India should invest in latest non-lethal crowd control technology
In May 2018, the Tamil Nadu police drew heavy criticism for opening fire at a protesting crowd. The people were angry about the expansion of the Vedanta Sterlite Copper Plant which they felt had violated pollution norms. It was the hundredth day of protests and despite the police warning of prohibitory orders being in place, the protestors, refused to stop moving ahead and began hurling stones and footwear at the policemen.
Initially, the police used tear gas but the crowd didn’t dissipate. This forced the police to fire which left more than 10 people dead and nearly 100 injured. In news broadcasts and viral videos of the incident, the police were seen climbing on top of vehicles and aiming their guns at the protestors. This incident, and many more before this, has brought to the fore the fact that Indian police need to have better crowd-control techniques and equipment.
India’s crowd-control guidelines mandate non-lethal applications. The above incident clearly did not follow it. Generally, police excesses in India start with lathi charge, which is a colonial era concept. But they are not expected to use force until necessary. A protocol has to be followed to disperse crowds. The first step is to use tear gas and give a warning; if the crowd still does not disperse, then water cannon should be used but only after the crowd has been given enough time to disperse. The third and the last stage of using non-lethal weapons is using the lathi. The police is supposed to warn people to leave. After this, a magistrate or senior police officer gives in writing an order to use fire. The order has all the details of how the firing has to be done. It should be in a controlled manner and not hit above the waist.
In February 2020, Delhi police came under the scanner for their poor handling of unruly mobs that led to communal violence. It was the worst violence in decades, resulting in deaths and huge infrastructural damage. While various reasons for the poor handling of the riots were discussed—from lack of leadership and inexperience of the police in facing such riots to them being biased against one community—nobody talked of the lack of latest equipment with the police force. Had the police had proper equipment and protective gear they could have controlled the riots efficiently.
(Un)ethical Crowd Control
For a democracy to stay vibrant, it is important that people come out on the streets and protest peacefully. And it is equally important that the police and paramilitary forces have latest equipment and technology to control unruly protestors. However, in recent times, violent crowds have shown the lack of preparedness of the police. Besides, lathis, tear gas and water cannons, Indian police has been using pellet guns to control mobs. People have become familiar with pellet guns after they were used widely during the clashes between security forces and civilians in Kashmir.
The Indian government originally deployed these guns after the 2010 unrest as ‘non-lethal’ equipment along with two other equipment: TASER guns and pepper spray. However, it has become evident that these guns are anything but ‘non-lethal’. Pellets are made of metal and may or may not be covered by a thin 1mm or 2 mm rubber sheets. These guns can be life-threatening because they have the capacity to kill. Civilians have lost lives or suffered serious injuries due to pellets. The Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for firing pellets is that it should be done from a 500-feet distance with aim below the waist. However, that’s not always the case. While pellets injure the young and old alike and continue to be a nightmare, a high number of children have been victims of pellets and suffered fatal eye injuries which have left many of them blind. In 2018, when clashes between the local youths and security forces in Shopian broke out, Hiba Nisar, then only 21 months old became the youngest pellet gun victim in Kashmir. The pellets used by the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) in Kashmir are made of metal and not covered with rubber. Both types, covered or uncovered, are equally dangerous.
In their report, ‘Lethal in Disguise’, the global not-for-profit organisation, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) that advocates against mass atrocities and human rights violations, had stated that Kinetic Impact Projectiles (KIPs) are harmful. “A projectile weapon works by transferring kinetic energy (i.e. energy from movement) from a weapon into a person. KIPs are purportedly designed to inflict pain and incapacitate an individual without the projectile penetrating into the body; however, their use has resulted in serious injury, permanent disability, and, in some cases, death.”
In the aftermath of the 2010 riots, pellet guns had killed at least 120 people. At that time, pellet type 4/5 was used. Later, pellet type 8/9, which is considered ‘non-lethal’ was used. In 2016, pellet guns were used to disperse crowds protesting against the death of Burhan Wani, Hizbul Mujahideen leader. The face-off between the security personnel and the civilians was so severe that nearly 1,022 CRPF personnel were injured, out of which 956 were injured due to stone pelting by the civilians. In 2017, the CRPF submitted to the J&K High Court that it fired 1.3 million pellets on protestors in 2016 from July 8 onwards for two months.
Recently, in March 2020, the J&K High Court refused to ban pellet guns after the J&K High Court Bar Association sought to ban pellet guns and prosecute. The high court said that it was “inevitable as long as there was violence by an unruly mob” and that the security personnel had to use it in “self-defence”. In its affidavit, the CRPF had said, “In case this is withdrawn, from the options available with the CRPF, the personnel would have no recourse in extreme situations, but to open fire with rifles which may cause more fatalities.”
