Strike with Caution

Time to recognise the need for effective and non-lethal crowd control weapons

Yunus Dar| New Delhi

Crowd control is a very important aspect of policing and an extremely complex domain when it comes to a country like India. Crowd management by armed forces is dictated by a number of factors, including variations owing to aspects like socio-political situations, demographics, inter-community issues, extremism, crowd psychology, hostility levels, cause of violence, police strength, and a host of other issues.

Security forces confronting protestors in Kashmir

Despite the phenomenal increase in the incidences of violence, the state police personnel lack adequate modern-day less lethal weaponry. Even the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs) lack effective and non-lethal weaponry to disperse unruly crowds. The availability of relevant and acceptable less lethal weapons to be used in crowd control operations has seen a gap primarily because of intense media scrutiny and public resistance to tolerate high-handedness, besides human rights considerations.

Adding to the mismanagement, the Indian armed forces lack proper training in controlling crowds. Crowd control drills are still the same as used in the colonial era. Most of the equipment by and large also hasn’t changed much in several decades.

The government had to look for non-lethal options after coming under fire for grievous injuries caused to civilians in Jammu and Kashmir by pellet guns, which according to the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) are highly effective in controlling agitated crowds. Consequently, the home ministry had set up a panel to examine the option of using non-lethal alternative to the pellets to control riots.

Kashmir witnessed the worst protests in 2010 when around 110 protesters died of bullet injuries after being fired at by security forces. It was after that incident that the Union home ministry sent the 12-gauge pump-action shotguns to Kashmir to control the growing mobs. The pellets were considered a less lethal option as they lodged into human tissue without killing, but what followed was contrary to government claims.

The government justified the use of pellet guns, which had blinded hundreds in the Valley, to the different nature of the mobs in the Valley. The security forces used such shotguns frequently since then, notwithstanding the global outcry over the injuries they were causing. To make matters worse, security forces were reportedly untrained to use such weapons against the crowds. In 2016, the Union home ministry set up a committee consisting of members from the CRPF, Jammu and Kashmir police and the Border Security Force (BSF), to examine the options for non-lethal alternatives to pellet guns. The committee suggested feasible alternatives for the security forces, among them was the crowd-busting synthetic pepper extract called PAVA or Pelargonic Acid Vanillylamide. PAVA is more potent than CS or tear gas and causes severe pain in the eyes temporarily.

The Jammu and Kashmir security establishment claims that the pump-action shotguns employing cartridges containing No. 9 size pellets of lead are employed around the world, and are among the less lethal means of crowd control. The establishment believes the shot-gun is contingent on the correct Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) being strictly adhered to. The latest plan is to replace the deadly pellet guns with non-lethal plastic bullets in Kashmir to deal with street protests. The plastic bullets, its makers claim, are entirely different but can be fired from AK-47 rifles. If the plastic bullets hit below the waist, it’s not likely to prove fatal, however, the probability of fatality increases if the bullet hits any vital organ.

According to director of the Terminal Ballistics Research Laboratory (TBRL), Chandigarh, which developed the ammunition, Manjit Singh, “A plastic bullet’s lethality is 500 times less than pellets. It can be used for targeted shooting in a riot situation.” However, if officials from Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) are to be believed, when hit on the face or any vital organ, these plastic bullets can prove fatal.

The use of teargas has also proved to be ineffective often because of the change in the direction of the wind, which renders it futile. And the CRPF has been time and again saying that when it comes to Kashmir, none of the other alternatives have proven to be successful. However, despite their rampant use in Kashmir, it had come to light that pellet guns were not on the list of 10 non-lethal weapons suggested by the Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPR&D) in its standard operating procedure for tackling violence.

The first time a less lethal weapon was used in India was during the protests post Babri masjid demolition when the protestors were charged with water cannons. Although Indian security forces have since acquired and deployed a range of non-lethal weapons, they still lack effective and harmless ammunition for crowd control. The study carried out by the BPR&D in 2016 listed several alternatives for riot management that included plastic bullets, wax bullets, rubber bullets, bean bag rounds, Ring Airfoil Projectiles (kinetic and tear gas), electroshock weapons such as Taser, supposedly less lethal than metal bullets, among others. The use of most of these methods, including the use of chilli and pepper-based bullets, grenades and PAVA shells by CAPFs across the country has not proved so effective anywhere in the country. The study conducted by retired IPS officer P.P.S. Sandhu stated that the force when not used judiciously by security forces had often been the reason for the situation getting out of control. The report acknowledged the personnel handling the crowds were mostly untrained and often broke the rules of the crowd engagement.


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