Updated: Nov 9, 2020

In March, 2020, the corona pandemic had not still engulfed India but as the popular saying goes “prevention is better than cure”, there was a lockdown imposed across the country to prevent the spread of the virus. While, on the face of it, this seems like the most logical thing to do, the method of imposing this lockdown was far from logical or required: lathi charges.

Over the course of time, lathi charges have become the go-to mechanism of law enforcement in the country, be it to disburse crowds which had gathered outside India Gate during protests for Nirbhaya or to crush peaceful protests against the newly introduced Citizenship Amendment Act. In the first few days of the lockdown itself, there were numerous reports of lathis being used on individuals by the police to send a stern message to stay indoors, however, these lathis not only hit the individual physically but also the basic human rights of that individual.

Even though lathis charges are a colonial era weapon of crowd control, there are some instances where the laws of the country permit use of force. It is only in a situation when an unlawful assembly refuses to disperse upon being commanded to do so and such assembly is likely to disrupt peace. However, this is no way encompasses use of such force on individuals on streets or scooters for some reason during the Covid lockdown.

In the case of Karam Singh v. Hardayal Singhit was held that in order to use force there have to be three preconditions that have to be met. These are firstly, the presence of an unlawful assembly, secondly, an order of the Executive Magistrate to disperse such assembly and thirdly, in spite of such orders, the crowd does not disperse. Additionally, such situations merely permit the use of force without specifying the method of the same. Lathi charges are just the most common method resorted to by the police.

A bare perusal of the preconditions brings to light the fact that force can be used when there is an assembly of people which is unlawful. An unlawful assemblyis defined in the Indian Penal Code to have a minimum of 5 people. Further, according to section 129of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 and in pursuance with the judgement, orders for the dispersal of the assembly have to be given by the Executive Magistrate or officer in charge of the police station. Additionally, the least amount of forceis to be utilised in ensuring compliance with the orders.

In order to curb the misuse of such power, the Hon’ble Court in the case of State of Karnataka v. B.P. Beliya and Ors.held that no force is to be commenced by the police officers unless some overt act of violence is commenced by the rioters. The Hon’ble Apex Court of the country has gone one step further to state that the excessive use of force by the police results in violation of human rights and dignity.

However, in no understanding of the aforementioned provisions is it legal to use force, i.e., lathis, on those individuals flouting the rules of a lockdown on the ground that the basic fundamental required to justify the use of force, which is the presence of 5 or more individuals, is absent in such cases. Such indiscriminate use of force in order to assert authority/dominance and to “teach them a lesson” should be vehemently condemned. Encouraging such actions is not only detrimental for those who have to bear the brunt of it but also reinforces the feeling of superiority amongst police officers. It is important to always remember that no one is above the law, not the police, not their lathis.

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