Human life remains as cheap as a bullet

By Suhas chakma

Each year law enforcement personnel violate the right to life of many citizens of India. The killing of Altaf Ahmad Sood, a class 12 student on 2 January 2012 at the NHPC premises in Baramulla district of Jammu & Kashmir in the firing by the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) personnel is just one of the many examples that expose the illegal orders of CISF Directorate on the use of firearms to protect the installations. Altaf Ahmad was part of a mob of 400 villagers who took to the streets and later gathered near a local power station to protest long hours of power outages.

On September 30, 2011, CISF DIG Shikha Goel reportedly issued a circular stating that the CISF Directorate had noted that some units were ‘failing to take proactive action’ in protecting and securing the undertakings and that the CISF personnel should protect the installations against mob violence, particularly where there is a delay in arrival of the local police or the magistrate.

The CISF circular is blatantly illegal. Section 129 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) says if protesters of an unlawful assembly do not disperse, they, if necessary, are to be arrested and confined. If it is not possible to disperse, the law enforcement personnel should use ‘as little force, and as little injury to person and property, as may be consistent with dispersing the assembly and arresting and detaining such persons,’ with the authorisation of a magistrate.

But generally this is not the case. In clear violation of the CrPC, the first thing security personnel do is use lethal weapons while dealing with protests. In most cases, they shoot without authorisation of a magistrate. Even when they are given permission, they usually shoot above the waist to cause maximum damage, including loss of life or impairment for life.

The Indian practice is in sharp contrast to British laws, which require bullets to be fired on the ground so that they would bounce up and hit the legs of demonstrators. In 1989, the British government replaced rubber bullets with plastic ones to deal with the protesters in Northern Ireland as the rubber bullets were more injurious.

The statistics on the disproportionate use of firearms by law enforcement personnel is alarming in India. As per the National Crime Records Bureau, 1,462 civilians were killed in police firing in the past five years. In 2010 alone, nearly 51 per cent of all police firing cases were linked to riot control.

The patterns of firearms use by security forces in India do not match United Nations standards. Rule 9 of the United Nations’ Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials of 1990 states: “Law enforcement officials shall not use firearms against persons except in self-defence or defence of others against the imminent threat of death or serious injury, to prevent the perpetration of a particularly serious crime involving grave threat to life, to arrest a person presenting such a danger and resisting their authority, or to prevent his or her escape, and only when less extreme means are insufficient to achieve these objectives. In any event, intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.” Further, Article 3(c) of the United Nations’ Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials says the “use of firearms is considered an extreme measure. Every effort should be made to exclude its use, especially against children.”

Human life is too precious to be taken away by trigger-happy law enforcement personnel. The governments that are concerned about the right to life of their citizens, have been using rubber and plastic bullets to reduce death and serious injuries. South Africa is using rubber bullets since 1960s. Ironically, the use of rubber bullets is an exception while the use of live bullets is the norm in India.

The state governments usually order inquiries to placate the situation once protesters are killed. However, the use of force is often justified on the ground of mob violence. Since it is impossible to prove the misuse of firearms in case of violent protest, the inquiries often end up in exonerating the police personnel even if they simply aim to kill. If India is committed to ensure the right to life of its citizens, it must make it mandatory to use plastic-coated bullets to control protests. After the Himachal Pradesh High Court disapproved the use of live bullets to tackle monkey menace last year, the state started using rubber bullets. There is no reason why the guarantee to ensure the right to life of monkeys cannot be extended to humans.

Suhas Chakma is director of the Asian Centre for Human Rights. He may be contacted at

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 1-15 June 2012 on page no. 2

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