PUCL Bulletin, June 1981

To Fire or Not to Fire
by K.F. Rustomji

In a country where dissent is vital, how do we draw the line between dissent and disturbance? And would it be right to organise dissent so that the police can be provoked into firing?

Although I was a police officer and retired with 38 years of service, I had myself never killed anyone by ordering fire personally, though I had dealt with numerous difficult situations. Yet, there were times when I had to urge my officers to use firearms at once. The attacks were too big, the dangers too serious. The spread of communalism for instance, can lead to serious damage to the integrity of the nation, if it is not checked firmly and ruthlessly.

And yet if I found that someone had misused his weapon, lost his nerve or killed in anger, or fired at Muslims merely because they had shouted slogans in self-defence, I insisted that he must be prosecuted for murder like any other citizen.

How should we organise ourselves so that the occasions for the use of firearms can be minimised?
In the first place we must come down heavily on anyone who uses illegal means to quell discontent, to crush dissent or even to suppress a terrorist movement. There have been cases in which political extremists have been shot down in true encounters. Those must be accepted as the unavoidable price of dissent which is undemocratic. But none must be put to death because he was suspected of being a terrorist. If a dacoit gang has been encircled after an exchange of fire and those who were using weapons were shot down, that is something which is legal and correct. But even here it is far more prudent to secure the surrender of those who are encircled and get full information regarding the plans and methods of the gang.

Secondly, we must have some sort of a code of conduct in politics so that party leaders, or those who want to establish political leadership, do not try to secure it by playing with the lives of distressed citizens. Even if we do not have a code, let the organisers bear in mind that not only can mistakes be made by the demonstrators but cruel ones can be made, perhaps inadvertently, by the police themselves-and when mistakes occur on both sides, the price has to be paid by the widows and orphans of those whose lives were recklessly sacrificed.

Thirdly, the police must develop the right tactics and strength to deal with the instability that economic and social causes are producing. One very common reason for police panic is the spread of rumours about casualties in the force-e.g. men killed, families molested-a head constable has been speared and his eyes gouged out. In a tense situation, such rumours which spread rapidly can create instability in the police ranks of a serious type and officers often seem to forget the importance of contradicting rumours and reassuring the people and their own force.

What should we do to the officer who prefers to remain in the Control Room so that he can shirk the responsibility of leading his men in the street? The possibility of a police failure increases enormously if there is no responsible man on the spot. Should we not take steps to prevent such evasion of duty by senior officers?

We have had several firings in the last few months in which the causalities have been extremely serious. We could make out an endless list-Moradabad, Aligarh, Nasik, Nipani, the firing on Gonds in Adilabad and on adivasis in Singhbhum, the tragedy of Samastipur jail in which 11 men who were holding the staff at bay with stones were shot down from the prison walls.

Because we feel convinced the police have fired recklessly in many places, we are unable to call them to account when the police fail to fire or to take effective steps to contain communal fury, as in Biharsharif. Each of us must stand for a minute in agonised silence at the tragedy that was enacted in the villages adjoining Biharsharif, when women and children (even babes in arms) were butchered by a crowd maddened by a false rumour that 200 Yadavs had been killed in the town.

What is going wrong? How can we stop this rot? Each of us who calls himself an Indian has to search for the answer. The worst feature of firing is when the administration tries to cover up the senseless loss of life with the excuse that there should be no criticism as there will be loss of police morale, or when senior politicians prepare lies for public circulation, and the administration mouths excuses about large-scale preparations and accumulation of weapons, or newspapers publish alibis on the basis of hidden hands and foreign interference.

If nothing else, let us at least speak the truth no matter what the consequence.

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