How to deal with riots, or an Englishman’s word

It was yesterday (Oct 26 of this most singular year of 2012) that my attention was drawn to a riot in Uttar Pradesh, sparked off when a spat broke out during a religious procession no less and ended in a rampage of destruction, though mercifully no lives were lost. It is saddening in this day and age that religious sentiments should still be inflammatory…. but this is not going to a be a diatribe on religion as it is practised in the sub-continent. It is on how our erstwhile colonial masters – to whom we have a lot to be thankful about – dealt with such disturbances.

I had once the pleasure of reading a book called Before and After, the memoirs of B.N.Lahiri of the erstwhile Indian Police and after Independence, the first Indian IGP of Uttar Pradesh, on how British dealt with these outbreaks of mindless violence. Lahiri, (an engaging character who once himself gave a  few remarks at a rally to be addressed by then Prime Minister J. Nehru, and sent off the audience home as the PM was delayed), writes rather approvingly of a British superior, who once physically removed the cause of a likely affray – climbing on a tree with an axe to chop off overhanging low branches of a tree, owned by member of one community, on a street upon which a procession, of the other, was to pass before haranguing the latter – unmercifully and publicly – on choosing that particular road to traverse. That is, in a nutshell, sound administration and politics – swift action and leaving no one think themselves the loser. That skill seems to have disappeared, unfortunately….

There was also a mention of innovative policing I recall from Plain Tales from the Raj, but let us come to the point when the military becomes involved. George McDonald Fraser provides a good introduction to this most disliked (by themselves) role in The Sheikh and the Dustbin, but it is another account we are concerned with here…. and you will agree its most exhaustive. I have gone on too long, so without further ado, please read on….

~~~~ In some Indian cities some collective tempers became short during the hot weather. In the early part of this century (20th please, since this was when the author was writing) before the subcontinent had divided into predominantly Hindu India and predominantly Muslim Pakistan, large cohesive communities of both religions lived in may cities. When it became monotonously hot, and particularly if the hotness coincided with the Muslim fasting month of Ramadhan when abstention from food and drink during daylight hours prompted a general irritability in any case, people (of both) were prone to brood upon grievances. The common grievances were to do with the intolerably provocative, unclean, patronizing, selfish, inconsiderate, heretical, etc. characteristics of members of the religion to which the brooders did not subscribe. When brooding was translated into an urge towards taking practical, remedial action, the annual rioting season was beginning to get under way.

Those responsible for preserving the peace then brought into motion a well-tried sequence, any step of which might, or might not, close hostilities for the current year.

(1) The civil authorities, the deputy commissioner or his representatives, appealed to community leaders to advise their coreligionists to calm down.

(2) If (1) got nowhere, the police became ostentatiously active. They patrolled intercommunal boundaries, issued warnings to be of good behaviour, and arrested a few of the persistently belligerent.

(3) Should enthusiasm for getting to grips with the other side continued to increase, police riot squads appeared on the streets. The presence of the riot squads could, with luck, end the difficulty. Without the luck, the riot squads were likely to be attacked by delegations from both the communities.

(4) At this point it was time for the military to be called in to perform the least popular of its many roles, that of Aid to Civil Power. Two simple alternative consequences were attendant upon these duties. If the army shot a rioter or two, dispersed the mobs, and by so doing saved scores of lives and prevented the destruction of much property, some of it sacred, the soldiers were accused by Indian and British politicians, commentators and polemicists of callous brutality. If they failed to restore order, the accusations were of weakness, inefficiency and, sometimes, of cowardice.

(5) The troops marched stolidly to where the excitement was at its most pronounced, halted, and faced the crowd. A magistrate, as often as not operating under an intermittent bombardment for stones, bricks and garbage, read the Riot Act. The Riot Act gave legality to what could, but it was hoped wouldn’t, happen next. If the mob failed to go away peacefully, the magistrate warned them, the soldiers would open fire.

(6) Often the crowd went home, complaining. Sometimes it didn’t. If it didn’t the officer commanding the troops selected one of the noisier ringleaders, identified him clearly to the best marksman available, and ordered the marksman to shoot him. Experience had demonstrated the unwisdom of taking a seemingly more humane option, the firing of shots over the crowd’s head to frighten it into dispersal. All shots land somewhere. Too many, when this expedient, had been tried, had caused the deaths of distant innocent people, followed by justified anger and grief.

(7) After a ringleader, perhaps two or three ringleaders, had been shot the crowd would break up, sometimes to re-form later, usually not. When the last act of this year’s version of a recurrent performance was over, the troops returned to barracks, the police resumed normal policing, everyday life carried on much as before, and the deputy commissioner, the police superintendent and the senior military commander allowed themselves some modest self-congratulation upon the proposition that an incalculable, but heavy, loss of life had been prevented by the taking those of a few.

In April 1919, occurrences in the Jallianwala…. (to be continued)

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