Pellets are also used in Left-Wing Extremist areas.
Various global companies have come up with different types of solutions for crowd control. Raytheon, a US-based company has a system, Active Denial System, that works on the invisible Terahertz (THz) waves. The electromagnetic radiation rays can be pointed at the target using special antennas and amplifiers.
This weapon uses a technology that has a non-lethal impact on human skin. The non-lethality of this equipment makes sure that it does not have any hazardous impact on the lives of people. It sends out millimetre waves at a frequency of 95 GHz that heat up the top thin layer of human skin up to a temperature of 53-54 degree Celsius. It is effective as the heat in the body stays for a few seconds but is enough to disperse the crowd. The system was developed nearly a decade ago and security forces in the US continue to use it. As documented in different sources, the weapon is safe and effective. The weapon functions when the Gyroton, powerful generators, generate a radio frequency with an output power of 100KW.
Another weapon, Skunk, is an Israeli crowd-control weapon developed and manufactured by Odortec, a foul-smelling liquid that is sprayed using water cannons in order to disperse the crowd. However, the stench is so strong that it lasts for days and can become nauseating, resulting in the person throwing up. The weapon has been named after the animal skunk, which is cat-sized and found in North and South America. It sprays a nauseating odour to protect itself. Odortec’s website describes the weapon thus: “The overpowering odour of the Skunk drives rioters away—and keeps them away—effectively shutting down any escalating situation.” Israel is known to use it against Palestinians.
TASER guns or stun-guns, manufactured by Axon Enterprise and considered a low-risk weapon, incapacitates people. Once hit, it gives an electric-shock and temporarily disrupts muscle functions and inflicts pain without causing injury. Police personnel in the US generally carry TASERs.
Bozena Riot, a riot control vehicle developed in Slovakia by Streit Group which was launched in 2010, comes with some advanced features. Streit Group’s website describes the vehicle as follows: “Bozena Riot-control Shield is designed to control riots in streets and urbanised areas and to protect the law-enforcement units in action whenever peace maintenance is required. The system is intended predominantly for the special military and police units responsible for crowd control during violent political/social demonstrations.” The shield of this vehicle is 12-feet tall and has a width of 15-feet that is expandable to up to 24-feet using the wings. It is armoured, flame-proof and has bullet-proof windows and ports for the policemen. The wall is so huge in size that it can be used to block roads.
Russian Kalashnikov in 2017 unveiled a similar mobile riot control truck called ‘Shield’ or ‘Shchit’, which is a heavy truck with metal wall that can be expanded. This vehicle, too, is equipped with water cannon mounted on top of it. The metal wall has windows along with a raised platform which would enable the police behind the shield to keep an eye and take an aim if necessary.
The market for non-lethal weapons is the fastest growing market. Non-lethal weapons can be divided into different categories such as Kinetic energy, Chemical technologies, Directed energy, Barriers and entanglements and Electrical and Acoustic technologies. In 2017, a report by Technavio had estimated that the market value of non-lethal weapons would go up from USD1.27 billion in 2016 to USD1.69 billion in 2021. As per different reports, the CAGR will go up by at least 6-8 per cent. The Asia Pacific is said to be the fastest growing non-lethal weapons market due to a variety of reasons ranging from economic growth, increasing military expenditure, industrial development and growing civil unrest.
Indian innovation of non-lethal equipment has begun. In 2016, after violence in Kashmir, the army had proposed using chilli grenades and pepper shots in addition to pellet guns. In 2018, the police department floated tenders for seeking bids from manufacturers and dealers of gas masks and non-lethal pepper-ball launching systems. The CRPF, too, had come up with alternatives like long range acoustic devices (LRADs), sticky foam, shock batons and ‘bhut jolokia’, the hottest chilli pepper. In January 2020, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) came up with ‘bhut jolokia’ as grenade. DRDO’s Defence Research Laboratory (DRL) in Tezpur has also come up with different low-intensity weapons.
The forces are rich with progress and affirmations on dropping the usage of pellets and taking up indigenously produced non-lethal equipment like chilli grenades. However, all these measures are yet to be implemented. Most clashes anywhere in the world are beyond choices of equipment, they are more of policy matters. The only choices are with the governments and how they want to deal with their people. Hurting them physically should not be an option in any case. It stands true in India too. This is where selective non-lethal technology comes in that provides soldiers control if crowds start resorting to violence.