The objective of Delhi Police is to uphold the law fairly and firmly…to protect, help and reassure the people; and to be seen to do all this with integrity, common sense and sound judgment,” the Delhi Police describes its mission in these words.
The common sense and sound judgment, however, were severely missing on 30 January when a group of constables, along with some individuals dressed in civilian clothes, thrashed protesting students at Jhandewalan area in central Delhi.
A video showing the cops beating up both male and female protesters went viral on Monday, drawing scathing criticism against the Delhi Police. The commissioner of police B.S Bassi promised to look into the incident, even though he said he had not watched the video hors after it had gone viral on social media platforms.
The students were mostly from Jawahar Lal Nehru University (JNU) carrying out a low-key demonstration over the death of Rohith Vemula in Hyderabad University. They were on their way to protest outside the RSS headquarters in the city when the police stopped them.
This is not the first time the actions of Delhi Police have under intense scrutiny. The police has resorted to physical assaults against unarmed civilians on several occasions in recent years.
The extremely violent crackdown on protesters in the aftermath of the December 16 rape case in 2012 remains the strongest example in recent memory.
The other incidents include a lathi charge against yoga guru Baba Ramdev and his supporters in Ram Lila maidan in 2011 and several other cases of confrontations with Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) supporters.
Also, last year, Yogendra Yadav, former AAP leader and now the leader of Swaraj Abhiyan, was manhandled and forcibly dragged out of a demonstration against the proposed amendments to the Land Acquisition Bill.
And not to forget the controversial crackdown against the protesting army veterans at Jantar Mantar on the eve of India’s Independence Day.
The repeated use of violence to curb protests begs the question that when the Delhi police can or cannot use force. Unfortunately, there is no clear answer to this.
On its website, the Delhi police says: “We need to be professional, calm and restrained in the face of violence and apply only that force which is necessity to accomplish our lawful duty.”
But in some of the footage, they neither appear ‘calm’, ‘restrained’ or ‘professional’. Legally, the police is free to apply force for maintenance of public order but has to follow a code of conduct based on the principle of necessity.
It is this principle that the Delhi Police does not seem to adhere to.
Before any demonstration, protesting groups inform the local police station about their plans. The police takes necessary measures such as putting up road blockades and deploying patrol vans depending on the size of the protests.
In the event that protests turn considerably big, they also bring water cannons to stop the protesters.
The 30 January protest was a small protest where approximately 50 students had gathered. The Delhi police had set up road blockades and deployed constables.
Nothing untoward was expected to happen to happen, but yet the police were caught on camera beating up young boys and girls. The high-handedness of the Delhi Police against students must now become a worrying issue for our lawmakers.
One of the JNU students in the protest told this writer that the reason why the police was not ‘calm’ and ‘restrained’ was because they had decided to ‘teach JNU students a lesson’ because of the perceived notion that they are always present in most protests.
The protester also claimed that this was not the first time that the Delhi policemen had targeted JNU students.
Allegations aside, the Delhi police seems to keep a really low threshold on the guidelines to handle protests. Their own guidelines suggest that they should use the methods of persuasion, advice and warning instead of resorting to force.
But, more often than not, the city cops conveniently appear to throw these guidelines out of the window.
The Delhi Police also seems to be lacking in simple and routine work processes such as deploying women constables during protests.
The footage of civilians joining the policemen in thrashing the students, meanwhile, reflects an extremely unprofessional attitude.
Since the incident took place in the RSS stronghold area in Delhi, it is quite obvious that the attackers were the rank and file of the right-wing group.
This should be very disconcerting for the residents of Delhi.
And it is a new low for the Delhi Police because until now, unlike the cops in the northern states of UP and Bihar, it did not suffer a reputation of being hand in gloves with political goons.
The author is a former BBC journalist. Views expressed here are the author’s own.