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Maharashtra bandh: Mumbai Police struggled to contain violence as political bosses offered little support

Was the Mumbai Police unprepared to handle the consequences of a shutdown on Wednesday?

The Maharashtra bandh on Wednesday caused ruckus and disruption all over the city as there were incidents of violence and near riot-like situations. While essential services were disrupted at many places during the bandh period, properties were vandalised by protesters in different areas as well. The Mumbai Police did their best to manage the situation, however, they looked unprepared to handle the scale of the bandh. Despite having knowledge of the shutdown on Tuesday itself, the force failed to prevent the violence as they lacked the political support they needed to take action.

Mumbai Police. Reuters

Mumbai Police. Reuters

The Mumbai Police functions on Peelian principles. The cops police on consent which is why you have one police officer who can police so many people. People obey the police because they choose to do so and the police can only function here because a majority of the population consents to their authority to the police.

The father of modern policing, Sir Robert Peel, created the principles of law enforcement way back in 1829 for better policing. According to Peel’s model of policing, "officers are regarded as citizens in uniform", said a piece on policeone.com.

Mumbai is a classic example of such a police force which is why if you look at Twitter on Wednesday you will find many Mumbaikars tweeting to their police force asking for things such as if it's safe to venture outside, seeking assistance when they were stuck in traffic and general queries about the situation during the bandh.

A police force, despite its best intentions, is still finally under the control of the political executive that sits in the home department. If they do not have the backing of their political controllers, the police will not be able to use the full range of measures available to them under the law to do their duty. For example, it is the absolute right of a police officer under the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 to detain a person for up to 24 hours if they suspect that person has or is about to commit an offence. If they had political backing, the police could have detained known troublemakers on Tuesday night itself and ensured that these troublemakers were not part of these violent protests. In fact, the police could have used similar strategies that are usually used in the event of major religious occasions in the city to prevent the outbreak of violence on those dates.

Regular protesters aren't the ones who turn violent. People who are violent usually follow a similar pattern. The Police could have also detained these persons on arrival. Strategies like these were employed by the police during the 2011 anti-corruption protests and the Delhi rape protests of 2012.

Traffic diversions could have been put in place from the start of the day itself to ensure that the route the protesters followed was different from the route of regular traffic and that those who supported the bandh were not able to access the central commercial districts. Strategic closure of some railway and metro stations could have also helped. The police could have also worked with BEST to ensure that fewer buses were plying on the roads to avoid damage of public property.

The police could have also taken the organisers and those who called for these protests into confidence. They could have designated routes for any processions and if there was to be a bandh they could have also made them sign undertakings that they would be liable for any damage to property. Preventive detention of bandh leaders could also have been an option that they could have exercised.

Today's display of violence was shameful for any movement that wishes to even be taken remotely seriously by a democratic polity. It was a display of hooliganism by a bunch of youths who most probably had no idea what it was they were protesting in the first place. What makes a bandh problematic is that it is not just voluntary. By enforcing the bandh with violence as these protestors did, they in effect forced everyone to participate in their protest. This is fundamentally anti-democratic. Through this violence, they also damaged public property.

The Bombay Police Act, 1951 provides for the recovery of money for the damage caused by unlawful assemblies. Section 51 of that Act provides that the amounts shall be recovered from the areas where these disturbances occurred and 54 places the liability on those areas for increased police expenditure. But that's unfair. Why should people who suffered these disturbances caused by people coming in from outside be liable to pay for these additional expenses?

There needs to be a provision for strict liability to be placed on leaders who call for bandhs. If someone calls for a bandh and the bandh turns violent that person should be liable to pay for any and all damages that occur. If there are offences that happen during the bandh that person should be equally liable for all the offenders. That's the only way to deter such violent demonstrations.

Lastly, we need a law like the Riot Act. The police need to be able to step up in an unlawful assembly and ask everyone to disburse and go back to their business. If anyone fails to obey this order they all automatically become liable to long terms of imprisonment and the police gain the ability to use force to disperse the assembly. This is the only way to ensure people stop agitating by squatting on railway tracks and disrupting public services.

Mumbai has many public spaces reserved for democratic expression. These are open to all. Azad Maidan, Oval Maidan, Cross Maidan for example. People can book these places in advance and make their protests there. They will be heard. There is no necessity to take to the streets. The government doesn't ban democratic exercise of speech in this country. There is no need to resort to this kind of hooliganism.

The police need to have the political support to do their job. If the politicians won't support the police, the public needs to step in and force the politicians to put civic sense before electoral politics. The normality of civic life cannot be secondary to a political agenda.


Updated Date: Jan 03, 2018 18:56 PM

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