Abuse Of Force: Outrage over police assault on students is meaningless till it leads to disciplinary action

By Maja Daruwala

There are many ways to interpret the video footage of the recent brutal police beating of protesters in Delhi. The first and most charitable version is that the police were faced with hoards of rioters bent on arson and loot and had no choice but to defend life and property as is their solemn duty.

But it didn’t look like that. It looked more like they were facing-off with a bunch of adolescents intent on slight defiance, noisy sloganeering and breaking a couple of makeshift barriers to get themselves noticed. Still, perhaps, there is more to the story than what we saw.

Perhaps there was a rampaging mob off-camera and in fear of their lives, the police — being only human — turned to defend themselves. But repeated views of the video clip show no sign of brickbatting nor weaponry. Perhaps the police anticipated utter disorder or its threat, and being tense and on edge, reacted badly in the face of sudden onslaught.

But, you reason, had there been any forewarning of a breach of the peace, they would already have been in riot gear, poised for collective action. But what we saw was not controlled defence of the realm but savage individual aggression.

Quite likely, the little protest was unauthorised and the crowd a bit unruly. The police would then have felt justified in asking it to disperse. A protest, authorised or spontaneous, may be dispersed through a series of carefully calibrated steps. The use of force is the very last step when all else has failed.

The law says that the police can use — can only use — minimum and proportionate force to disperse a crowd. Whatever the
police do must be reasonable. They have a duty to make sure things remain peaceful. On the other hand, they have a duty to
facilitate citizens in exercising their fundamental right to hold peaceful public meetings. The heavy and individualised blows rained down upon the young lads and their companions seem to suggest that the police wanted to punish them.

Yet another explanation for the force seen in the video could be that the police are innocent of any knowledge of how to control crowds, are not trained to be reasonable and restrained but do know how to follow orders wherever they come from and are willing to obey them, however dodgy they may be. That brings up the thought that there were orders from someone — corner these boys and girls and teach them a lesson. It could be that they were passionately protecting some precious national treasure, but it was really only the RSS office.

Finally, it could be that the police were viciously aggressive for no other reason than that they are the police, despise the public and fear no consequence for abuse of power. History is on their side on this.

Will the students or the parents of these young ones protest, sue, file complaints with the myriad oversight bodies that have been set up? Will the police chief act to punish, to correct, to publicly pull up his area commander and acknowledge there has been wrongdoing? Or will ranks close, again? Will we ever know who the two public-spirited individuals, who so enthusiastically helped the police pummel their victims, were?

Will the Human Rights Commission bestir itself to assist and protect the victims and uphold the right to associate, assemble and give expression to dissent? Will the State Security Commission, which includes the chief minister, now convene its long overdue meetings with any sense of urgency and lay down policy and performance criteria for the police about how Delhi should be policed? Will Parliament and its committees demand to know why students were so badly mauled? Will the Supreme Court now be tempted into vivifying its now 10-year-old directions to the Central government and hold the administration in contempt for not moving seriously on the police reform agenda?

Don’t hold your breath for answers. The reality show of mindless assaults, intimidation and impunity is sure to have a repeated airing on prime time tomorrow or next week or next month. We will be outraged again, we will be curious again — until one night we see it is starring our children.

This piece originally appeared in the Indian Express.