Keeping the peace
In spite of non-lethal tools to curb massive protesting crowds, police firing continues to consume lives
I remember the hot summer days in May of 2008 when I was in Dausa district in Rajasthan to report the Gujjar agitation. The protestors demanding greater Scheduled Tribe reservation had lynched a policeman leading to cops opening fire and killing 15 people near Patoli village. The angry villagers refused to cremate the dead bodies and preserved the mortal remains with salt and ice while the agitation raged on. The next day, the cops, unable to rein in violent protestors who trying to set a police station on fire, shot 15 more people.
When I visited Patoli village, the experience filled me with shock and awe. The beautiful Delhi-Jaipur highway had been desecrated in places by angry protestors; the smooth tar roads had been dug up shoddily. Teenaged kids stopped our car intermittently, asking us to record their protests on our video cameras. Signs of the carnage were strewn along the highway; the protestors' ire targeted at the trigger-happy police. Charred buses, damaged railway tracks, burnt police stations, were some of the remnants of clashes. By the time I reached the village, thousands of Gujjars from adjoining states had also descended. It was a sea of white as the protestors in their signature white garb and turbans filled the desert. The army had to be summoned to maintain law and order.
Almost every major protest in recent Indian history has led to violence. Whether it was the West Bengal's Nandigram firing, protests in Kashmir, or this week's Bharat Bandh called by Dalits, police firing has led to the loss of life. These killings not only exacerbated the ongoing protests but also led to further damage of public property. In several parts of the country, there are more agitations starting off. Students, Dalits, and Gujjars are some of the few groups that are currently bringing the authorities to their knees; authorities that are sorely ill-equipped to handle mass protests.
Speaking to a senior IPS officer friend, I was able to understand that while there is a standard operating procedure (SOP) on how to handle large protests and riot situations, police firing is nowhere mentioned. While this prevents misuse of firing as an actionable tool, on the flip side, it also brings in obscurity as policemen do not know if and when they should fire. After several incidents caused by overzealous or outnumbered, panic-stricken cops, use of rubber bullets, water cannons, and tear gas have been suggested as non-lethal ways of controlling mobs. Other non-lethal tools include pepper balls, stun grenades, and electric shells. Unfortunately, in spite of it all, police firing continues to consume lives.
There could be two reasons as to why such situations take place. The police are not aware of large gatherings well in advance. Remember those rowdy supporters of Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim rioting in August last year in Sirsa? At least 30 people were killed in the ensuing violence. Massive protests are seldom impromptu and it is intelligence failure that prevents the police and other governmental authorities from making adequate preparation. The second reason that can lead to protests going out of hand is often the officer-in-charge. If the officer is senior and manages his men with the sole objective of diffusing the situation and bringing peace, violence can be avoided. The onus often squarely lies on the strategy deployed by the officer-in-charge and his superiors.
We are an angry nation; easily annoyed with the goings-on, resorting to destruction, and pandemonium. We allow our gatherings to be infiltrated by "outsiders" and mischief mongers who incite violence leading to clashes with the police. We play into the hands of politicians who use our fury to their advantage. We are often chaotic, quick to temper, and irrational. So, we all have numerous lessons to learn from last month's Maharashtra farmers' march. Over 35,000 farmers walked 180 km over 6 days in the sweltering heat, and yet took pains to walk into Mumbai at night so as to not hamper exam-giving students. Their silence, resilience, maturity, and humaneness won hearts and a loan waiver. Protests can be peaceful and yet effective; those farmers taught us that.
(The writer is a journalist and media entrepreneur. The views expressed are strictly personal)