Police Firings- Aimed to Quash Protest

PUCL Bulletin, June 1981

One police firing a day. That is the average with which the Indian police opened fire in 1981. They have improved on their last year's record of one firing every other day.

A look at the post-independence record of police firings on crowds-whether they are demanding-one extra rupee in their wage basket as in the case of workers, or remunerative prices for their produce as in the case of farmers, or protesting peacefully against a certain policy of the government or occasionally in defence of their democratic rights as in Dalli-Rajahara--adds up to an average of 100 firings every year with about as many officially reported deaths.

The unmistakable trend in societies in transition is the concentration of power in the hands of the executive, and a steady erosion of the system of checks and balances. Each day brings news of a fresh executive assault on the judiciary. A policeman who kills, rapes and blinds is better protected by the State than a judge who may have indicted such a policeman.

This has become an all-too-familiar pattern. But what is disturbing is the enormity of the problem and the rapidity of its growth. The first twenty years of independence witnessed over 2,000 police firings and 1,900 deaths, as Home Ministry figures indicate. The next ten years were marked by growing social unrest and saw about as many firings by the police, with about half as many deaths reported.

Since the government that works came to power last year, the number of police firings admitted exceeds 295, leaving 313 persons and more dead and over 1300 injured in the first 16 months of its rule. This information is compiled from clippings of a few national newspapers, supplemented by reports from different states and investigations by various civil liberties organisations into major police firings. These figures are gross underestimates for obvious reasons as even reports carried by the regional press have not been taken into account. In every instance we have accepted the official figure of the number killed. For instance, the non-gazetted employees in Himachal Pradesh claim that the police killed 11 of their colleagues in firings at Palampur and Sunder Nagar in 1980 but the government says only 3;we have taken 3. Tribal leaders reckon at least 100 adivasis were killed in Gua on September 8, 1980, but the government figure is 11; we have used 11.

More important, the figures of 295 firings and' 313 dead do not include those killed in various "encounters". Their inclusion would considerably inflate the figures. According to police sources, in 1980 alone, there were 57 "encounters" in Madhya Pradesh killing one policeman and 55 "notorious dacoits". In UP there were 3,386 "encounters" according to the police again in which 983 "notorious dacoits" were killed. In the same year, there were newspaper reports of "encounters" between the police and persons branded as Naxalites in Tamil Nadu (5), Andhra Pradesh (2), Maharashtra (1) and Tripura(1) in which at least 25 people were killed.

Besides, the figure of 313 deaths does not include all those killed because of public disorders. As the number who died from firing by the police has not been established we have not included a single dead from Moradabad where 153 were said to have died mainly due to a stampede on the first day of the riots itself on August 13, 1980.

Furthermore, even the figure of over 1300 injured is an underestimation. In a large number of firings the police simply did not report the number of persons injured. Likewise, whenever the press did not mention separate figures of the people injured as a result of firing or those injured due to stoning, lathi-charge, physical assault, etc., we have not added anything to the number of the inured. Only where specific numbers of injured were given, have we included them.

Guidelines for Police
What were the circumstances under which these firings took place?
There are clear-cut guidelines under which. police firing can be ordered. The police should open fire. only as a last resort to deal with public agitations. In case of peaceful protests, there should be no cause for the police to use force of any nature. In case of violent protests, the standing instructions are to use minimum force to disperse unlawful assemblies.

Firing should be resorted to only after other methods such as lathi-charge, teargas and public warning of imminent firing have been exhausted. It can be resorted to only to save life and property or in self-defence. Besides, the order to fire can only be given by a Magistrate or his equivalent after a careful review of the circumstances. Finally-and this is crucial-its objective is to disperse the crowd, not to maim, and certainly not to kill people. The guidelines clearly spell out that the police-must aim their guns in such a manner as to avoid the loss of life. Under unavoidable circumstances, people must be shot in the legs only.

Police Version
If the press reports are to be believed, most firings seem justified according to the above criteria. Even the language of reporting is insinuatory. The crowds are normally destroying public and private property. They are looting a bank or setting it afire, or attacking a police station. They are generally strong in numbers-from 500 to 6,000. Very often the mob is armed with "spears" and "lathis" or bows and arrows. They are indulging in stoning.

In widely varying circumstances and in disparate geographical locations-such as the AIDMK procession in Madras on March 2, 1980 protesting against the dissolution of the State Assembly; or during the fight between two rival trade unions in Premier Auto Factory in Bombay on March 26, 1980; or during the bandh against the rise in bus fare in Yedlapadu, in Andhra on December 20, 1980; or during the public sector workers' strike in Hindustan Aeronautics factory in Bangalore on January 21, 1981; or during the anti-reservation agitation in Gujarat at Jotara; or during the tobacco growers' stir at Nipani in Karnataka on April 6, 1981-the common factor reported by the police and faithfully reproduced by reporters of the national press is that the crowd was violent, it tried to snatch or actually snatched the rifles from the police. The police was thereby forced to fire on the crowd in self-defence.

