Cambridge Dictionary defines a Police state as “a country in which the government uses the police to severely limit people’s freedom”. Merriam Webster defines a Police State “a political unit characterized by repressive governmental control of political, economic, and social life usually by an arbitrary exercise of power by police and especially secret police in place of regular operation of administrative and judicial organs of the government according to publicly known legal procedures”. To sum up, in a Police State, human rights are subordinate to the will of governments that exercises its power arbitrarily through the police force.
The week gone by witnessed two marches in world’s biggest and the world’s oldest democracy- one ‘long march’ taken out by students of JNU in New Delhi and another ‘march for our lives’ against gun control by the students of USA. What distinguishes these two marches is the response of the respective national governments. While in USA, thousands could be seen assembling at the Capitol at Washington, the counterpart of Raisina Hills, New Delhi in Washington, USA. Here in India the Police lathi charged the students, tore off the clothes of girls, beat up the journalists- both men and women alike.
The Americans are fighting a battle now to save their children from the guns at the schools that is shooting children every now and then with unhindered regularity. In U.S.A civilians own over 300 million firearms roughly 40% of the households in the country have at least one gun. There are conflicting arguments between the right to hold firearms by the individuals and the duty of the USA government to ensure the life and safety of its citizen. The matter has gone many times up to Supreme Court in USA which upheld the right of individual to hold fire arms. There are many issues connected with this debate and it can go on and on. What is important here is the patience of its USA government to address this issue and allowing the students to come out on the street and express themselves. They probably respect the fundamental right of its citizen to protest and understand that the feelings of youth can’t be muzzled, no matter how much brutal the power of the State has at its disposal. The result in USA is that the protests are taking place peacefully and the nation is debating the matter, White House has appreciated the concern of the marchers and the right to freedom of protest has been zealously guarded by the State and its police.
But what happened in India? The JNU students ‘long march’ of over 1000 students and teachers from the campus to Parliament Street ran into a police lathi charge and water cannons.
In the instant case, the tactics of controlling a violent crowd by Delhi Police not only failed the international standards, but were also excessive and disproportionate within their own right. The United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHCR) lists the ‘Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials’. It starts by saying that government and law enforcement should develop a range of non-lethal weapons and ammunition that should be carefully evaluated in order to minimise the risk of endangering involved persons. The UNHCR standards also advise that if they are going to use force, they shall as far as possible “apply non-violent means before resorting to use of force and firearms”. Most importantly, the basic principles state that “whenever lawful use of force and firearms in unavoidable, law enforcement officials shall exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence and legitimate objective to be achieved.”
At a student protest, security personnel must show utmost restraint and maintain composure as police reaction to any provocation may easily cross the line and become excessive. There is no counter argument that the police have the duty to control and regulate protestors at the same time providing them the space to exercise their right to assembly. But here the police used tactics and equipments on JNU students in a manner that is excessive and harsh. When a protest is planned or announced in advance, as was done in the JNU ‘long march’ case, police had enough time to plan an appropriate crowd-control strategy. After all, these student protests are held for good reasons, have justifiable goals, and consist of peaceful methods of agitation.
Police brutality is a civil rights violation that occurs when a police officer acts with excessive force by using an amount of force with regards to a civilian that is more than necessary. Excessive force by a law enforcement officer is a violation of a person’s rights. Excessive force is not subject to a precise definition, but it is generally held to be beyond the force a reasonable and prudent law enforcement officer would use under the circumstances.
The police system in India is set up under the provisions of the Police Act of 1861. This legislation was enacted in the wake of the 1857 revolt. This revolt had led the British to take some serious measures for strengthening their rule in India. The establishment of an authoritarian police force was one of them. As per the 1861 Act, the police forces in India were unaccountable to anyone except to their own hierarchy and the colonial masters. Making the police accountable to the community or other democratic or local indigenous institutions did not fit into the British colonial interest.
The advent of independence changed the political system but the police system more or less remained unaltered. The brutality of police is unacceptable and has to addressed as a blot on free democratic society. The impunity available under law to the erring police officials calls for a review. There is a need to amend Section 197 of Criminal Procedure Code which provides impunity from prosecution to abusive police officials against any act done during discharge of duty. The state governments must now set up Police Complaints Authorities to inquire into the complaints of police brutalities. This authority should be independent of the political influence and should be vested with such legal powers and resources as are necessary to function. Only a mechanism of an external accountability like this can serve as a deterrent to the errant police officials and save India from becoming a ‘Police State’.