Qualitative reforms bringing the police into the 21st century may prove more effective than increasing police capacity.
The Supreme Court dominated headlines recently when it provided a slew of measures to address the recent spate of lynchings, one of which was to pass a new law. Many of these measures seek to improve police capacity but are unlikely to successfully address the issue for two reasons. The first is that the solutions to such collective violence must be grounded in their socio-political contexts. Simply increasing law enforcement capacity will not make a difference unless it is accompanied by measures addressing those factors. The second is that even if the issue is viewed in the narrow prism of law enforcement, we are still living with a justice system inherited from the British Empire where most criminal laws contain an ingrained suspicion of any group activity (to prevent sedition), and are enforced by police structures with excessive political influence and insufficient accountability.
Merely strengthening the police’s role without introducing greater safeguards in their functioning increases the possibility that it will be used to stifle legitimate activities that are constitutionally protected – like the ability to form assemblies. This is no mere likelihood as this is already the existing situation – people are still awaiting justice two months after the Tamil Nadu state police killed 13 people during the Sterlite protests in Thoothukudi. Even as members of civil society released their independent findings criticizing the police action, protestors continue to be arrested while the police escape all accountability.
Simply improving police capacity to deal with collective violence is likely to result in an increase of such instances of police brutality. Any solution requires a complete paradigm shift that will only be achieved by significant structural reforms and a wholesale change in approach to law enforcement.
Theories of ‘mobocracy’
Most explanations of mob violence tend to rely on the role of ‘aggressors’ or ‘agent provacateurs’ who ‘hijack’ the crowd to fulfil their agendas. This argument is dangerous as it relies on an explanation of collective violence that is outdated, overly simplistic and, most importantly, ignores the active role police play in influencing the course of public protests.
The idea of ‘agent provocateurs’ causing mob violence is an amalgamation of two theories that are nearly a century old. In 1895, the French polymath Gustave Le Bon argued that the anonymity enjoyed by people in crowds makes them ignore social norms and revert to their primitive selves. A few years later in 1925, FH Allport proposed a contrary theory saying that people behave in crowds exactly as they would if they were alone i.e. mob violence is caused by inherently violent people.
‘Agent provocateurs’ are thus a minority of Allportian villains who take advantage of the hapless Le Bon majority. However, these theories have largely been discredited in the field of social psychology as they fail to fully factor the interplay between individual and collective identities in heterogeneous crowds. Even if the police recognise this diversity, the potential of ‘agent provocateurs’ to ‘hijack’ the crowd means that they must treat the entire gathering as a homogenous danger.
While agent provocateurs may occasionally hijack protests, approaching all protests with this pathology of mob violence is problematic as it completely ignores the role of police activity. Stephen Reicher from the University of St. Andrews has argued that when excessive force is used by the police, ‘moderate’ members of the crowd who otherwise appreciate the role of police as keepers of social order can turn violent towards them. By preventing these moderates from carrying out legitimate activities like protesting, the police cast themselves as illegitimate opposition. And when they use violent methods, a shared experience and common enemy cause these moderates to identify with radicals they may have otherwise distanced themselves from.
The overabundance of discretion
Though the Constitution of India grants a fundamental right to assembly, which includes peaceful protest, the police still have broad powers to control demonstrations and protests — from mandating licenses for protests to declaring assemblies as unlawful. The Constitution does allow for legal restrictions on the right to assembly, but these restrictions must also be reasonable and cannot be a carte blanche to the police. Unfortunately, this is not really the case as our justice system is still modelled on colonial legislation designed to subdue nationalist protests against British colonists.
Take the concept of ‘unlawful assembly’ under laws like the Indian Penal Code or the Code of Criminal Procedure. Despite attempts to peacefully resolve the situation through dialogue and negotiation, the district administration refused to grant protestors any formal avenue to vocalize their protest. Instead, the protestors at Thoothukudi were deemed illegitimate and identified as an ‘unlawful assembly’ by the police.
The law allows police the discretion to identify any assemblies as unlawful if they are likely to disturb the ‘public peace’. It also grants the police untempered discretion to use force to disperse such assemblies once this likelihood is established.
In Thoothukudi, the police used this discretion to fire upon protestors despite the fact that the Madras Police Standing Orders and BPRD Standard Operating Procedures require firing to be a last resort. Sadly, these documents lack the force of law and cannot be used to hold the police accountable.
Unfortunately, there is no easy answer as it is practically difficult for the police to treat crowds heterogeneously, but, where possible, all efforts must be made to do so. Where it is not practical, more caution should be employed when using force; all non-violent methods to control crowds must be exhausted before the use of forceful methods, so that the police don’t antagonise crowds. This includes greater police engagement with communities before they reach a state of violence. This will not only help intelligence gathering for effective prevention but also increase the currently abysmal levels of trust in the police. ‘Guidelines’ on crowd control like the Madras Police Standing Orders should also be made enforceable codes of conduct to restrict the discretion in the use of force.
But how should the police manage already violent crowds without using force? To borrow parlance from computer programming, the police should shift from their simplistic ‘brute force’ approach to a more ‘elegant’ or ‘smarter’ one. Simply put, they should utilise more efficient and data driven methods to crowd management that are guided by the latest technologies and theories of criminality.
For example, a recent study of the 2011 London riots uses a mathematical model to understand why rioters travelled considerable distances to certain riot sites. By separating London into residential zones and retail outlets, it was seen that the ‘attractiveness’ of a riot site influenced the number of rioters willing to travel to that site. The utility of this mathematical model is that it enhances police capacity to deal with violent events by more efficiently allocating forces. It may not be too hard to prepare a similar model for communal riots. This would enhance the ability of our understaffed and under-equipped police forces to deal with situations where violence has already escalated, and would thus reduce the reliance on forceful methods when violence is still only potential. The only caveat is that such methods should be used for reactive policing not preventive, as the overly broad scope of discretion could lead to abuse.
The structure of the police force also accounts for the brazen impunity with which the police can carry out such acts of violence without repercussions. The amount of political control asserted over the police force by state governments, particularly over higher-level police officers, is another legacy from the police’s colonial past. This influence causes the police to act more as protectors of entrenched political interests than of citizens and the rule of law. Excessive antagonism towards ‘anti-government’ protests as seen in incidents like Thoothukudi are symptoms of this nexus.
It is therefore imperative that the police be made as apolitical as possible. The police should not be concerned with ideologies except where it has a direct nexus with motives or methods of crimes. Further, police impunity needs to be challenged by bringing in mechanisms of accountability such as a functioning Police Complaints Authority. Several attempts have been made to do so, including a mandate from the Supreme Court’s order in Prakash Singh v Union of India. Unfortunately, no state government has meaningfully introduced these reforms.
Finally, there is a need for reforms in all laws dealing with crowd behaviour, especially those on ‘unlawful assemblies’ or ‘unlawful activities’. These laws need to be amended to better reflect India’s constitutional values so that both their design and deployment will not impinge the fundamental rights of Indian citizens. They are currently far too suspicious of group behaviour, whether legitimate or not, a trait which can be seen in the overly broad and vague manner in which collective violence is sought to be addressed.
The Tamil Nadu Chief Minister justified the killings of the protestors at Thoothukudi, calling it the ‘natural reaction’ of the police to the protests. Simply increasing police capacity without implementing meaningful reforms to bring the police into the 21st Century will merely increase the frequency with which that statement rings true.