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Deaths fan Darjeeling flames
Police inaction and lethal action

Calcutta, Feb. 8: The police firing at Sibchu could have been avoided and two lives spared had the police force in north Bengal followed proper procedures and used non-lethal crowd control measures, said several serving and retired IPS officers.

The options of rubber bullets, smoke grenades and water cannons should have been exhausted before live bullets were fired, they added.

Some blamed the long phase of inaction by the police that, under orders from the government, let the Morcha enforce its writ in the hills unchallenged. Such inertia could have lulled the protesters into believing that there would not be any retaliation irrespective of provocation, an officer said.

Although CRPF personnel were among the 300-strong security force that reached Sibchu today, all the seven shots were fired by state policemen.

An officer who has served in a senior capacity in north Bengal said there did not appear to be “sufficient provocation” from the crowd of Morcha supporters to warrant firing.

“They were not carrying firearms and many of the supporters were women,” the officer said. “I would expect that the force would be able to tackle them with batons and tear gas and not fire at them. I have learnt from my experience that an exchange of dialogue with demonstrators plays a crucial and important role in calming them down. I doubt whether the senior officers followed this method properly today.”

The police later said one firearm had been seized from the protesters.

Tushar Talukdar, a former commissioner of the city police, said firing was the “last resort”.

“The intention of a police-led administration should be to handle a crisis without the use of lethal weapons,” said Talukdar. “Obviously, there will be several justifications. But basic policing demands that while planning an operation, one should be armed with a detailed ‘assessment report’ with feeds from the intelligence branch. One wonders if there was any such report and if so, what did it indicate.”

Talukdar also wondered why the police did not use rubber bullets against them as the police in Orissa had done against the demonstrators at the Posco site to disperse the crowd.

An officer said if tear gas shells fail to deter the mob, options like rubber bullets, smoke grenades and water cannons should be used. “Normally these are enough,” the officer said. “Only in case these do not work should the option of opening fire be explored.”

The police in Sibchu were not even carrying rubber bullets. “This is a shame because they should have been aware that the situation could spin out of control at any moment.”

An officer said the police were aware of the build-up in the Sibchu area for the past few days and should have gone in enough strength to tackle them.

“This is all the more so because they were intent on taking action against them,” an officer said. “Unlike in the past when the police have been merely idle spectators and watched the Morcha supporters do whatever they wanted to, this time they should have been prepared properly since they had decided to firmly act against them and take action.”

The officer said it was a “failure” on the part of the administration not to have gauged the mood of the demonstrators.

“The demonstrators had been used to the police not acting and did not expect them to take firm action against them today either,” the officer said. “Obviously they would react aggressively if the police suddenly started acting firmly against them. The police there should have anticipated this and acted accordingly.”

“It’s difficult to keep your cool if you see your colleague being attacked with a khukuri. But rubber bullets should be used first before opening fire,” said Arun Prasad Mukherjee, former security adviser to the Union home ministry and a member of the last administrative reforms commission to look into police reforms.

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