this was the friendship of the Gujaratis with me. They hosted me at dinner. There were 60 or 70 of them and they were doctors, lawyers and they had intelligentsia or whatever you may call it. And the way they were talking, I knew for certain, it made me believe that Mr Modi, being a good politician, would know that unless he permitted this kind of thing that happened, he would not have come up in the manner that he did. This is what I strictly believe.

SB: So society in Gujarat and other places, that is changing.

JR: Absolutely. No, I don’t know about if they were changing. This (feeling) against the Muslims is a very old thing. Because it has historical routes from the time of Ghazni.

SB: But you know even then, I realise that, but to see it spread all over the country…

JR: I had a staff officer when I was the DG there, a boy called Nambudhiri, very good officer, excellent, from Kerala. And this boy became the commissioner of police Ahmedabad and the DG of the state. He had retired, he came and took me around everywhere. Everyday he goes to the temple, barefoot. But he is very secular, just like B.N. Srikrishna. Justice Srikrishna also goes everyday to the temple but he is absolutely fair and straight forward, and so is Nambudhiri. He had a Muslim driver, so these VHP people kept phoning him to get rid of that driver. He said why, so they said ‘they’ should not be given any job. He said but this is a small job, they said no job at all for these people. So he kept that man for a month or more at his house.

SB: Going back to how has that spread. Your argument is that now the entire nation is in grip of these kind of forces who are spreading this kind of…

JR: No, what I wanted to say, this is the background I gave you. It is in my subconscious. So when they came to power, I knew at once that this is not going to be the same India that we knew. It was not going to be the same. I told my wife, now this is a different country.

SB: And you have seen that fear coming true.

JR: Yes.

SB: So list some of the things that are really troubling you. One is of course the national mood or the exploitation of a certain sentiment. But what are the things that have really started…

JR: I will start by telling you that I have personally nothing against any political party. This is very clear, I am not in favour of this party or that party. In fact, I would that there was a right of centre party, I was willing to accept that. Because most of the others, Congress etc are left of centre, but that kind of economy has failed, not brought people out of poverty. But if a right of centre party can help, fair enough. Just try it out, but not with this baggage, not with this social baggage. This is what I am worried about.

You want to use development, this is what they’ve been doing. A lot of development is taking place, particularly with roads, infrastructure. You know some of the things that Mr Modi has done I totally support him, the direct to banks transfer, I think it’s a big thing. And also, the Swachh Bharat campaign, the concept, even though the implementation may go awry because of inefficiency etc. But still the concept is good. He means well. And what he has done abroad also has given us a much better name that we had earlier. Many things are plus. But this is really bringing us down. I don’t see any country which treats its minorities as second-class citizens will be able to really carry through.

SB: But do you think that it comes from the very top, this encouragement or looking the other way?

JR: My theory is that unless Mr Modi supports that, in whatever way he can, he will probably not get the same kind of support from this grassroots people who bring him all those votes. You see, the BJP has got committed votes. About 22% or 20% are their committed votes. And those people let down Mr Vajpayee the last time, as he didn’t allow the things that Mr Modi is allowing now. So that keeps the balance, keeps the party happy. If he wants to be re-elected, if he wants to be in power for 10-15 years, he has to keep that fringe happy,

SB: Now coming to the specifics. You have said that they have gone after the Muslims and in true fascist styles they will now go after the other minorities. So has something happened?

JR: To the Christians? I don’t think so. Not in Bombay.

SB: But elsewhere there have been cases.

JR: In the beginning when we (Christians) first came there was those, you know, sporadic attacks on churches. They are saying that this is all proved to be, I don’t believe them at all.

You know, I will tell you something very unknown. My own nephew, he is an architect. He is not a church-going person at all, I don’t think he believes. His wife is also Hindu. They say they are atheists. But he got a job, the church gave him. He was having his individual practice, his own practice of architecture, of building some church in an area where there was no church. The usual procedures and all permissions were given. When he went there he got such a thrashing from these fellows, you know your, what is that party, the VHP and the other one, the Bajrang Dal. They gave him such a thrashing. So his father-in-law, his father, everybody phoned me. I said, ‘Leave it, don’t go to the police or anything. Just leave the job, see that your injuries are healed.’

SB: These are not a minor things.

JR: Yes, this is in Delhi. Delhi is a very bad place for this. The north of India is very different from here, Bombay. If you talk about Bombay there is no problem at all.

SB: Yet you’re saying that there are conversations happening within the community, that they are worried.

JR: You know most of the Christians have no political sense, let me tell you.

SB: But you know that many of them also are supporters of the BJP.

JR: Particularly in Bandra and all, in my own family – my son-in-low, my nephew, I don’t know about my daughters, they are very astute. But I think generally there was a lot of support for the BJP in 2014 or even in the assembly elections. But the intention was good, economic advancement. A good share market, this is what they think of. Now some sense has come into them.

SB: But those things don’t happen in isolation.

JR: So they have seen that, they are intelligent people.

SB: So Archbishop Couto came out with this and now there has been a statement in Goa also. There’s some talk about how these religious leaders should stay out of politics. When Father Frazier at Xaviers had said please vote carefully, he was pilloried. So these are pillars of community, these are important people. Should people like Archbishop Couto stay out of saying statements like this?

JR: It’s very difficult for them, at the same I am surprised that he did come out. If I were him, I would not have talked about the election. Even if he kept the election out, they could not have…

SB: It was a pretty upfront statement.

