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Friday, December 03, 2021

‘A democracy has protests… most end at the barricades’

We must tread carefully, protecting life and property, remaining neutral, acting strictly by the book, because one misstep will reverse the direction of protests.


Updated: January 5, 2020 9:29:32 am
CAA protests India, Delhi Citizenship protest, Police crackdown CAA protest, Delhi police, Delhi Citizenship bill protest, indian express A clash between police and protesters at Jamia Millia Islamia. (File)

(Written by Shweta Chauhan)

Nineteen metro stations closed. Mobile Internet services suspended. Section 144 of the CrPC invoked. Vehicles, police post torched in Uttar Pradesh, protests in Assam, Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Kolkata. These headlines along with images of opposition leaders, activists assembled in their winter clothes just as Delhi records its lowest temperature of the year flood our TV screens. It is not a happy day in the life of a police officer. The larger the gathering, the higher the stakes for us. We must tread carefully, protecting life and property, remaining neutral, acting strictly by the book, because one misstep will reverse the direction of protests. And once that happens, all issues will become secondary, police bashing will start and we will be facing a public trial.

I spent hours watching over protests at Ramlila Maidan during my posting in Delhi. Sometimes we would hear taunts. On other occasions, like at a doctor’s strike at AIIMS, I was asked by the protesters to resign, join them. Sometimes our patriotism was questioned, as in the Anna Hazare protests. Sometimes our humanity was questioned, as in the Nirbhaya protests. But on a basic human level we are not very different from the people on the other side of the barricades. The only major difference is that we carry the weight of protecting democracy, protecting lives , protecting the rule of law. Trust me, this isn’t a lament, this is just an earnest attempt at KYC — Know Your Cop.

Handling protests is an integral part of the work of a police personnel. We are given exhaustive training in riot control at the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel National Police Academy, Hyderabad — weekly classes on the use of anti-riot gear and equipment; extensive training on negotiation skills; engaging positively with a crowd of protesters; forging a rapport with the stakeholders; giving a clear warning before any escalation of force. It is done week after week, continuously, till it is ingrained as muscle memory. All this finally culminates in a grand riot-control practice session where all 120-odd officer trainees participate in containing a mob of unruly protesters made up primarily of our own trainers and academy staff.

We are aware that in a democracy, there will be protests. We also know that a large crowd by nature is unpredictable. Only a few rabble-rousers are enough to turn a peaceful protest into a full-blown riot. Handling a protest is an ordeal for all police officers and we are well aware that lives, law and order in society are on the line.

I remember that in 2015, when I was posted in Outer Delhi, we received a call that a crowd of protesters from Narela colony had stopped traffic on NH-44. When I reached with reinforcements, I found that the protesters had torched our police post (no lives lost) and pelted stones at a fire tender. It took some strict warnings for the crowd to allow the fire tender to douse the fire. Meanwhile, a separate group of hooligans torched two motorcycles and one private car belonging to a police personnel. Before we could gauge the strength of the crowd, they started pelting stones at us. I saw a police inspector bleeding from his nose. Another stone came hurling at the one standing next to him and hit his forehead.

We fired tear gas after adequate warning but even the wind did not favour us. Soon I was calling my own teary-eyed flock of policemen, trying to keep them together. We had to charge at the protesters with lathis; this resulted in people running in all directions. Some policemen went so far into the alleys that I was momentarily worried about their safety. Some protesters came back brandishing lathis of own. There was mayhem for several minutes till the crowd was dispersed. Thankfully no shots were fired, no protesters grievously hurt.

Like each investigation, each protest is also different. Each minute spent at the barricades makes one wiser for future incidents. Much is said about police excesses but rest assured, contrary to representations in popular cinema, there are no trigger-happy Chulbul Pandeys in real life. In my eventful career, I am yet to meet a police officer who is eager to order a lathicharge on a crowd of peaceful protesters, forget firing on them. In fact, we try to avoid any confrontation at the barricades, till it is felt that a rule of law has been threatened.

When there is information of a protest, police try by all means to contain it within manageable proportions. We try to contain rumours. We try to cut down on mass means of transportation to stop unmanageable crowds from gathering, because a large mob is faceless, nameless and offers a false sense of anonymity, power and ruthless disregard for law in its members. Suspending Internet services, closing down metro stations, diversion of traffic are all steps to stop collection of a large crowd of protesters.

Yet people gather, protests take place and when they turn violent, we try to contain them from damaging life and property by graded use of force; lathicharge is mostly the last step. In a full-blown riot, police may resort to firing, but it comes with its own hazards.

In conclusion, I will say, most protests end at the barricades. But when they don’t, we are easily targeted. This is because police is a branch of government that has the maximum interface with common people. Khaki has the maximum visibility of all government functionaries. We perform our duties without getting affected by the disdain of the very public we serve. We have learnt to live with the hatred, but a little appreciation is always welcome!

The writer is Superintendent of Police, Leparada district, Arunachal Pradesh. She is a 2010-batch IPS officer, AGMUT cadre

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