The Doctrine of ‘Use of Minimum Force’

When I joined the police service one of the first things that we were taught during classes on crowd control was that we were to use the minimum force that was needed to disperse violent mobs. This essentially meant that we started with verbal warnings followed by tear gassing and if all failed then the crowd was to be lathi (baton) charged. We could resort to firing only if the mob posed a threat to human life. While it cannot be disputed that in a modern civic society the police cannot or should not subscribe to any other view yet practical experience in the field of grappling with violent mobs does force one to question the practicability of this approach. When confronted with a mob that is armed with lathis or iron rods and stones it is difficult to treat them as misdirected citizens who need to be convinced by use of minimum force. To the contrary one sees an irrational and dangerous animal that will not desist from opening up your skull with a well aimed projectile. Verbal warnings over the public address system lead to jeers and further raise tempers. Tear gas does not scare even the mildest mobs. Things invariably boil down to a lathi (baton) charge. A lathi charge by the police involves negotiating a stretch of a few hundred metres while under attack by a mob that hurls sharp edged stones and bricks at the very least. The charge invariably takes the wind out of half the police party with all the obese,the smokers, the unfit and the cowards in the party lagging behind. Some get injured on the way while others panic on seeing their colleagues fall and their numbers dwindle. When the police party establishes contact with the mob it’s charged with anger and fear. Then follows a brief period of man to man fight with each man keeping tabs on the probable outcome of the battle. Nobody wants to be trapped with the losing side. For if the rioter is left behind by fleeing accomplices he is likely to be thrashed and arrested by a victorious police party. And if a cop gets caught by a violent mob while his colleagues desert him and run for safety he is sure to be beaten up and even lynched. The task of the commander of the police party is to size up the potential of the mob before taking the decision to engage them. And once a lathi charge is on he has to lead with exemplary energy and ferocity. The police posse has to, for those brief moments get into the snarl mode to unnerve the mob and put it to run. The prerehearsed formations invariably don’t work or last on the field. And nothing counts more than the confidence and courage of those leading the charge. At that moment if the commander waivers and is bothered by the doctrine of minimum force or by fear of magesterial enquiries a rout is inevitable. You either run for cover or make them run for cover. That’s the way it works in the live situation. A failed half-hearted lathi charge invariably leads to police firing and charges of excesses. For once the mob gets the police on the run it goes berserk with the adrenalin and the euphoria over winning and indulges in arson and looting. It’s fear, raw fear for physical safety that discourages mobs and nothing else.