Lessons from the tractor rally on R Day - Hindustan Times
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Lessons from the tractor rally on R Day

ByYashovardhan Azad
Feb 01, 2021 06:42 AM IST

Critical stakeholders, including Delhi Police, failed the Republic on January 26. It is time to ask difficult questions

The most enduring image of the 72nd Republic Day in the Capital was a religious flag flying on the ramparts of the iconic Red Fort. The visual was deeply disturbing. The nation watched, in shock and horror, on television, as 1,000 or so protesters stormed and ravaged the revered monument. Elsewhere, thousands of tractors ran amuck, smashing barricades, while lathi-wielding farmers broke through police cordons, marching ahead towards India Gate. The day-long mayhem left 400 policepersons and 10 farmers injured, and public property worth crores destroyed. But, from the perspective of law enforcement, it is important to look at both the specifics of what happened on Republic Day, and the larger lessons the episode holds.

In light of the destruction of public property and the attack on policemen, the damage done to the image of the Capital and to our democratic governance outweighs any advantage accrued by granting permission (REUTERS)
In light of the destruction of public property and the attack on policemen, the damage done to the image of the Capital and to our democratic governance outweighs any advantage accrued by granting permission (REUTERS)

Why did the Delhi Police permit a tractor rally on Republic Day? The Delhi Police commissioner admitted, in his press conference, that intelligence inputs had led to banning over 350 Twitter handles fanning discontent from across the border and instigating people in large numbers to join the rally. It was also clear to all police officers that, despite assurances of the farm leaders, allowing tractors in such large numbers would be dangerous and controlling such a huge number of protesters would be almost impossible. Besides, every police unit, down to the last man, is deployed for security arrangements for the Republic Day parade, making it impossible to handle any other bandobast on the day. If the government then gave consent, it must have braced itself for some collateral damage.

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This then begs another larger question. Who is responsible for the safety of the Capital — the Centre, Delhi’s chief minister or the police commissioner? The Supreme Court left the matter of permission for the rally to the Delhi Police. The police suggested another date for the rally. But the denial of permission would have created an uproar among farmer leaders, civil society and the Opposition. Perhaps this led to the Centre to buckle under pressure.

Why, then, didn’t the Centre leave the matter in the hands of the police commissioner, to take the decision solely on law-and-order considerations? Perhaps it would have served the interest of both the Centre and the Capital better. In light of wanton destruction of public property and brazen attack on policemen, the damage done to the image of the Capital and to our democratic governance far outweighs any advantage accrued by granting permission. The issue requires serious deliberation by the political executive for taking such decisions in future.

The Delhi Police displayed great restraint — suffering injuries, but not retaliating. But was it prepared for contingencies such as tractors diverging from the earmarked routes or going rogue? Even additional manpower or hastily created physical barriers would not have helped, except shooting at the tyres. As a result, Delhiites saw cops running helter-skelter against speeding tractors, breaking police barriers, and armed mobs surging ahead — scenes hardly inspiring confidence among the public.

There are at least three lessons that emerge from the ghastly incidents of that day.

The first is technical in nature. There is a dire need to upgrade riot-gear equipment. Police officials continue to use old, worn-out helmets, shields and lathis. Tear gas equipment, gas grenades and bulletproof vests need to be regularly replaced. Some visuals on TV screens, watched by the world, presented an embarrassing sight, exposing the vulnerability of India’s cops against raging mobs. In contrast, watch the riot gear of the Hong Kong Police. Indeed, modern equipment and accessories need to be provided for facing riotous situations. The conventional response of merely adding numbers will not work in all situations.

Second, ground intelligence requires more coverage to prevent breaches such as that of Red Fort, which should have been prevented at any cost. The performance of the 10 battalions attached with the Delhi police for handling law and order needs a serious review. Issues regarding deployment only with unit heads, training, briefing should be looked into. Transfer of senior Indian Police Service (IPS) officers immediately after incidents such as the Tees Hazari clash with lawyers has also led to some hesitation on the part officers to take firm action.

Third, a considered view has to be taken on manning protests in Delhi in the future, given their frequency and intensity. A protest is a constitutional right and, hence, protest sites such as Ramlila Maidan have been earmarked. Public places cannot be occupied indefinitely, according to the Supreme Court. For 60 days, the farm agitation was peaceful, but people were suffering because of road blockades. Job losses were reported, with supply chains affected and manufacturing adversely impacted. A rough estimate of losses is around 3,500 crore a day, according to Assocham. All protests must be held at designated sites and, if numbers are large, then an appropriate site should be designated for the purpose. A conscious decision needs to be taken that no protest will be allowed to hamper the daily lives of Delhi citizens.

Critical stakeholders failed our democracy on the 72nd Republic Day — the central government by permitting the rally; farm leaders by reneging on their promises; and the Opposition by not playing a constructive role.

In the future, it is best if professional matters are left to professionals only.

Yashovardhan Azad is a former IPS officer and Central Information Commissioner

The views expressed are personal

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