The farmers’ tractor rally in Delhi on Tuesday, 26 January turned violent. At the time of writing this article, full details of the proceedings of the day were not available. So, I will have to depend on what has been reported so far in the media.
In this article, I will try to analyse what went wrong and how it could have been handled better.
What Stumped The Delhi Police?
Apparently, the police were flummoxed by the sheer novelty of a rally comprising heavy, sturdy vehicles capable of rough riding.
Obviously, they had not been able to devise a plan on paper to deal with such a rally, nor could they improvise one on the spot.
Except exercising restraint, the police did little to handle the situation in a professional manner. They have handled it in the most pedestrian manner possible, just like those scores of minor agitations they are used to, and bungled.
We are given to understand that on 24 January, when the police gave them permission to hold the tractor rally, an agreement was reached on holding the rally at specified locations near the three borders and not enter other parts of the city.
It has been reported that some of them started before the agreed-upon time. It has also been reported that some of them drove on prohibited routes. This was quite expected and if the police had not anticipated this and prepared for it, it is incompetence.
In this age of instant communication, there cannot be an argument that the police learnt of this only when the protesting farmers entered Delhi. The moment they learnt that some people had deviated from the prescribed route, they should have put up ‘effective barricades’ in several layers. The barricading used was not effective.
Why Weren’t Effective Barricades In Place?
The police were aware that farmers were coming in tractors. Tractors can easily displace the usual types of barricades. Even a large number of men can remove them by hand.
Tractors typically weighing 2-3 tonnes require barricades several times heavier. Such barricades can only be made by buses/trucks/JCBs/water tankers, etc.
We saw visuals of a man driving a tractor in a rash manner, thereby endangering the cops. We also saw the visual of two tractors trying to topple a bus used for barricading.
The police did not seem to have any clue as to how to deal with them.
Even after diverging from the prescribed route, the tractors had to travel several kilometres before they reached the heart of Delhi. Had the police thought of putting up barricades with heavy vehicles and drilled accordingly, it could have been done in a matter of minutes in several layers at different places, as plenty of vehicles are available with them and other departments. Obviously, they didn’t know how to go about it.
Farmers’ Red Fort Siege
That the farmers planned to go the Red Fort and the police were unaware of it is an unpardonable intelligence failure. It has been reported on social media that farmers were openly telling people about their plans.
This means it was not decided spontaneously, making the intelligence failure even more serious.
Many channels are harping on the incident of a man hoisting the Khalsa flag there. It might have been a ‘childish act’, but it was certainly not a crime because, in that process, the national flag at the Red Fort was not insulted in any way. However, one video shows another man simultaneously climbing that pole and throwing the national flag to the side as someone handed it over to him.
For that, he is, of course, liable to be prosecuted under the Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act.
However, one lone man’s ‘stupidity’ should not be used to cast aspersions on the commitment and integrity of the thousands of farmers who have been peacefully protesting for two months without bypassing any law.
In any case, if we are so sensitive about some agitators barging into the Red Fort, the Delhi Police must be squarely castigated for having allowed it or their inability to stop it.
Did The Police Not Know That There Are Non-Lethal Ways Of Barricading?
The police ended up using tear gas and lathicharge in a manner they are used to dealing with the usual protesters on foot. Having little effect on men on tractors, this only worsened the situation.
Protesters climbed atop police buses. South Korean police officers climb upto the roofs of buses to bring down protestors physically, and do not shoot them.
Allegations are flying thick and it is too early to determine who started the violence in Delhi on 26 January. A Judicial Commission of Inquiry could do that.
However, had the farmers not been allowed to enter the city, this situation would not have arisen. An argument, that had the police tried to stop them from entering, they ‘would have been obliged to use lethal force’, does not hold water.
First, there are non-lethal ways of preventing people from entering a certain area. They range from plastic bullets, Capsacinoid-based pepper grenades, Pelargonic Acid Vanillyl Amide (PAVA) shells; and bean bag rounds.Finally, firing in the air could have been resorted to.
Second, a whole science of physical barriers has been developed; the devices range from Caltrops, Shallow-Mounted Wedge Barriers, to heavy Bollards. Even caltrops could have been deployed very quickly to stop tractors. Shallow-Mounted Wedge Barriers are also effective devices to stop vehicles.
A prerequisite of using such devices is that the police should have knowledge of them in the first place, something that was obviously beyond the Delhi Police’s leadership. One cannot prepare for an agitation overnight; it should have been done much in advance.
How Could Delhi Police Have Been So Naive? And Why Did Farmers Suddenly ‘Lose Control’?
Could Delhi Police really have been so ‘incompetent’, and farm leaders so ‘clueless’ about their followers?
It is difficult to believe that one of the best-equipped police forces in the country could be so naïve and ignorant of various technologies and methodologies of riot control. If it is indeed so, then the police leadership must be taken to task.
However, we must also ponder over another question: Why would the farmers, who have had been agitating in such a disciplined manner for so long, suddenly lose control and do something which would potentially ‘discredit’ their agitation? The two contradictory behaviours do not go hand-in-hand.
Moreover, how could those leaders, who had hitherto exercised tight control over their followers, suddenly lose authority? How could it be that the leaders had no idea of the plan of such a large number of farmers to violate the agreement regarding the routes, which their leaders had arrived at only the day before?
Major Intelligence Failure
If, as argued, lumpen elements indeed had infiltrated the ranks of the farmers, how is it that they could motivate and hold sway over such a large number of people from diverse areas? If they had to exercise that kind of influence, it must have been going on for quite some time. It cannot be believed that they infiltrated on 26 January evening and took control of the masses in no time. It does not happen that way.
Moreover, the infiltration by so-called lumpen elements is always a possibility in any agitation and this is precisely what the intelligence machinery is supposed to be watching out for.
Obviously, this was another intelligence failure.
Who were those lumpen elements? Where did they come from, and how did they infiltrate the ranks of the farmers? We do not know. However, it is certain that something is seriously amiss — only time would tell.
(Dr. N.C. Asthana, a retired IPS officer, has been DGP Kerala and a long-time ADG CRPF and BSF. He tweets @NcAsthana. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)