DNAIndia.COM , November 15, 2006
India’s police personnel are not the most highly evolved law-enforcement force in the world. They enjoy a reputation for riding roughshod over the common man,
especially the poor and the powerless. Custodial deaths, torture and other kinds of human rights abuses take place with depressing regularity.
But even by these standards, the latest incident in which the police lathi-charged a few hundred visually impaired people who were protesting at Azad Maidan, marks a new low. What is more, the perfunctory apology, issued by the state’s deputy chief minister, RR Patil, came only after the media made a noise about the incident.
The fact that the victims were handicapped adds a particularly unfortunate aspect to the whole incident. But the question is, why should anyone be treated with brute force as the police has admitted?
This suggests that not much has changed since colonial times when the Indian police were set up by the British to keep the ‘natives’ in check. The lathi was the chief
crowd-control weapon of the Raj’s law enforcement arm. The police’s primary duty then was to function as a repressive apparatus of Empire, and to offer security to the life and property of the governing elite.
Sadly, close to 60 years after independence, the attitude of the Indian police towards the public has not changed all that much. They inspire fear rather than confidence in the populace, which is why the ‘unconnected’ citizen — one who cannot boast of contacts with important people — still fears visiting a police station. For our police, especially those at the beat constable level, indiscriminate violence has become the first resort when dealing with protests in public spaces.
For the police force under the British to wield the lathi with no thought to human rights was the norm, given that we were under occupation. But in a democracy it is essential to respect the right to protest peacefully. Dissent and demonstrations of such dissent, must be seen as an important part of the democratic process; each dharna or demonstration cannot be seen as a challenge to the state. It is time our police force shed its colonial mindset — of treating the public as subjects to be controlled instead of as citizens to be served. At stake here is not just law and order, but the very tenets which democracy rests on — the freedom of expression, that includes the freedom to protest.