Violation of Police Standing Orders

Print edition : June 22, 2018

A Sub-Inspector patrolling with his service pistol at the ready in Thoothukudi on May 23. Photo: A. Shaikmohideen

THE brute force that the police used against anti-Sterlite protesters in Thoothukudi defies all logic. A written submission on the firing on behalf of Tamil Nadu’s Director General of Police (DGP), filed before the Madras High Court, claims that the police had to open fire to “safeguard the lives of collectorate staff, policemen and 150 residents of Sterlite quarters”. Activists say that the police’s attempt has been to discredit the organisers of the anti-Sterlite protests as “anti-socials”.

They agree that in a few video grabs released by the government some miscreants can be seen torching vehicles in the basement parking area of the Sterlite residential quarters and inside the collectorate complex. But they point out no one in the collectorate, many of whom were local people and also relatives of people taking part in the rally, or the residents of the Sterlite quarters, suffered even a minor injury.

It is a moot question whether the law enforcers adhered to the rule of law and procedures on crowd control while resorting to firing on unarmed civilians. A scrutiny of the sequence of events on the days preceding the rally and on the day of the rally suggests that the police and their intelligence wing failed miserably to gauge the “raging public sentiment” against the Sterlite plant. According to those who took part in the rally, they wished to show their solidarity in a peaceful democratic manner and draw the attention of the State government on the need to close the plant permanently.

The police apparently did not expect such a massive turnout for the rally. They misread the mood of the people completely. When the crowd swelled to around 10,000 they seem to have panicked. For crowd management, the first and foremost requirement is the collection of information. Section 23 (iv) of The Police Act, 1861, says that the “most important function is to have an “effective informant system” to prevent offences.

The Sterlite agitation had been going on for 100 days openly and without incident. The announcement of the “collectorate seizure” was made well in advance through billboards, handbills, etc. “Had they got information on the movements of suspicious elements, they could have arrested them much earlier,” said one of the organisers. The police knew the date and time and venue of the protest well in advance. Besides, prohibitory orders under Section 144 of the Cr. PC were in force, but its sloppy enforcement led to confusion among people.

The police, informed sources said, reacted sharply and in haste when a few stones were hurled from the crowd near the collectorate. All hell broke loose and it was a free-for-all with the police and the protesters throwing stones at each other. Tear gas shells were burst. Then followed the firing and heavy thrashing of protesters, leading to nine deaths near the collectorate and four at various places. It is an indisputable fact that the police did not follow any of the procedures and standards for crowd control. Article 19 (1)(b) of Constitution gives citizens the right to assemble peacefully and without arms. In fact, the anti-Sterlite rally had women and children in large numbers.

All those who were undergoing treatment in hospitals for injuries in the lathicharge and firing claimed that the police did not warn them to disperse. The rally was moving towards the collectorate without any problem. When the rally of 500 swelled to 10,000 at one point, the police panicked and started blocking it using force.

Thus, no provisions of the Madras Police Standing Order (PSO), 1999, an exhaustive 780-page police manual, on issues relating to police functioning, including the use of persuasion, advice and warning in crowd control were employed before the use of force. The PSO says force should be used when it is absolutely necessary and should be proportional to the situation. It is not clear at what point the public assembly turned “virulent” to warrant firing as claimed by the DGP.

Principle 4 in the Code of Conduct for the Police in India states that in an unavoidable situation only “irreducible minimum force” should be used. Section 129 of the CrPC says that force can be used only when an unlawful assembly is likely to disturb public peace and shows “a determination not to disperse”. Section 130 of the CrPC says that officers “should use as little force and do as little injury to person and property”.

Section 14 of the United Nations Basic Principles for the use of Force and Firearms points out that “firearms should only be used if less dangerous means are not available and only to the minimum extent necessary. Section 13 of Principles insists that “use of force in dispersing non-violent unlawful assemblies be avoided”. India recognises the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and has made them an integral part of its constitutional obligations.

The PSO points out that after exhausting all means of warnings, bugle sounding, flag raisings, water cannon, lathi charging, firing in the air and bursting tear gas shells, firearms could be used to control and disperse the crowd. Lathi charge should not be used on the head and collar bones. The firearm should be aimed “preferably below the waist level and firing should be selective and controlled”. The live and spent cartridges should be accounted for after the firing.

In blatant violation of laws, policemen in plainclothes were seen with guns, though the PSO clearly mandates that “the police used for dispersing mobs should wear uniform”. The dead were shot in the head, the chest and the torso. The injured protesters had broken limbs and fractured skulls. Rights defenders urged the government to register cases under Section 302 of the IPC (murder) against the police officers who opened fire on unarmed civilians. “Can mere stone-throwing invite death?” asked activist Henry Tiphagne. It is time the police revisited the 12-point charter on Principles of Police Conduct in the PSO. The principles of human rights, laws and procedures seem to be non-existent for them.

Activists accused the police of gross rights violations in theThoothukudi firing. They alleged that the police violated Section 2 of the Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993, which ensured the “right relating to life, liberty, equality and dignity of individuals guaranteed by the Constitution or embodied in the international covenants and enforceable by courts of India.”

Ilangovan Rajasekaran

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