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Riots in Delhi: six lessons for the state and the police – analysis


An avant-garde calm prevails over northeastern Delhi with charred remains of broken houses, shattered tents under a gray smoke sky. A cloud of gloom hangs heavily on the ghostly streets, full of burning vehicles, debris and broken glass. Families cry for their loved ones who will never return home. Delhi burned for three days with sordid stories of arson, looting and butchering in the streets where all communities have always lived together for a long time, united in peace and happiness.

After the visit of the president of the United States, Donald Trump, the chaos in Delhi seems to be part of a deeply rooted conspiracy, a perverse design to destroy peace and spoil the image of India. Some have also attributed the clashes to the intelligence failure of the Delhi police. However, it was quite evident, even to a common citizen, that a confrontation between the pro and anti-citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAA) groups in the Capital was building up. Voices had risen for some time against Shaheen Bagh’s protests for blocking an important road and causing huge inconvenience to travelers and residents of nearby areas. Even the interlocutors appointed by the Supreme Court could not break the deadlock and the pro-CAA elements were getting restless.

For decades, Delhi has not witnessed such an incident. Now held in the crossfire of the political guilt game, this community saga has important lessons for the future and it would be wise to pay attention to them.

First, the Capital could have secured better on the eve of Trump’s visit. Given the prevailing atmosphere in the city, additional battalions of the Central Police Armed Forces (CAPF) should have been requisitioned and deployed at protest sites and sensitive areas. For any high-profile visit, the police are alert, but more boots on the ground underpin the confidence and capacity of the force.

Second, any sign of community violence must be cut off. This is the first lesson taught in all police training schools. The police should have moved with great force and determination when the confrontation between the groups had just begun.

This would have required tear gas, lactic load or even shots if necessary to control the situation and dominate the area. A clear message of this kind would have had the desired effect in other areas where malefactors and thugs were trying to take advantage of the tense situation. Why did the police hesitate to make the initial move strong? Was the restriction due to Trump’s visit to keep the action discreet or was it a prevarication by the leaders?

Third, strong and decisive leadership is critical in such serious situations. Police chiefs should be chosen more for their ability to lead and face difficult situations rather than just diligent search engines. Police chiefs are expected to have a strong connection with their own men and the public. They have to look good, overflow with confidence and be articulate enough to speak loudly to motivate their men and the public alike. The visit of the national security adviser, Ajit Doval, did exactly that. He moved in areas affected by riots, instilling a sense of confidence in the forces and security among the public. This had to be done before the police chief. It is also up to the boss in serious situations such as interacting with the press for daily briefings and addressing the public to increase their confidence.

Fourth, a sample of the power of the State is the best deterrent in such situations. The Delhi police have at their disposal an impressive variety of vehicles such as the vajra and others to transport the forces safely through vulnerable areas. This was the time to exhibit them to the fullest effect, to make them parade through the streets creating fear and fear to drive the troublemakers away.

It was sad to see the old and faded riot gear, the bamboo shields and the helmets worn by men. Compare it with Hong Kong and we look far back. It is time for the Delhi police to obtain the best riot gear with polycarbonate shields and helmets and Kevlar vests so that men feel safe to face any situation with courage.

Fifth, now, with normality coming back, the police have to focus their attention on the post-communal violence drill. The Delhi High Court has already ordered them to carefully analyze hate speech and see if it is necessary to record the First Information Reports.

Special teams constituted to investigate cases of disturbances must be accelerated under the watchful eye of senior officers and prosecutors. It is time to encourage investigation guided by prosecution and achieve closer coordination between the investigation and the wings of prosecution. The police must also ensure that ghettoization does not occur, as usually happens after a riot. The displaced should be rehabilitated as quickly as possible.

And, finally, the affairs of the Ministry of Interior (MHA) have to play a more facilitating role in providing the latest police with riot gear and other equipment to the Capital’s police. Men and the required material should be provided as soon as possible. In addition, it was the responsibility of the MHA to ensure that a new police commissioner was already in place a month ago before formally taking office. The incumbent officer with a clear mandate of at least two years would certainly have taken a more proactive approach to better secure the city.

Yashovardhan Azad is a former IPS officer and central information commissioner

The opinions expressed are personal.

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