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Thursday, January 21, 2021

Crowd control or police out-of-control?

Farmers In Tonk, Rajasthan, were agitating for supply of water, when the police opened fire on June 13, killing five and injuring many more....

Written by G. P. Joshi | July 22, 2005

Farmers In Tonk, Rajasthan, were agitating for supply of water, when the police opened fire on June 13, killing five and injuring many more. The dead included a 35-year-old pregnant woman. Congress president Sonia Gandhi called it a shocking incident and the CPI (M) threatened a statewide agitation against the ‘oppressive regime’ of a ‘former queen.’

Authentic facts about what happened are not yet known, but some details can be gathered from press and reports like that of PUCL. Farmers had given a representation to the authorities long ago, demanding water for their villages from the Bisalpur dam. On June 13, they blocked Tonk highway No 12 for four hours. Except for some minor incidents of stone throwing, the protest was by and large peaceful. No major incident of arson, loot or destruction of property had occurred.

The police reportedly opened fire without warning and without first using other methods to disperse the crowd, like tear-gas, lathi charge, etc. The action taken was unprovoked, sudden and deadly. Senior district officers, like the District Magistrate and the District Superintendent of Police, were not present on the spot when the incident occurred. They arrived later on.

The use of firearms to control unlawful assemblies is governed by basic principles laid down in the law and in police departmental regulations. The main guideline is the minimal use of force, which regulates police action in two important ways. One, it suggests that while using force, progressively stringent action should be taken. Firearms should therefore be used only in the end, when all other means have failed to bring the situation under control. Two, it requires that irrespective of the means employed, the quantum of force used must be the minimum required to control the situation. Firing should cease immediately after the crowd shows signs of dispersing.

Back in 1964, the Government of India had framed a set of Model Rules to guide police action in controlling crowds. The Model Rules were accepted and adopted by all state governments and are still valid. One of these rules says that the use of firearms must be made only in extreme and exceptional circumstances, when there is imminent and serious danger to life or property. State police manuals insist on maintaining strict control over the use of firearms and prohibit firing in an aimless, confused or undisciplined manner. Firing should not be done in the air, nor should it be directed above the heads of the crowd.

The state government has ordered a judicial inquiry and it will be for them to decide if the firing was unjustified and excessive. Apparently, however, some of the important principles governing the use of firearms were disregarded.

The Tonk incident was one of the many in which the police have tried to control crowds using firearms. The number of occasions on which firearms have been used is quite high. Crime in India tells us that during the last decade i.e. 1990-99, the police opened fire to disperse unlawful assemblies on as many as 5,994 occasions, taking a toll of 1,753 civilian lives and causing injury to 6,886 citizens. These high figures are a cause for concern.

Any censure of police action in such situations is generally dismissed by police officers as unwarranted armchair criticism coming from those who did not have to bear the brunt of mob fury in the form of stones and other missiles. This response is common, but is also shortsighted, as it deprives the police of an opportunity to review different incidents to find out what went wrong with their methods and tactics, their training, equipment and command-and-control. A review of such incidents would enable them to learn how to develop a high level of riot-control capability, which would help in reducing the intensity of confrontations and in managing situations without the use of firearms.

The use of firearms by the police to disperse unlawful assemblies, even though permitted by law, has a number of implications, not the least important of which relates to the image of the police and the degree of acceptability of their actions in a democratic society. Every bullet fired by the police to disperse an unlawful assembly leaves a long trail of bitterness and blood. It creates and sustains an impression in the public mind that the police in this country have no regard for the lives of the citizens.

The police can ill afford to let this type of impression persist. This does not mean that the police should turn a blind eye towards violations of law and order, or allow the public to indulge in loot, violence and destruction. They are legally bound to control public disorder and violence. However, while performing this duty, it is important for the police to ensure that they do not convey the impression of using force indiscriminately or excessively, as they appear to have done in the Tonk incident.

The writer is former director, Bureau of Police Research and Development. Email: gpjoshi@humanrightsinitiative.org

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