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Opinion

There is an urgent need to change the way police handle protesters – analysis

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Long before New Delhi’s Connaught Place was renamed Rajiv Chowk, its namesake in the city was in the headlines. But it was named after a different Rajiv and a different chowk — and that happened about 30 years ago. Students rose up in spontaneous protests after the announcement of caste-based reservations in jobs and educational institutions. Rajiv Goswami, a commerce student at the Deshbandhu College in south Delhi, was the hero of this agitation. The student protesters named the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) crossing, where he tried to immolate himself, as Rajiv Chowk.

There were widespread protests across the country soon after the announcement on August 7, 1990, but Delhi became its focal point. The agitation was contained and remained largely peaceful, with the protesters not going beyond blocking traffic at important intersections with their dharnas. We were careful not to use force to break those sit-ins, and the protesting students would move to other locations after a couple of hours in one place. Traffic was thrown out of gear, but then the people understood the cause and, in fact, some even empathised with it. It continued for over a month, and as the protests started losing steam, Goswami, attempted self-immolation.

The incident shocked the country, and, soon, the agitation appeared to be spinning out of control. The government provided the best possible medical attention to Goswami, and so he survived despite 85% burns. In the meantime, another immolation of one Surender Singh took place. Several such cases were reported from different parts of the country, and the situation appeared be moving towards a violent confrontation.

On the evening of September 21, 1990, a group of student protestors staged a sit-in at the AIIMS chowk, by now named Rajiv Chowk. As it was the peak traffic hour, they had virtually hit the jugular of the traffic in south Delhi. The Delhi Police made attempts to dissuade the students and sought the help of the dean and the vice-chancellor of Delhi University, but to no avail. Instead of the sit-in melting away, students from other locations joined in. They seemed enthusiastic and the people of the neighbourhood sent food and durries. All indicators pointed towards a long haul.

Rajiv Chowk made headlines daily, and even though people suffered, the number of students continued to swell. The stalemate continued. Violent incidents kept going up. The media had already started comparing it to the 1989 protests at China’s Tiananmen Square.

Finally, on September 26 evening, the situation precipitated after an incident of violence. Our information suggested that the number of students and locals were more than 2,000, with plenty of missiles such as stones to resist the police. Despite provocations, the Delhi Police maintained restraint. It was around the midnight that the police, wearing riot gear, started moving towards the chowk from all the four sides quietly. They were under strict instructions not to use force. Street lights in the area had been dysfunctional for days, or taken away by the lumpen elements in the last few days of violence. The only source of light was a few generators and portable lights. As the force moved in simultaneously from all the sides, their numbers remained undetected till the last minute due to the darkness. The idea was to push the students back, and as they get hemmed in from all sides, they would panic and begin to melt away, and court arrest in a peaceful manner.

Everyone anticipated violence. But it was an anti-climax — everything remained peaceful, and the sensitive situation was calmly resolved without the use of force.

Policing is one area of administration, which, on account of the very nature of its work, continues to receive negative press. And despite best efforts to rectify, the trend somehow continues. One of the root causes of this is its use of unbridled force on the general public. It is in this context that the use of non-violent force can become an important element of policing.

Though policemen are trained and expected to be patient, they are human beings, and at times do get provoked, which is, of course, unacceptable. It is for this reason that there is a specialised unit for riot control. But what invariably happens is that such specialised units get overexposed during routine law and order deployment, and when the need arises, they end up reacting and behaving like the rest of the police staff. Thus, what we usually see in action is not men of a uniformed force but individuals in uniform. But even if they have to act individually, they must follow their orders and drills, and not take out their anger and frustrations on the public.

The term non-violent force is not an oxymoron. It’s a concept that has been put to practical use. Cynics may have doubts but to explain the concept of non-violent force, one has to visualise a mother slapping her child. She has used force, but is she violent? No. The use of force becomes violent when it is applied with a sense of revenge, hostility, hatred, malice, and rancour. The difference is extremely subtle. But it is the loss of this subtleness in crowd management, and the thinking among some policemen to teach the public a lesson and punish them, is what makes the use of force violent, and sometimes even brutal — and it is the source of most of the problems. The need for a change in police methodology has assumed much greater importance.

KK Paul is a former Delhi Police commissioner, member of the UPSC and governor of Uttarakhand and four Northeastern states

The views expressed are personal

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