At Koodankulam in Tamil Nadu last week, thousands of protestors marched toward the site of India’s largest nuclear reactor until the police pushed them back, firing tear gas shells and ordering a baton charge. On Friday night, a police station in Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh was set afire by an irate mob, following discovery of a religious book with its pages splashed with abusive graffiti. With a 3,000-strong mob turning violent outside a police station with 20 cops, the police opened fire leading to the death of six people. Last week may look particularly bad but they were not isolated incidents.
Mob violence at an organised protest outside Azad Maidan last month claimed two lives and left over 50 injured, including several policemen and media persons. Not only was public and private property vandalised, the violent mob snatched away two police rifles, one pistol and over 200 bullets. The pistol and 121 bullets are yet to be traced. If the action taken by police at Ghaziabad has been deemed disproportionate leading to loss of innocent lives, the police in Mumbai failed to take adequate action to prevent loss of life and property.
While the character of mobs, protests and demonstrations has changed over the years, the template of mob dispersal by the police has remained unchanged for decades now: one, use tear gas; two, resort to a lathi-charge (baton charge); and three, use lethal firearms as a matter of last resort.
The street protests in Srinagar during the summer of 2010 which left more than 120 dead in police firing, led PM Dr Manmohan Singh to ask the Home Ministry to constitute a study group for dealing with unlawful assemblies of people. The report recommending specific measures for crowd control was circulated to all the state police forces as a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) in February 2011. The emphasis of the SOP is on using non-lethal means to disperse unlawful assemblies of people with minimum force rather than employing lethal means to kill people. It clearly states that the aim of using the force is to disperse the unlawful assembly and to not punish them. The SOP also covers aspects of training, equipping, tactics, and procedure for crowd control. Most of it sounds like plain common sense, which it probably is.
Many believe that the police’s inability to disperse crowds in a professional manner is because of unavailability of non-lethal equipment. This is not true. The study report lists the non-lethal equipment that can be used by the police for crowd control. But it highlights the limitations of the current set of non-lethal equipment. A water-canon has a range of 50 yards and its 8,000 litre tank lasts only for eight minutes. Refilling it on the spot is impractical. Tear gas shells have metal casing and can lead to a fatal injury. The protests in Srinagar actually started after a school-boy died on being directly hit by tear gas shell. Effectiveness of tear gas is limited in open areas and experienced rioters are able to smother the shells with a gunny bag or by wearing wet clothes. Pepper launchers have all the disadvantages of tear gas shells with an even lower range of 30 yards. Laser dazzlers and net guns work only against individuals while Long Range Acoustic Devices have failed to produce instantaneous effect at a range of 70 yards.
Notwithstanding this, the Bureau of Police Research and Development has commissioned a private security firm to study effective non-lethal weapons for dealing with public agitation and modifying the existing police procedures for crowd control. The report is expected to be submitted by October. No new report can help the police unless the basics of policing in India are fixed. The police forces are severely understaffed and the model of policing is based on the 1860 report which advocated a colonial rule of India ‘with a firm hand and ruthlessly, if necessary’. Add a broken criminal justice system to the mix. The British magistrates sat over weekends to dispose off cases after the London riots. Similar cases in India would not have come up for trial for years.
Policing and criminal justice system in India needs a root-and-branch reform. With no political support for police reforms, the rule of law is liable to be further eroded. And we will have to live with more Azad Maidans and Ghaziabads in the future.
Sushant K Singh is Fellow for National Security at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati-The Indian National Interest Review