Event ReportsPublished on Dec 22, 2016
Dealing with violent civil protests in India

The alleged use of excessive force by Indian security personnel in dealing with violent civilian protests in Jammu and Kashmir in 2016 led to the death of over 60 people and injury to over a hundred of others. The use of pellet guns and pepper gas shells by security officials to disperse the protesting crowd has raised long standing questions about the methods and tactics employed by authorities in dealing with the civil protests that turn violent.

In the light of the events in Kashmir and Haryana earlier this year, a workshop was organised by the National Security Programme of Observer Research Foundation on 15 December. It discussed the ‘Ways to Deal with Violent Civil Protest’. Dr. Trinath Mishra, who has the unique record of heading the CBI, CISF and the CRPF, shared his views and experiences on dealing with violent protests in India. The meeting was chaired by Dr. Manoj Joshi, a Distinguished Fellow, ORF.

In his remarks, Dr Mishra led off with declaring that  the ‘right to protest’ is a fundamental right of every citizen. The nature of India’s constitution and the strength of its democracy that allowed citizens to voice their views against the government in a way that is lawful and peaceful. However, more often than not, protests turned violent when religion, caste or community sentiments are inflamed. It is at times like this that the government and law enforcement agencies should rely on proper policies and tactics to monitor, oversee and control the violent crowd. While the law authorises law enforcement agencies to prohibit unlawful assemblies and provide for methods on dealing  with violent gatherings, there is room for a lot more improvement in this regard.

While formulating policies to deal with violent protest, agencies must be extremely well prepared in anticipation of things going wrong. In a country like India, it is not only local incidents that can cause violence, but trouble anywhere in the country can provoke a violent outburst in another. With social media and instant messaging, misinformation can spread like wildfire disrupting the tempo of public life and warranting security officials to step in.

While drafting policy, it is important to keep in mind the ground reality and devise the strategy accordingly. Security situations that can arise in Kashmir are unique to the state and therefore policy must be created keeping that in mind. Protest movements in Kashmir are unlike ordinary protests elsewhere, given the number and nature of the players involved. In other words, the presence of Kashmiris, jihadi elements, Pakistani- state sponsored elements, non-state actors and the deployment of the Indian Army in Kashmir further complicates any protest or movement, making it considerably more challenging for security officials to handle. Changing political interests also thwart the formulation of sound policy in the state.

It is also  important to create laws that don’t violate the fundamental right of citizens to protest even while protecting  the sanctity of public property and the state. The laws should not favour either the citizens or the state, but allow both to exercise their rights, i.e. citizens right to protest and the state’s right to prevent violent protests that damage public life and public property. It should therefore, empower both the citizens and the state.

Once proper policy is formulated, strategy should be laid out that takes five elements into consideration: formation, intention, method, logistics and communication, including media briefings. All strategies should take in account these elements, when applying tactics or the strategy to the ground situation. This will ensure that the strategy formulated for dealing with violent student protest is different from that of a communal riot. The principles of the strategy will also be altered according to the where the violence in taking place. For example, the tactics that are used to quell a violent protest in Kashmir, may differ from the tactics that used in Lucknow. A one-stop overarching strategy will be ineffective, counterproductive and unhelpful in dealing with protests, given the varied nature violent civil protests across the country.

In dealing with varied violent protests, the government must also earmark certain taskforces. Organisations such as the Border Security Force (BSF) and Rapid Action Force (RAF) have clear instructions on what their mandate is, which helps them in doing their job. However other security groups such as the CRPF are used  for different situations -- election duty, insurgencies, static security for installations. This reduces their effectiveness and ability to deal with any one of these duties. It is therefore absolutely vital to create  a special force whose only mandate is maintaining law and order in Kashmir. The security personnel  of the force should be trained and briefed, having analysed case studies about past protests in the state. Once educated about the nature of protests and how they were dealt with in the past, they should be given proper riot gear and other equipment that is necessary to deal with the protest. In Kashmir, proper protective gear for security officials and riot gear should be provided in order to deal with stone pelting or a crowd bent on arson.

Besides building proper surveillance and juridical frameworks to control violent civil protests, the government should restructure police forces. The thana or local police stations should be given greater administrative powers that allow them to control violence at the ground level. Their familiarity with the region, the crowd and nature of the protest make the thana police the most capable of stopping violence before it starts. With proper resources and greater power, the thana police can be more effective in areas under their jurisdiction, evolving close contract with protestors and preventing the outbreak of violent protest.

While devising policies, strategies, methods, tactics and laws to deal with violent civil protests, it is imperative for the government to set down guidelines for security officials for the dispersal of a protesting crowed. While use of firearms is prohibited in countries such as Japan, and tear gas is not used in England, India must reconsider the use of pellet guns and other projectiles that cause damage to protestors. Security officials must understand the right of civilians to protest and therefore must not aim to hurt, maim or cause serious damage to them. Their goal should be to tire out the crowd and disperse them in a peaceful and lawful manner. They should not be treated as the ‘enemy’, and proper medical care should be arranged by the government during protests, for both security officials and protesting civilians. By implementing proper policy, tactics, earmarking force units, training and briefing security officials, violent civil protests can be controlled in the country.

This report was prepared by Kriti M. Shah, Research Assistant, Observer Research Foundation, Delhi

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