Don't forget this Ambedkar Jayanti

Brutal reprisals on unarmed tribal and Dalit protesters are not uncommon, and Kanhar is just the latest. Here's how the next set of protesters could avoid being shot at.
The women of Sundari village protest The women of Sundari village protest

If Babasaheb Ambedkar had been alive today -- April 14, 2015 -- he would have been 125 years old. In the predominantly tribal and dalit district of Sonbhadra, it was natural that Gambhira Prasad, President of the Kanhar Bandh Virodhi Sangharsh Samiti (KBVSS), decided to mark the day. He chose to do it with a silent protest against the Kanhar dam. For the people of Sonbhadra, the dam is the emblem of all that is wrong with the way the constitution is being adhered to today. 

The Kanhar dam, first conceived in 1976, had languished until December 2014 when the Uttar Pradesh government finally started construction. In that period, changes happened in its vicinity in the form of protests led by the Kanhar Bachao Andolan, a unanimous rejection of the project by all the Gram sabhas in the area, and environmental changes -- both in the forests as well as in peoples' understanding of river and forest functions.

19 days after work on the dam had begun, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) stayed further construction at the dam site following a petition by O.D. Singh (Uttar Pradesh People’s Union for Civil Liberties) and Debadityo Sinha (Vindhya Bachao). The state government ignored the Court order and still continues to do so. The people have been protesting and continue to do so, despite numerous FIRs lodged against the protesters, harassment under the 'Gunda Act' and alleged threats by the police and the administration. 

And so, along with Gambhira, about 1500 villagers stood at the dam site  carrying photographs of Babasaheb Ambedkar.

What happened next is a matter of debate. The protesters maintain that they were merely standing at the site; the police claim that they were attacked by an unruly mob. Whatever the trigger, it ended with 44 people injured, nine seriously. Four days after that firing, the people rallied again, and were brutally dealt with.

Many citizens find themselves asking how this could have happened. We have tried to answer some questions.

Are the police allowed to fire on unarmed protesters?
According to an informational brochure by the Maharashtra Police, 'Deadly force is meant to be used in only the very rarest of instances when all other means of control have been tried and exhausted.' Even then a magistrate's presence and direct order is required.

Further, there is a protocol to be followed. To quote the Maharashtra Police again, 'First, plenty of warnings to the crowd to disperse must be given with time for the crowd to obey. Then, teargas may be used or a lathi charge resorted to after another warning. Lathis cannot rain down blows on head and shoulders but must be aimed below the waist.

If the police are going to have to resort to firing there has to be a clear and distinct warning that firing will be effective. Here too the rule is to use minimal force. So firing must aim low and at the most threatening part of the crowd with a view not to cause fatalities but to disperse the crowd. As soon as the crowd show signs of breaking up the firing must stop.'

To the best of the knowledge obtained by the fact-finding mission that arrived in the area soon after the incident, this protocol was not followed at Kanhar.

If there are so many safeguards, why did this happen?
K.J. Joy of SOPPECOM said, "By and large, on their own, police do not take recourse to such actions unless there is very serious provocation from the protesters. Unprovoked firing by the police usually only comes from strict instructions from the political class, saying 'suppress this movement at any cost'. That politicians do, if the issue is very inconvenient or can have larger implications, or directly affects someone's interests." 

Considering that according to the Police Act (1861), an officer is responsible for his/her own actions even if ordered to do so, the police are being made the scapegoats of politicians.


What are the other cases in which the police may be provoked to fire?
If not pressurised to do so, the police refrain from firing unless there is a clear incitement from the protesters. This incitement can be both planned and unplanned. Joy explained, "Sometimes the leadership thinks that some violence is necessary for the movement. This does not imply that this was the case at Kanhar, I do not know the movement well, but we are talking of protests in general. In some other case, some elements from outside the movement might want to disrupt the movement and so throw stones to provoke police action."

Does this mean that we do not protest at all? What can be done to minimise the chances of police reprisal?
Joy, with his considerable knowledge of conflicts and peoples' movements, answered this question as well. He pointed out the following strategies movements use to avoid violence.

  • The leadership should be able to predict how the state is going to behave.  If they can see that the state might retaliate with violence, they will need to be much more cautious about things. Sometimes leadership does not have control over the masses, or some elements from outside the movement might want to disrupt the movement. The leadership should therefore be very aware of the situation -- the behaviour of the people as well as the behaviour of the state.
  • If they see there is a chance of violence, the movement may also need to take a step backwards sometimes. This is where the maturity of the leadership comes into play. There is no need for violence; this is not only harmful to people, but also damaging to the movement.
  • There are also various strategies the protest can employ. One such strategy is putting women at the forefront of the movement. People think twice before brutally attacking women. Whether movements are right in using these strategies is a different set of issues. Also, this might not always work as was the case with the Kanhar protesters.
  • It is possible to take political action without creating violence by using creative strategies. Sangli had a huge rasta roko where they used bullock carts and bullocks. The police cannot arrest bullocks. The entire district was paralysed, but it was only the leadership that got arrested. The people after all, were just sitting peacefully on the road with their bullocks and bullock carts .You need to strategise your political action so that there is less chance of violence.
  • Joy added, "What I have found is that when left parties come into power, there is an understanding that the police will never be used to suppress popular movements. West Bengal is an exception, but conscious left governments do take a stand that we should not use police oppression on any kind of demonstration."

If a protest I had organised was subjected to police brutality, what options do I have?
You have several options.

  1. You can fight a case in court that the police committed unprovoked firing and did not follow the mandatory procedure. This was followed in the case of the Pavana dam firing, enquiries for which are still in process.
  2. You can set up a people's inquiry committee where you invite trusted judges, journalists etc to investigate the incident and draw attention to it.
  3. You can mobilise the people again and agitate for a judicial inquiry into the incident. This was attempted after the Kanhar firing on April 14, but tragically led to violent reprisals by the police on April 18.
  4. In case any people are missing, the protesters can file a Habeas Corpus petition where the police have to produce the person.

The people of Kanhar valley began the day by marking Ambedkar Jayanti as 'Save the constitution Day'. By 7 am, they were the victims of state-sanctioned police brutality that clearly illustrates the differential treatment meted out to dalits and adivasis by our democracy.

What would Babasaheb Ambedkar have said had he been alive today?

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