To the millions of newspaper readers these are facts they accept as a matter of habit. It is unfortunate that more often than not, the press relies heavily and sometimes exclusively on police handouts. But to those familiar with the usual circumstances in which the police fire and then fabricate stories to justify their action, hardly any police version is believable, let alone acceptable. Examples of the gap between the police version and the facts established by independent investigations or committees of inquiry are given at the end of this report in the form of same case studies.

So we have a small sample of 295 firings in which just 313 were reported to have been killed. And what does it tell
us? What are the circumstances which led to these firings? To ascertain them is far from easy particularly since the press faithfully reports the police version and judicial inquiries are rarely instituted. In 1980 inquiries were ordered into only 10 of the 185 firings, but only two reports have been submitted so far.

Proximate Circumstances
Under the circumstances we have been able to find out only the proximate circumstances leading to these firings, rather than their real or determining causes.

By proximate circumstances we mean the closely associated, clearly visible or discernible circumstances. For instance, there were 67 firings in Gujarat in 1981 in just 2 months between January27 and March 31, 1981. All of them were related in one way or another with the anti-reservation stir. These are classified as "anti-reservation protests", even though in some cases the police version indicated mob violence or rifle snatching or burning of buildings and police jeeps. Similarly, in July and August last year, there were firings on people protesting against price rise. All these cases were included under price rise resistance, as a proximate circumstance. In three of these instances, a newspaper report states that the police fired to control anti-price rise demonstrators who had turned violent and started looting shops. Instead of classifying these cases under police firing to save life and property, we considered the circumstances to be most proximate to the anti-price rise movement.

Wherever the circumstances were connected with agitations of workers, farmers or government employees, we classified those cases under protests of farmers, workers or government employees.
For example, workers affiliated to the CITU were agitating at Jogeshwari, Bombay in May, 1980 to stop the induction of fresh recruits in a packaging factory. We considered this as an example of worker's protest, rather than as a case of conflict between two groups of workers.

In this way we tried to categorize the proximate circumstances of each of the 295 firings during the 16 months of 1980-81. We considered two broad categories: popular protests and disturbances. In the former category, we considered four types of protests. First, the movement against the phenomenal rise in prices, including bus fares. Secondly, the agitations of farmers, workers and government employees. Thirdly, the anti-reservation stir. Finally, miscellaneous protests including the Assam movement and the tribal unrests. Under "disturbances", we have considered three kinds of circumstances, which necessitated police firing. First, when police had to fire to separate two or more antagonistic groups, belonging to different castes or communities or families or localities or category. Secondly, we have considered firing to curb or prevent communal clashes, i.e. between different religious groups. Finally, we have considered all those circumstances where the police reportedly fired to save the life of an individual or a group of persons (sometimes police personnel themselves) or to protect private and public property or to prevent the theft of goods.

In a few cases, the proximate circumstances could not be ascertained; we have classified them (4) under the "indeterminate category".

Given this classification, how many of the 291 police firings, whose proximate circumstances could be deter-mined, were associated with popular protests, and how many with disturbances of one kind or another?

Nearly 60 per cent of the total firings were associated with popular protests or agitations. In 1980 alone, 90 of the 189 police firings were linked to popular protests whereas in the first 4 months of 1981, as many as 91 of the 106 firings were linked to agitations, 67 of which occurred during the anti-reservation agitation in Gujarat in a matter of two months alone. [See table for details.]

For the 16 months period as a whole, of the 181 firings associated with popular protests of various kinds, 31 were connected with the movement against price rise, 33 with agitations of farmers, workers and government employees, 70 with the anti-reservation stir and 47 with miscellaneous protests. Among miscellaneous protests, the Assam agitation accounts for over 9 cases, tribal agitations for 4 cases, protests over the Moradabad communal clashes for 4 cases and 19 cases were of various groups protesting about a seemingly unjustified arrest or an attempt to arrest by the police.

In contrast, about 40 per cent of the cases of police firings were linked with disturbances such as clash between two or more groups (55 cases), communal clashes (12 cases) and threat to life and property (43 cases). The unavoidable conclusion is that the vast majority of firings are aimed to curb agitations and silence popular protest.

