On Friday, most daily newspapers published in Assam carried a full-page advertisement about the bold steps taken by Assam Chief Minister Sarbanda Sonowal to make the Assam Police a stronger force mainly by issuing appointment letters to 2,305 police constables. This was a long awaited initiative considering that there have been a large number of vacancies in the police force waiting to be filled for several years. However, this advertisement, coming close on the heels of the unfortute police firing at Dhula on Wednesday, has set people wondering whether we really need a larger police force until there are concomitant steps also to make the police force far more people friendly than it is now. Unfortutely, the police force in India is generally seen as a force used mainly to unleash brutalities on urmed citizens, whenever a law-and-order situation arises. By contrast, in most civilized democracies of the West, policeman are viewed as friendly protectors of citizens. In a large number of universities in the West, it is common practice for women students working late into the night in libraries to request a police escort to be provided to return home or to their hostels.
The Dhula police firing of Wednesday was clearly a fallout of the custodial death of a youth, Hasen Ali, around midnight on Tuesday. A section of the protesting public staged a blockade on tiol Highway 15 on Wednesday which turned violent and started pelting stones on the security forces and officials of the civil administration on duty. According to reports, DSP(HQ) Deboranjan Sarma and five other policeman were injured in the stone pelting, while three persons were hurt in police firing. The injured persons were rushed to the Mangaldoi civil hospital where Moidul Islam succumbed to his injuries. The other two, who had also sustained bullet injuries, were moved to the Guwahati Medical College Hospital for better treatment. The Darrang district administration promptly imposed an indefinite curfew in the Dhula police station area. The Deputy Commissioner of Darrang ordered a magisterial enquiry into the incident and directed the ADC in charge of law and order to conduct an inquiry and submit a report within the next 15 days. Assam Chief Minister Sarbanda Sonowal too ordered a high-level inquiry. He also asked Additiol Chief Secretary MGVK Bhanu to inquire into the incident and submit a report to the government at the earliest.
There is a certain déjà vu in the government’s course of action. What has been done is standard government procedure in such situations. What we never seem to learn from such happenings is that the people in our democracy repeatedly resort to the same non-violent means of protest in the form of staging blockades that can easily be turned violent by unscrupulous individuals whose sole concern is politicizing such events for persol gains. We need an administration that takes cognizance of all peaceful public protests instead of treating them as crimil offences. All the television clips of Wednesday’s police firing at Dhula reveal how the police force actually chased and fired at urmed agitators who were protesting a custodial death in a peaceful manner. This attitude of regarding even peaceful protests as crimil acts has no place in a democracy. In a land where even peaceful protests are regarded as unlawful acts, what other means of expressing their protest do people have? At the same time, there is no denying that the customary way of staging blockades constitutes a rather unfair way of taking away the rights of people to go about their important work which involves the use of our highways. After all, what crime do people commit in using our highways to go about their important work? We have to find means of protest that do not take away the rights of other people to go about their work. We have to find means of legitimate protest that do not infringe on the fundamental rights of others to go about their work.