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No substitute to accountability

“Pellets penetrate skin tissues and cause serious injuries.” A Kashmiridoctor removes pellets from a man's back in Srinagar. —PHOTO: NISSAR AHMAD

“Pellets penetrate skin tissues and cause serious injuries.” A Kashmiridoctor removes pellets from a man's back in Srinagar. —PHOTO: NISSAR AHMAD  

Ever since the evolution of the police as an organised apparatus of the modern state, one fundamental issue has come to be intertwined with their field operations: how much force can they use to serve the ends of public order? Associated with this are other questions: is it possible to define limits to the police’s overall authority and, if yes, how do we ensure that the exercise of such authority does not transgress the set boundaries? Unfortunately, these are subjective issues and hence difficult to resolve. What we are now witnessing in the Kashmir Valley is a part of this debate on how to oversee the police so that they are conscious of the risk of overstepping their powers and committing human rights violations.

Misgivings about the police are not about whether they can use force while discharging duties; there is near consensus that they can and should use sufficient force to make sure that law-abiding citizens are not obstructed from going about their daily tasks. What, however, divides opinion is whether the techniques of such force should be so regulated that they achieve the objective of maintaining public order without transgressing human rights. It is in this context that the use of pellets to disperse mobs in Kashmir has triggered protests as well as demands for the withdrawal of this mode of handling violent mobs. This is not just a routine human rights discussion; it has unmistakably assumed some political overtones too.

The use of pellets

Pellets as ammunition were introduced recently in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) in reaction to complaints of excesses in 2010 by the security forces, who were using rubber bullets to disperse stone-pelting mobs. Contrary to popular belief, even the rubber bullets caused a few deaths, and so began the current experiment with pellets.

It was hoped that pellets, which are lead balls resembling ball bearings, would be less lethal than rubber bullets and conventional bullets but would carry no less deterrence to anti-social elements. The truth, unfortunately, is that while pellets may not kill the person they hit, they penetrate skin tissues and cause serious injuries. Further, they travel from the cartridge at high speed and disperse in unpredictable trajectories. The complaint from J&K is that pellets have not only caused bodily harm, but have also injured the eyes of many demonstrators, leading to loss of sight. Also, according to some specialists who had examined the eyes of the injured persons, the pellets used in the State by security forces were not all round. Some were irregular and sharp-edged, capable of causing serious injuries. Having said this, it is also important to examine the credibility of the complaint before taking any decision to give up pellets in favour of less injurious ammunition. Any abrupt discontinuance of pellets has serious implications for the effectiveness of law enforcement in handling mobs.

The >Home Ministry has responded swiftly to these complaints by rushing eye specialists to J&K. This gesture needs to be applauded. The Home Minister also visited Srinagar a few days ago and reportedly advised against excesses while dispersing mobs. A committee, he said, would be set up to examine other non-lethal alternatives to pellets.

Assessing police action

There are two important aspects to this controversy, which have relevance to the criminal justice system. First, since it is difficult to quantify the amount of force that the police can legitimately employ when order is threatened, the state has a huge responsibility to quickly assess police action and punish policemen in cases of wanton violence. Many governments fight shy of this duty and invite odium upon themselves. Such failure to fix responsibility is invariably attributed to the need to preserve police morale. We have seen this happening over and over again in J&K. This is why opposition to the use of pellets is symbolic of the overall dislike of the police in the Valley.

Second, any action to whittle down the operational autonomy of the police in disturbed areas should be taken only after great deliberation on the likely impact on police effectiveness and the morale of the forces. Otherwise there could be problems that may adversely affect the image of the government itself. No government can afford to be soft on lawbreakers nor can it permit arbitrary police conduct in the field.

Criminal justice scholars across the world, especially in U.S. universities, have conducted serious research in this area. Their broad conclusions converge on the inevitability of the police resorting to force and the need to simultaneously bridle police hands so that there are no excesses. In the U.S., the police have also been accused in the recent past of biases while using force. While it is fortunate that in J&K there are only mild overtones of prejudice, a controversy over pellet use could always degenerate into accusations of prejudice and political motivation. This is why we need serious introspection and quick corrective action.

The objective should be to find out whether there is any other non-lethal method to handle demonstrations. Indian police use tear gas, lathis, and sometimes water cannons before resorting to the use of firearms to break up violent crowds. Police firing was a rare occurrence until about two decades ago, but with growing violence in India it has become distressingly frequent. Judicial probes into such action have seldom ended in adverse findings against the police.

The administrative response to mob violence will need to blend firmness with moderation. A trained force under professional police leadership combined with an understanding ruling class can do a lot to steer through the dilemma. This is possible only if our polity succeeds in insulating the police from constant political pressures. As things stand now, this seems a pipe dream.

R.K. Raghavan is a former CBI Director and D. Sivanandhan is a former Commissioner of Police, Mumbai, and a former DGP of Maharashtra.

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Printable version | Aug 6, 2020 12:16:09 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/No-substitute-to-accountability/article14508122.ece

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