Last week for a few days, this wannabe superpower looked more like a punch-drunk giant. Violence brought on by the Gujjar community’s demand for an ‘upgradation’ to Scheduled Tribe status brought large parts of north-western India, including for a while, the capital New Delhi, to a standstill. For a while the spectre of anarchy hung over the region as mobs of rival communities took to the streets, blocked roads and rail transport and threatened mayhem against each other. The police reportedly fired in a number of places, killing several protestors. In turn, the rioters lynched a couple of policemen armed with nothing more than lathis. The army sent 4,000 personnel to stage flag-marches. But, in the end, it was neither the police nor the army, but probably fear of what a caste war in every village, kasba and town would mean for their own community, that persuaded the warring parties to pull back from the brink.
The state police and the top brass were taken unawares. There were not enough policemen to check the protestors; tactics of crowd and riot control were non-existent. The ever-astute politicians kept quiet, the country’s embarrassment was summed up by the Supreme Court, which termed the events a ‘national shame’.
In our recent history, there have, of course, been even greater moments of national disgrace — the Sikh massacres in Delhi in October-November 1984, the Hashimpura massacres in 1987, Bhagalpur in 1989, the Muslim killings in Mumbai in January 1993, the Gujarat massacres of 2002. What was shameful about them was not only that they took place, but that, in each case, the police and the administration failed to intervene effectively, if at all.
There is no doubt that there have been several instances where well-led police organisations have played a crucial role in preventing riots and checking uncontrollable law and order situations in India. Unfortunately, police failure has also led to terrible breakdowns.
Yet, besides establishing the Rapid Action Force to tackle communal violence, the state and central authorities have done little to re-orient their forces to meet the demands of the times. Political pressures, frequent transfers and the like are only one aspect of the situation. Another is that better intelligence, administrative action and aggressive intervention by trained police forces are rarely used to pre-empt and, if necessary, to effectively break up a violent riot or demonstration
One problem seems to be numbers. India has one policeman for 694 people (as of January 1, 2006); Britain has 1:290 and the US 1:334. Earlier this month, at the G8 summit, the German government took extensive precautions to prevent an estimated 30,000 demonstrators. The number of police deployed totalled 18,000 — a little more than an army division. They had 43 helicopters to assist them, and Heiligendamm, a village of 300 souls was fenced in with a 2.5-metre barricade costing 12 million euros.
While no estimates of the Rajasthan Police deployed is known, the army did send in some 37 columns. Rajasthan itself has a grand total of 70,000 police personnel in an area of 342,239 sq kms, an area nearly as large as Germany. There were no fresh recruitments in 2001-04 indicating that the state thinks it has enough forces. In contrast, Delhi had a deployable force of some 5,000 to tackle disturbances in a vast arc spread from Shahdara to the Loni border. While there was some physical damage, the greater hurt was to the national psyche that its capital could be brought to a grinding halt in the manner it was.
There is a need for reforming the Indian police to overcome the colonial mindset and organisational pattern that it follows even to this day. The Indian Police Service functions like a central military organisation rather than a civil police force. The Supreme Court has been pushing the states to reform their police services but to little avail. Politicians who run the states do not appear willing to provide police personnel the kind of autonomy needed to do their job without fear of consequences.
A lot has been written about police commission reports, the grievances of police officers over frequent transfers and so on. However, the real challenge seems to be the very concept of policing and its very important element of crowd and riot control.
All statistics show that besides the vicious communal conflicts, the overwhelming agitations are those relating to grievances of labour, government employees and students. These are the ones that can be handled through proper crowd control measures. The usual riot-control tactic is to warn the protestors, then shoot tear gas and finally lathi-charge rioters. But the recent violence showed that some of the rioters were armed with swords and other dangerous implements and the only way the police could have handled them would have been by firing at them, an action that would have been tantamount to the use of disproportionate force.
Today, modern crowd and riot control tactics are quite sophisticated. Police personnel are provided a considerable measure of self-protection against stones and other missiles. They are organised in well-drilled units led by professionals who also ensure that they do not inflict needless injuries on the rioters. After all, many a protest has become a riot following death or injury of an agitator. But the lack of training and equipment, and in many key instances, numbers, is almost tailor-made to turn many Indian situations into a Police vs Rioters one. The Indian Police needs to adopt the attitude of a fair umpire who will not hesitate to show a yellow card, but also have the mental and physical wherewithal to overawe a recalcitrant player. But the goal of the police forces must always be to protect lives, even those of protestors. To this end, there are a range of technologies that can be used from tear gas, water cannons, 40 mm blunt-force injury guns with a variety of ammunition such as rubber bullets, pepper spray bullets and gas grenades and dyes to mark rioters.
While it is fair for the police forces to demand security of tenure and insulation from the near-criminal interference by our political class, they must also reflect on their own responsibilities. More than technology, what is needed is a policing philosophy based on the need to protect the rights of all citizens. This must be a zero-tolerance process with no favours for Hindus, Muslims, rich or downtrodden. Unfortunately, this is not the message that many Indians have got. Governments and police officials have, at times, been criminally negligent in intervening on the specious plea that action would compound the problem. The result is that the police neither have a clear message about what could be the consequences of their inaction nor is the mob made clearly aware that their acts will bring them condign legal retribution. It is in such circumstances that the many shameful incidents that are a blot on the country’s history have taken place.
In a democracy, the right to protest is paramount. In a country like India that won its independence through a strategy of civil protest, there seems to be a special sanction for protestors. But somewhere down the line, this has led to a dangerous concession to violence and anarchy. While it is easy to pass the blame around for this, all Indians need to reflect where this attitude could lead them.