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The right to protest is one of the fundamental rights of the citizens of India. Of late, several forms of protests have taken place across the country. Sometimes, protests and demonstrations have taken a violent turn. For example, the protest demanding the closure of Sterlite Copper in Tuticorin alleged to have turned violent.

Due to the “inefficient” management of the protest, police resorted to firing which resulted in the death of many protesters. This incident shook the conscience of the civil society. It cannot be that simple to analyze the causes for the protesters to have turned violent. Also, it is not that simple an exercise to understand why the police resorted to open-firing.

It is important to understand (though not that simple) why the police had to use lethal force to disperse the protesters. As claimed by the police, the situation necessitated the use of lethal force. If we go by their version that they were forced to resort to firing, then the simple question is: Did they follow any procedure before picking firearms in self-defense and defense of others?

Standard operating procedures
In February 2011, the Bureau of Police Research and Development, Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India issued a booklet on the Standard Operating Procedures, to deal with public agitations with non-lethal measures, for circulation among all the State Police Forces. The booklet was prepared by a Task Force constituted by the Ministry of Home Affairs under the Chairmanship of the then Union Home Secretary. These procedures are supposed to be followed while handling and managing public agitations, including violent protests. The following are some of the procedures included in the booklet:

  1. Efforts should be made to disperse unlawful assembly without using force, but through other methods such as persuasion, negotiation, meditation etc.; b) If the agitation by the assembly of people persist, with the illegal acts, such an assembly should be declared unlawful; c) Though the agitators may have gathered without any open violent activity, they may have the intent to cause violence, which should be prevented by the police; d) If the prevention is not successful, the agitators should be ordered to disperse; e) If they do not disperse, they should be arrested using only the necessary amount of force; g) Even if such an effort doesn’t work, the protestors should be cautioned and only then should force be used; h) The next step of the procedure is the use of force by using non-lethal means first and harsher ways later, if at all required, to bring the situation under control. Only if all the other steps fail, the use of lethal means should be adopted, as a last option; i) As far as practicable, the unlawful assembly should be warned, repeatedly, before the decision to use a lethal weapon is made; j) Attempts should be made to fire below the waist, as far as practicable, when firing becomes necessary to disperse unlawful assembly.

Attempts should be made to fire below the waist, as far as practicable, when firing becomes necessary to disperse unlawful assembly.

Therefore, the police are expected to strictly adhere to these procedures before choosing a lethal measure to disperse any unlawful assembly. Though there are provisions in the Code of Criminal Procedure (Section 129), giving power to any executive magistrate or officer-in-charge of the police station. In the absence of the police officer in charge, any police officer, not below the rank of Sub-Inspector of Police, is to command any unlawful assembly to disperse (Section 129 (1)). Even after such a command, should any unlawful assembly have not dispersed, the executive magistrate or the police officer referred to in sub-section (1), may proceed to disperse by force.

Use of plastic bullets
The above provisions do not contain information about the extent of, or type of, force that should be used. Also, there is no mention of the types of equipment or weapons that could be used as ‘force’ to disperse an unlawful assembly. However, the Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPR&D) has recommended a list of equipment and weapons that could be used for crowd control, which include: water cannon, regular tear gas shells, stringers and dye-marker grenades, plastic bullets for mob dispersal, various forms of tasers, pepper ball launchers, laser dazzlers, net guns and stink bombs. All these types of equipment/weapons are described as “non-lethal” weapons which are found to be effective in crowd control. Though the above list includes plastic bullets for mob dispersal, the use of plastic bullets has not been field tested yet. The BPR&D report has also observed that: “the basic requirement is that it should be possible to fire plastic bullets in a semi-automatic mode from regular rifles such as AK and INSAS and that the effective range should be about 50 yards (approximately 45 meters).” The report further observed that the .303 version was tested in Kerala but not found to be capable of dispersing an unlawful assembly. It is also noted that in real life situations, stressful ones in particular, it is unrealistic for the police to be able to determine the range correctly, and plastic bullets should not be used from a close distance either.

In countries like Israel, the use of plastic bullets has been questioned. In India, too, they have not been thoroughly tested in the field. However, plastic bullets have been frequently used in States like Jammu and Kashmir. The State Human Rights Commission of Jammu and Kashmir also observed that the use of pellet guns causes more serious injuries, including a serious threat to life, without achieving the desired goal.

International standards
The Eighth United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders held in Havana, Cuba from 27 August to 7 September 1990, adopted the “Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials”. According to Principle 4, in carrying out the duty, the law enforcement officials, as far as possible, shall apply non-violent methods before using force and firearms. Principle 9 has clearly stated that the law enforcement officials shall not use firearms except in self-defense or defense of others, if there is a threat of death or serious injury. In April 2017, the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) brought out a special report on ‘Dealing with Violent Civil Protests in India’. The report has critically observed that the practice followed in India to control a violent crowd not only fail international standards, but also received a highly disproportionate response by stone-throwing civilians.

(The author is the Head of Criminology Department, University of Madras) 

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