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Firing Assam Police’s Favourite Crowd Control Approach!


arunav goswami
research fellow,
centre for development and peace studies

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. Let us look at some of the incidents of police firing in Assam during the last three years.

April 30, 2013: One person was killed and at least 10 others were injured when police opened fire at a crowd who were opposing the construction of a wall by Power Grid Corporation India Limited at one of its power station at Baghmari near Tezpur in Sonitpur district.

April 29, 2013: Two persons were killed in police firing in Moilapathar area of Goalpara district. The incident took place when locals turned violent after recovery of a body. They attacked the government officials and police personnel visiting the area, following which police fired at the mob.

February 12, 2013: Eleven persons were killed and several others injured in five different places of Goalpara district when police opened fire on the people protesting the holding of the panchayat elections in Rabha Hasong Autonomous District Council areas ahead of the Autonomous Council polls.

October 10, 2011: Four jute farmers were killed and eight others injured when police opened fire to quell a group of cultivators who blocked national highway 52 in protest against minimum support price of their products near Dalgaon in Darrang district. Police resorted to firing when lathicharge had failed to disperse the agitators who blocked the highway for a long time, halting movement of vehicles. Later they turned violent and attacked the policemen following which police opened fire.

June 23, 2011: Two persons were killed and about 25 injured in Guwahati when police opened fire during a protest against eviction of settlers on the city hills.

April 12, 2011: One person was killed and two others injured in police firing in Mangaldoi in Darrang district. The incident took place after a group of unidentified miscreants vandalised several shops at Dollong Ghat area and the protesting local people gathered in front of the shops. The people got agitated when the police arrived late and an argument followed and when the police started to leave after completing the investigations, the people chased them and started pelting stones. The police subsequently opened fire leading to the death of one person.

With restlessness growing among the people, agitated crowds gather quickly during any untoward situation in an area. In most of the cases, the fury of the crowd is bent towards the official machinery. Unruliness prevails in such situations and sometimes leads to destruction of property by the crowd. The job of the police here is to effectively control the crowd with non-lethal means of crowd control. But the above mentioned incidents show that such has not been the case in Assam. Police has often resorted to firing at the crowd, leading to deaths and also grievous injuries to several others.

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 Criminal 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 determination not to disperse. Furthermore, Section 130, Code of Criminal 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 Nations 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 lacuna, 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 Discriminating 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.