DATELINE Guwahati /Wasbir Hussain
Opening fire on a mob appears to be the Assam Police’s most favoured crowd-control ‘technique.’ Dozens of protestors have been killed in police firing in the past five years (and more before that) as if as a matter of routine. Lots have been written about this brazen crowd-control method of the Assam Police, including in this column in the past, but neither our netas nor the babus seemed to bother too much about deaths of people due to police bullets. But the ballot can certainly move and shake the political class, particularly those in power.
On Tuesday, therefore, when Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi rapped the Assam Police on its mob-control technique, not many were surprised. That’s because the elections in Assam are due next year and the public mood as such is of great importance! At a conference of deputy commissioners and police superintendents in Guwahati, the Chief Minister said poor intelligence and ibility to anticipate trouble on time leads to baton-charging and firing. Gogoi said at times the authorities allow people to gather in strength without any precautiory measures in place and at other times they just fail to anticipate trouble. Caning and firing, the Chief Minister said, are not ‘civilized ways’ and should be used only as a ‘last resort.’
There has been a spurt in incidents of police firings in Assam during the last few years. This has led the people to doubt the capacity of the Assam police in effectively controlling the crowd, without using lethal means. With restlessness growing among the people, agitated crowds gather quickly during any untoward situation in an area. The job of the police here is to effectively control the crowd with non-lethal means of crowd control. But that has not been the case in Assam. Police has often resorted to firing at the crowd, leading to deaths and grievous injuries.
There are various guidelines, rules and regulations that need to be followed by the police during crowd control. According to Principal 4, Code of Conduct for Police in India, “In securing the observance of law or in maintaining order, the police should use the methods of persuasion, advice and warning. Should these fail, the absolute minimum force required should be used.” Also, according to Section 129, Code of Crimil Procedure (CrPC), use of force can only be resorted to if an unlawful assembly (likely to disturb public peace) does not disperse on being ordered to or shows a determition not to disperse. Furthermore, Section 130, Code of Crimil Procedure (CrPC) says that every officer must use as little force and do as little injury to person and property during dispersing such an assembly.
The United tions has also laid down some principals in this regard. Section 13 of the U.N. Basic Principals for the use of Force and Firearms states that the use of force in dispersing non-violent unlawful assemblies should be avoided and if that is not possible, then minimum force should be used. In case of violent unlawful assemblies, Section 14 of the U.N. Basic Principals for the use of Force and Firearms states that firearms should only be used if less dangerous means are not available and only to the minimum extent necessary.
But looking at the number of incidents of police firings in Assam, it cannot be said that these rules and regulations have been followed. Instead of the last measure, the police have used the firings as the only effective measure available with them to disperse the crowd. The number of deaths by police firings is an indicator of that. The main reason behind this is the lack of training of the police personnel in Assam in crowd control measures. Another disturbing fact was reported in a news article titled “Lethal force? There are gentler, Next-Gen ways of crowd control” published in Times of India newspaper (January 4, 2013) which quoted a senior officer of Assam Police saying that, “Training has always been a lacu, but it’s also about putting the wrong people on the job. Units trained in hardcore anti-insurgency operations are put in charge of crowd control all of a sudden. These men are trained to use their firearms, not batons. The policeman does what he is trained to do; he may not always know what he is supposed to do under the given circumstances.”
What is needed at this hour is proper training of the Assam police personnel in crowd control measures. Lack of training has led the situation to deteriorate to this extent. Periodic trainings would surely help the police personnel to effectively tackle the crowd using non-lethal means. The training department of Assam police also needs to periodically update their training modules and try to develop better techniques for crowd control. They could also look at the measures used by police forces in other countries to control crowd.
In Britain, the Home Office is developing a chemical called Discrimiting Irritant Projectile (DIP) which will be loaded with tear gas, pepper spray or another irritant and would deliver a discrete, localized cloud or burst of sensory irritant in the immediate proximity of an individual. The idea is to minimally harm the protestors and also to disperse the crowd with minimum causalities. May be development of some similar product in India may be thought of too.
In some countries of Europe, Police have been taking lessons from history. The ‘shield wall’ or ‘phalanx formation’, a battle tactic used by the Persian Sparabara, Greek hoplites and Roman legions in ancient times, has been used by riot police in developed countries to control crowds. London police had experimented with the Anglo-Saxon shield wall, which had troubled the Vikings at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 and found it effective. May be, it is time for the police in Assam to revisit their history books for finding out an effective crowd control measure.