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Protests are taking place worldwide, in dealing with them the norm is proportionate force

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At the heart of democracy lies the concept of ‘rule of law’ and at the core of this the notion of ‘due process’, or procedural justice. A king or dictator can dish out justice, but it will be arbitrary and, possibly, whimsical. In a democracy, there is an elaborate mechanism that ensures the delivery of justice in the fairest way, with safeguards all along, even for those accused of a crime. Professionals deal with the law and its procedure which are codified, and there are multiple appellate layers punishing someone for a crime.

No one individual, be he/ she the president of the country or its prime minister, has the right to arbitrarily dispense justice, leave alone punishment, no matter how trivial; it can only be done through due process of law.

So what can we make of UP police whose actions in the recent protests were tantamount to punishing alleged perpetrators, rather than merely upholding the law? The force, of course, has a history of assuming the role of judge and executioner, having killed 103 criminals in ‘encounters’ in the past two years.

In this instance, the police certainly confronted violent civil protest that damaged public property. Such protests are taking place all over the world. But the UP reaction was more in the manner of the police in Sudan, Iraq or Iran, rather than that of modern societies like France, Spain or Lebanon where the norm has been a response of proportionate force and avoidance of any hint of collective punishment.

In our digital era there is visual evidence of the excesses. They are videos, some may be manipulated, but many are not. They show wanton force unleashed by UP police, deliberately destroying private vehicles, shops and mercilessly beating all and sundry including onlookers.

UP police claim that they had 62 personnel suffering from firearm injuries yet not a single policeman was killed, while 21 alleged protesters were killed, many from gunshot injuries. This brings to mind a comment of General KV Krishna Rao, then governor of Kashmir. Told by BSF that dozens of hardcore militants had fired at them in Bijbehara in 1993 where 31 protesters had been gunned down, the General, who ordered a magisterial inquiry, acerbically remarked “I don’t think militants fire that inaccurately,” since no soldier had been killed.

It is difficult to determine on what basis the UP authorities are now demanding ‘compensation’. The Supreme Court and the Allahabad high court have rightly called on those who destroy public property to pay compensation. But this is meant to be a law-driven process, not extorted through the might of the police. Last week a police officer accepted a cheque from some Muslim citizens of Bulandshahr. There was nothing to suggest that they were responsible for the vandalism so getting a community to shell out the money is a clear violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention to which India is a party. It prohibits punishing anyone for an offence that they did not personally commit, or assigning collective responsibility for offences.

The biggest tragedy is that a lot of the actions have been undertaken on the basis of laws and practices adopted by the British to rule India, such as those declaring protests as ‘unlawful assembly’, charging people with ‘sedition’ or inflicting punishment on a community.

In UP, what we have seen is a deliberate exercise of lawless power by those who have sworn solemnly to uphold the law. Foremost among these is the chief minister whose response to violent civil protests in his state was to declare that he wanted “revenge” against those who had destroyed public property. Never mind that the august chief minister has hardly been known to be a man of peace.

This commentary originally appeared in The Times of India.

Manoj Joshi (ORF)
10 January 2020

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