The State's response to ongoing anti-CAA protests has one major lesson: India desperately needs police reform

  • A pattern that emerged common through these protests was the outdated and, at times, brutal responses of the police force

  • Communication and dialogue will also enable the police to comprehend the reasons behind the protest

  • Beyond SOPs, other aspects also need to be addressed to prevent future blunders like at Jamia

From the time of the British Raj, India has had a rich culture of student dissent and protest. Periodically, students have risen up against instances of injustice and state excess. The students strike at the King Edward Medical College, Lahore in pre-Partition India in 1920, the 1965 statewide students agitation in Tamil Nadu against the Official Languages Act, the JP Movement, protests against the Emergency and the Assam Agitation, all reflect some large scale movements spearheaded by students in India. Therefore, with such an abundant history of student activism deeply embedded into India's universities, it was not surprising to see student-led protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) sweep across the country over the past fortnight.

Protests started from Jamia Milia Islamia in New Delhi, in essence, the catalyst of this movement, and soon spread to the Aligarh Muslim University, Banaras Hindu University, Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay, and even the apolitical Indian Institute of Sciences, Bengaluru, among other universities.

A pattern that emerged common through these protests was the outdated and, at times, brutal responses of the police force. The protests highlighted the incapacity of the police to deal with any form of dissent and constitutional protests. It was evident that archaic response mechanisms, symbolic of our colonial legacy, still dominated police practices. The use of 'lathicharge', pellet guns, tear gas, stun grenades and water cannons by the police to restrain student, raised some serious issues with their Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs).

 The States response to ongoing anti-CAA protests has one major lesson: India desperately needs police reform

A view of the damaged Jamia Milia Islamia library after police entered the university campus later on Sunday evening and beat the students on 16 December, 2019, in New Delhi. Getty images

These SOPs are a far cry from how a 'modern' and a 'democratic' police force should deal with student dissent. The straw that broke the camel's back was when Delhi Police forcefully entered into the Jamia campus, going against the age-old tradition of only entering a university campus after getting the Vice-Chancellor’s permission, thereby taking away from the sanctity of a free university space. The further tear-gassing of the Jamia library, destruction of university infrastructure and injuries to students will go a long way in adding to the dwindling faith that the students place in the police.

It would do well for the Delhi Police to take a trip down the memory lane and remember that in 1974 at Delhi University, despite Jai Prakash Narayan’s calls for open revolt against the Indira Gandhi government, the police did not enter the campus.

This brings to light an old and familiar question - pressing need for police reforms in India and the need to move away from the colonial military form of police we inherited from the British era. Police reform has been a mere buzzword in administrative circles.

There has been continuous debate on the need to rework police SOPs, upgrade police equipment, procure modern ‘non-lethal’ weapons for dealing with organised protests, investing more in up-skilling of the police officials and ensuring better recruitment. However, all of these pressing reforms have been limited to the reports and papers written on them, little to no change has been actually implemented with the police forces across the country. That is precisely why the police reacted to student dissent in the aggressive and condemnable manner of the past fortnight.

The university had turned into a battlefield on Sunday as police entered the campus and also used force, following demonstrations against the citizenship law turned violent near the Bharat Nagar area. Getty images

The university had turned into a battlefield on Sunday as police entered the campus and also used force, following demonstrations against the citizenship law turned violent near the Bharat Nagar area. Getty images

If the debate on police reforms ever moves beyond the realm of fiction, then reforms must begin by focussing on reworking police SOPs for dealing with protests. A clear distinction between SOPs for student protests and other categories of protests needs to be established.

Separate and new SOPs need to be formulated for student protests and the police also must be able to effectively differentiate between a student protest and another protests and act accordingly.

In the future, to prevent what has transpired over the past fortnight, these SOPs for student protests must inhibit the police from using force against students, even if legally justifiable, as clearly enunciated in the Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPRND) précis on crowd control. Force should be the police's last resort, only in cases of severe danger to life and property, it shouldn’t be their ‘first’ go-to mechanism for dealing with student protests. Perhaps, a caveat in the SOPs for the police to not be armed with 'lathis' and other weapons unless the situation urgently requires them to, could be a step in the right direction. Arbitrary use of force can adversely impact police-public relations, as it has already over the past few weeks.

If the debate lasts long enough, then another essential element these ‘mythical’ student protest SOPs could cover is communication. During protests, the police must build coherent and cogent mechanisms for communication with students, something that is mostly missing today.

Dialogue is needed to prevent misinformation, fear and paranoia to take over protests and possibly instigate violence. Communication is also essential for building a level of trust between the students and the police. Historically, police forces in India have tried to communicate and foster relations with student communities and leaders, a revisit to these policies by contemporary police establishments around the country would serve them better.

Communication and dialogue will also enable the police to comprehend the reasons behind the students protest, understand their context and not be swayed by information sourced from biased ‘third parties’ and ‘sources’. It will bring a degree of humanity and perhaps empathy into the process and could hopefully prevent the police from viewing the dissenting students to be ‘enemies of the state’. This, in turn, may enable them to be unbiased in their duties and play their defined role as a neutral arbiter of law and order.

Delhi police patrolling on streets near Red Fort in New Delhi India on 19 December 2019. Getty images

Delhi police patrolling on streets near Red Fort in New Delhi India on 19 December 2019. Getty images

Beyond SOPs, other aspects also need to be addressed to prevent future blunders like at Jamia. There is a need to re-examine the ‘non-lethal’ weapons being used to deal with protests, better alternatives to tear-gas, lathi’s, water cannons and pellet guns need to be found. We don’t need more universities and libraries to be destroyed by the use of such outdated equipment and practices.

Police needs to focus on procuring new technologies that can effectively deal with student protests, without creating the collateral damage our forces notoriously do. Better recruitment strategies to tackle understaffing issues, along with a concerted focus on skill development and training is essential to avoid the regular malpractices we see and build a more democratic and modern police. For new procurement policies, skill development and better recruitment strategies there needs to be a change in how police budgets are formulated and spent, more thought needs to go into these aspects of capacity building and ensure allocated funds for development are spent.

Even though, none of what has been said about police reform is unique to this article, if a few of these reforms come back into the administration’s discourse and perhaps are implemented by the forces that be, future generations may never have to face police excess like at Jamia. It is imperative that police reforms are implemented the right way, as we need an institution that students and citizens have faith in, not fear. The police needs to work towards changing its historical perception as an armed extension of political forces. But we know the drill, brute police force will again be used to deal with student dissent, talk of reform will reappear, commentaries much like this one will be written and then the cycle will re-start and the earth will continue to rotate on its axis. The loss will always be for society and democracy.

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Updated Date: Jan 05, 2020 09:45:24 IST