JR: So yes, that is working on their mind, they are very worried, let me tell you that. But what is going to happen, tomorrow if Mr Modi comes back, which is very much on the cards, and he allows these fringe elements to go haywire like he is doing now – he is just not able to control them – this will become like Pakistan. What is happening in Pakistan today, every time time there is a terrorist attack, everybody complains, the world complains. The Pakistanis say that they are the biggest victims, but who started it? Who allowed them to continue? It is they who have nurtured these people. So if you nurture people like this, you will not be able to control them.

SB: And also like the influence of the mullahs there, you will have the influence of all these swamis

JR: Most of the swamis are good people.

SB: What I am trying to say is that these are not constitutional forces who will then start demanding and pressuring on what public debate should be, what public behaviour should be. That is what you’re really saying. Well maybe not swamis but these lumpen elements.

JR: These VHP and others, I don’t know what they’re up to. For example, they talk about ghar wapsi. Look, we were Hindus hundreds of of years ago, I accept that, we cannot deny that. There is no reason to deny. But suppose now you want to say that all of you should be re-converted, it is a stupid thing to talk about, at least in this day and age.

If you talk about conversions, it is these mass conversions that cause trouble. These individual conversions, you can’t stop them constitutionally, moreover, what difference does it make? It’s mass conversions that cause social tensions. … But where is it happening? It is only the individuals that are getting converted because the padres are treating them well.

SB: And also it’s an individual choice.

JR: It’s minor, it won’t make any big problem.

SB: So you mentioned 2019, where do you see this going in the next few years? Where do you see India going? What do you think the concerns of the minorities will be, and of course also the secular majority?

JR: I have a feeling that all these attempts to develop, for development, are secondary to the Hindu rashtra. This is the minorities’ opinion. What you want to do is actually bring the concept of Hindu rashtra as propounded by Hedgewar and by Gowalkar and others. If you want to bring that by doing good things, well other people also support you. And finally you come up with this and say you don’t have this right, you don’t have that right, then I think it is going to cause a lot of trouble.

Today the Christians have not been that badly affected, this is a fact. Why should we say that we are when we are not. But the Muslims have, (Christoph) Jaffrelot has got that, he has related the whole conditions on the basis of empirical studies that he makes. Where he says that their standard of living has fallen by huge percentage points.

SB: You’ve seen how they are like in government services, hardly any and there is prejudice, there is institutional prejudice.

JR: Yes there is, there is no doubt about that.

SB: You know what happened in this city 25 years ago.

JR: I guess for Muslims there is, there’s no doubt about it. And to some extent I think even the community has think about how to get out of their old conditions, that is a different matter. A totally different subject. Personally I think they should allow their women to be liberated. I don’t like that veil, that’s my personal opinion.

SB: So put it in a nutshell, in this stage of your life, when you grew up in India and have seen so much and you have seen things change for the worse, are you a worried a man?

JR: Not for myself, but for the country yes. I don’t think that if you try to treat the minorities as second-class citizens the country can go forward. I don’t think it’s possible. First of all you can’t eliminate 20% of the population. Even 16% or 18% you can’t, it’s a stupid concept. Even keeping them down in the manner you are keeping now, I think it is a very dangerous proposition. The terrorism of the minorities, Islamic terrorism, can be kept down, we can keep down the Sikh terrorism, as you know I was in Punjab, but you can’t keep it down if the Hindus start doing it, it’s not possible. If the majority starts doing this, who is going to control them? It is a very dangerous thing. I am talking as a police officer now, and not as a Christian or a minority. It is very difficult to control any such movement in the majority. Pakistan is not able to control it, we have seen it. They now have to integrate those fellows.

SB: You keep comparing India with what Pakistan is.

JR: I am very afraid of, what is that law they have, blasphemy. Anybody can come and say that this man has blasphemed the Quran or blasphemed the Prophet. He’s put inside (jail), I mean you know it, it’s happening almost everyday. If this kind of thing happens, he’s anti-national; if you speak against what the government says, then you’re anti-national? I don’t understand this concept at all.

This is something that is not acceptable and also is also going to cause trouble for them. They will not have a smooth sailing if they go on doing this. In any country in the world, minorities are pampered to some extent, there is no doubt about that. See I was ambassador in Romania, there are 14%, no 8% sorry, 8% Hungarian-speaking people in the Transylvanian border. Out of 40 districts in Romania, four are majority Hungarian-speaking. They want their own language to be the medium of administration in those four districts, plus of the courts. It was permitted, they said why quarrel over that, okay, do it, we may have to translate if it comes to the higher courts. But these are things that they have to, you have to take them along. You see, a good leader takes everyone along.

SB: This is what Nehru understood in the beginning.

JR: Exactly. Take people along. Don’t keep quarrelling with them, saying you are this and you are that.

SB: On a final note, if you got the opportunity to sit across the prime minister or anyone in power today, what would you say to them?

JR: I would not know what to say to the prime minister because I have met him twice and he has been very kind, very good and very civil with me. And I have no problem. He’s very shrewd, he listens but he has his own calculations. One of those calculations, I am sure, is how do you remain in power, because after all he is a politician. I have a feeling that even his problem with Togadia which he has had, in the beginning were very friendly. When the 2002 riot took place, I have a feeling, this is my gut feeling, I may be wrong, perhaps he felt that one day was enough for whatever they wanted to do. But Togadia was not going to stop with one day, Togadia’s ‘this’ is quite different. So that was the falling out probably, otherwise he had to face Mr Vajpayee, who said that you are not doing your raj dharma. So there is a problem, he has to calculate his own future.

SB: Well thank you very much, Mr Ribeiro. You’ve given us a lot of food for thought. I still think that it is interventions of people such as yours which will make a difference. I’m very happy you’ve been so candid with The Wire. Thank you.