This inference gets reinforced if we notice the concen-tration of firing in areas where agitations were taking place and during that very period. Thus, Gujarat, which witnessed successive agitations as the one against price rise or by farmers or by anti-preservationists, accounted for 88 of the 295 total firings. In other words, 30 per cent of the total. Seventy seven of these 88 firings in Gujarat were aimed at the agitators. Similarly, Karnataka accounts for 26 of the 295 firings, or a little less than ten per cent. Twenty of these were due to various agitations.

That firings are being increasingly resorted to in order to suppress mass movements is best exemplified by the anti-reservation stir.

The agitation broke out in Gujarat at the end of January 1981. On February 5, the Centre, while reviewing the situation in Gujarat, decided that the Gujarat police was unable to curb the prevalent lawlessness. So Yogendra Makwana, Union Minister of State for Home Affairs (who hails from Gujarat) took it on himself to arrange to send one battalion of the Maharashtra police and one battalion of the Border Security Force (BSF) to Gujarat so as to effectively curb the growing agitation. The trail of firings and the number killed afterwards is well-known to all.

That firings are meant to curb agitations and silence dissent is underlined by a study of the comparative growth
of the civilian and the armed police and also the para-military forces in India after the mid-sixties.

Rapid Growth of Armed Police
Figures available regarding the civil police reveal that between the years 1969 and 1974, their strength increased from 4,83,133 to 5,67,384. On the other hand, the numbers of armed police rose from 1,55)98 to 1,99,475. In at least six states, Orissa, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal Assam, and Jammu and Kashmir, the increase was even higher than the national average. In Assam, civilian police increased from 6,291 to 11,258 between 1961 and 1971 and the armed police from 4,933 to 13,148 in the same period. Similarly, in Jammu and Kashmir, civilian police increased its strength from 5,230 to 8,304 between 1961 and 1971, whereas the armed police increased from 273 to 2,751. Besides these armed policemen, there is a variety of paramilitary forces that have been formed by the state and central governments since 1947. They have also swelled in numbers during the last several years. The strength of the Central Reserve Police Force, which had only 1,746 men in 1948 rose to 67,493 in 1971, and totals 72,187 today organised in 58 battalions. Similarly, the Border Security Force which was raised in 1967 with a strength of 14,328 had grown in number to 87,171 and 79 battalions. It is estimated that each battalion of about a thousand men costs the exchequer nearly Rs. 25 lakhs annually.

Unfortunately the judicial inquiries which were meant to deter trigger happy policemen have lost all meaning. In the first place, inquiries are rarely instituted. And when they are, they take so long in filing their reports that their corrective impact is lost. Such impact as they might have had is totally wiped out because no action is ever taken against those indicted by the reports. For example, the report of the firings at Poonch which took place on December 2, 1978 and January 5, 1979, was released 16 months later when the public had lost all interest. Ironically, the report justified the firings. Similarly, the report of the inquiry into firings that took place in Kairana and Muzaffarnagar as early as October 1976 was carried by the newspapers nearly four years later in August 1980. Again, 16 persons were killed in Pantnagar on April 13, 1978. A judicial inquiry was instituted. It was to report within four months. The first sitting of the commission did take place on June 16, 1978. The report has not yet been submitted. What will happen to the inquiries instituted in 1980 is anybody's guess.

The inquiry into the Poonch firings provides a good example of what happens to a report after its release. It justified the firing but indicted two policemen, then Superintendent of Police A-.R. Nanda and constable Mohammed Yusuf, for their conduct. The report was tabled in the State Assembly on April 2, 1980. But no action was taken against the errant policemen. Instead another inquiry was instituted to investigate A.R. Nanda's role. But no action seems to have been taken as both continue to hold the same positions as they did before the enquiry.

But is it fair to lay all the blame at the door of the police? It is true that in many cases, police are solely to blame but in others where a violent mob turns against them, where public property is being destroyed and where one community is bent on annihilating another, there is no recourse but to call in the police.

At the same time can we evade the more fundamental malaise that is corroding our society from within? What are the issues which give rise to these unrests? Price rise, caste conflicts, the increasing assertiveness of the dalits, farmers' agitations-all point to both the growing class disparities on the one hand and the inability of the rulers to challenge the very vested interests which sustain their survival on the other.

As the State becomes more repressive, greater vigilance on the part of the citizenry is called for. It is imperative that the forms of protest are peaceful. This is all the more necessary because at present there is no liability of the State when innocent citizens are killed at the behest of its officials.

What is urgently required is a permanent machinery for immediate inquiry into any police firing. In case of unjustified firings, exemplary punishment must be meted out to the guilty officials. At any rate, people of diverse and sometimes even hostile approaches must come together in a common attempt to protect the foundations of liberty and justice.

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