Gift of street politics

Law Enforcement Crisis

By Dr S.Saraswathi
(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)

“Who are you?” – the question posed by a victim of police firing on anti-Sterlite protesters at Toothukudi in Tamil Nadu to film superstar turned politician Rajinikanth has become a quotable quote conveying the pent up feelings of protesters.
After visiting the victims of police firing, Rajinikanth, the latest notable entrant to politics, is reported to have remarked in an interaction with journalists that, “if there are going to be protests for every issue, Tamil Nadu will turn into a graveyard”. He was of the view that anti-social elements had infiltrated into the protests and created trouble and attacked the police which provoked him to express that, “I will never accept policemen in uniform being attacked”.
Thirteen people were killed and over 60 injured in police firing to disperse protesters demanding closure of the Sterlite copper plant. UN Human Rights experts condemned the “disproportionate and excessive use of lethal force” and called for an independent investigation to ensure that those who violated human rights were brought to justice.
Rajini’s remarks immediately encountered varied reactions from political leaders across the State. Barring the ruling AIADMK party, all others condemned his comments. It is a clear case of politicisation of mass action. The new political star expressed regret for his strong reaction.
Comments of politicians that make headlines are not the crucial issues. At the centre are pollution and land acquisitions that affect the lives and livelihood of people around and more than that, the challenge to the democratic order and official machinery from street level protests.
Escalation of people’s uprising for anything and everything has created a deep crisis in law enforcement. It is, therefore, necessary to identify the elements behind violence in each incident – be it concerned people and their sympathisers, antagonistic political and other groups, authorities responsible for maintaining law and order, the general public, or external elements and professional trouble-makers bent on disturbing orderly life.
The State government has ordered the shutdown of the Sterlite copper smelter plant. The Madras High Court acting on a PIL seeking registration of murder charge against the DGP and constitution of a special investigation team directed the State government to explain the circumstances that led to police firing on the 100th day of protest at the site.
It is said that firing was done against the standard practice. According to Police Standing Orders, firing should be resorted only after using tear gas, water jets and lathicharge if these fail. Bystanders were said to have fallen victims. If such reports appearing in the media were true, there is reason to ponder over protest politics and police intervention in the country.
Officials from CB-CID have begun investigations and cases are being filed against hundreds of people. The Central intelligence agencies and State internal security unit have formed a joint team to keep surveillance on the protesters.
Right to protest is a democratic right and cannot be denied. It follows from the right to assemble peaceably and without arms granted under Article 19 of the Constitution. At the same time, the government has the duty to maintain law and order and people have the right to live in peace and carry on their normal activities. Problems arise when these clash with one another.
At another level, country needs development and resources, and also pollution-free environment – two opposites. Jobs have to be created but not by destroying existing ones. Those involved in protests directly and indirectly take a single position and are not inclined to consider issues calmly from all angles. Opposition parties understand their role simply as expressing opposition to the government day in and day out.
Members of the State Human Rights Commission and National Human Rights Commission began their inquiry into the violence and police firing. The Human Rights Protection Committee of the CPM has demanded the dismissal of officers and police who ordered firing at protesters and registering of murder cases against them.
Rumours are circulated that plain clothed policemen and untrained persons did the firing; and on the other side that protesters were not the affected local people but included anti-social elements bent on creating law and order problem to discredit the State and Central governments.
In India, police accountability is not as strong as in the UK or US. The government and the ruling party wield enormous influence in the police. The exercise of police power has often come under criticism for excessive political control. To be credible, the police has to be reliable; to be effective, it must have independence; and to be responsible, it has to follow standard practices without bias – all of these in reality as well as in appearance. Above all, police must be people-friendly.
India, like other plural societies, has been witnessing a spurt of protest movements in recent decades leading to a crisis in law enforcement. Ethnic movements, demand for separate States, pro and anti Reservation Policy, farmers’ plight have triggered movements – some localised and some wider.
Most of the development projects in India – construction of dams, mining projects, metro rail, power projects and so on – do upset normal life in the surrounding areas. Growth with justice and people’s welfare are in policy documents, but hard to realise in reality. There is rapid escalation of confrontations between development requirements and welfare needs, which at times leads to the use of repressive instruments available to the authorities against the people.
Clash between environmental activists and development authorities are common. Political party leaders are more active on the streets than in legislative bodies. Crisis in law enforcement is a gift of protest politics growing hour by hour.
Policing in a democratic society is difficult. It involves the twin responsibility of protecting the rights of the people and maintaining law and order. A primary principle is not to indulge in abuse or misuse of police force. The exercise of police power should be balanced. The police should be accountable to law and not become law unto itself.
Civil oversight bodies have come up in many countries since the 1980s to ensure police accountability. They systematically review police decisions in all complaint cases. There may be independent investigation with police adjudication model or investigation by a civilian oversight body.
Protests have become common all across the globe and are considered as a democratic right. In the UK, “protected sites” are designated where no demonstrations can be held. In the US, “free speech zones” or fenced areas are designated for protests which are far removed from the event which is being opposed. Police Ombudsman has been created in Ireland. In Canada, using weapons on crowds is unlawful and unjustified unless officials feel that their lives or the lives of the general public are threatened. Weapons can be used only against persons who pose a threat.
Enormous power and authority vested in the police may lead to police excesses. Civilian oversight bodies as in many western countries may become political party tools in India! Our only hope is law courts which have to initiate police reforms also.— INFA