Sterlite Row: Where Is Our Crowd Control Failing? Expert Weighs In

“No officer in his right mind would open fire during a civil disobedience,” says former top cop Vikram Singh.

4 min read
Sterlite Row: Where Is Our Crowd Control Failing? Expert Weighs In

Thoothukudi (Tuticorin) in Tamil Nadu continued to reel under violence on Wednesday, 23 May, with at least 11 people having died in police firing after protesters rallied against the expansion plans of Sterlite Copper.

TV channels aired a video from Tuesday in which at least two police officials were seen getting on top of a van and taking aim at protesters to shoot them down. The incident has put the Tamil Nadu Police under the scanner and again raised the question of where Indian officials are failing at crowd control measures.

Retired Indian Police Service (IPS) officer and former Director General of Police in Uttar Pradesh, Vikram Singh, weighs in on the Thoothukudi violence and points out how the police failed miserably at controlling the mob.


Where do you stand on the issue of the police wielding semi-automatic rifles in non-insurgency states like Tamil Nadu?

It is highly condemnable and totally against crowd control guidelines. The rules clearly state that when a civil disobedience requires use of force then it must be minimum, proportionate, in self-defence and should have non-lethal applications.

This is the foundation philosophy on how police use force against crowds. It is governed by the Police Act, local administration and part of instructions given by the NHRC and government circulars from time to time.

Do you think the police firing that killed 12 protesters was justified? Did the situation warrant that action or do you think there was disproportionate use of force?

It is just unacceptable. The police cannot use weapons in this rampant manner in civil areas like Tamil Nadu.

Semi-automatic weapons are used by forces for fighting in disturbed areas, against terrorists or anti-dacoity operations. A sniper-like-weapon is used to aim and kill. This is totally against the philosophy of controlling mob violence.


At what point are orders given to do a lathicharge, or use tear gas or open fire? What is the standard of procedure for escalating the police response?

The drill manual says, first you will use tear gas and give a warning to disperse. If that does not work, you will again sound a warning and use a water cannon, then give the mob adequate time to disperse.

You will then resort to lathi-charge, where the blows will be aimed below the waist. If that fails, you warn again and fire rubber bullets – they are again aimed below the waist.

Now you have exhausted all channels of non-lathel equipment that you have in the arsenal. Then you give a last warning: Balwaiyon Tumhara Mazma Khilaf Kanoon Kiya Jata Hai, Bhag Jao! Bhag Jao! Bhag Jao! (Rioters, what you are doing is illegal, this is the final warning, run away! Run away! Run away!)

A magistrate gives an order in writing, if the magistrate is not there then the senior-most officer orders the firing. How many rounds, where to fire, who will fire and how is mentioned in the order.

The firing is to be controlled and also below the waist.

Only when the danger is imminent, the arson and vandalism has started and you need to safeguard your own life/property or somebody else’s, can you resort to the use of such force.

In my 25 years of experience, an effective use of teargas and lathi-charge is enough to deter any crowd or agitation.

To what degree is the police response dictated by the administration or the sitting government?

To a very great extent. In this case (Thoothukudi violence), I strongly suspect that there were unwritten instructions given from the people in power to teach the agitators a lesson. Otherwise no police officer in his senses would choose to use a ‘sniper’.

In one video from the protest site, a police official can be heard saying “at least one must die” – what really goes on in such situations? What would prompt an official to say something like that and then act on it?

No police officer would give such instructions, as they know even if they kill one person, there’s bound to be a judicial inquiry. Everything will be evaluated, the pros and cons, the circumstances leading to the use of a semi-automatic weapon.

There must have been some string-pulling, some level of puppetry, otherwise there is no earthly reason why Tamil Nadu Police would do something as stupid as this.


What are the repercussions that an officer could face for shooting down protesters?

A judicial inquiry is a nightmare for any police officer as they go into the minutest details. If found guilty, you are bound to be stripped off your powers and sent to jail.

What’s lacking in Indian police’s crowd control measures?

In this case, the police were under-staffed and ill-equipped. The first four measures of crowd control were not taken and they dropped the ‘ultimate nuke’ and resorted to firing bullets at civil agitators.

Is there anything to be learnt from the police forces and the training imparted in other countries?

In Israel, they use ‘crap guns’ (skunk), it doesn’t hurt a person but the smell is so foul that the protesters start puking. There are some technological innovations in crowd control happening around the world but implementing them in India will be tough.

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