New Delhi: It was not a common sight for the people of the national capital who saw hundreds of police personnel — several of them in uniform — lay siege to the Delhi Police headquarters Tuesday to protest against assault on their colleagues by lawyers at different courts in the city.
Tuesday’s agitation was rare and unusual not only because the personnel protested in uniform, but also because they are barred from dissenting in the first place — according to the Central Civil Services (Conduct) Rules, 1964.
The Indian armed forces, on the other hand, have a strong set of rules that they follow and any mass protest is looked upon as a mutiny. In the Indian military, mutinies had taken place on a number of occasions under the British rule. In recent history, jawans of the 226 Field Regiment had clashed with officers over the assault of a colleague in 2012.
“I haven’t seen anything like this in the 32 years I served as part of the Delhi Police,” Ashok Chand, a retired IPS officer, told ThePrint. “It’s sad when a disciplined force must take to the streets to be heard.”
The protesters demanded immediate arrest of the lawyers who assaulted the policemen, a stronger leadership and a union that could represent the force before the administration.
However, while the scale of the agitation could be called unprecedented, a look at the recent history of protests reveals that police forces have raised their voice earlier too — be it for better pay or a demand to unionise.
Why protesters invoked Kiran Bedi
Delhi Police’s stir was called off after assurances from senior police officers that the grievances will be addressed. The agitation, however, didn’t fail to reveal a deep chasm between senior and junior officers with the latter expressing displeasure of the high command’s “indifference” at the abuse faced by lower rung constables.
Protesters were also quick to evoke a similar incident that took place in 1988 when Kiran Bedi, India’s first woman IPS officer and then deputy commissioner of Delhi Police, had staunchly defended police action when advocates were lathi-charged for protesting the arrest and handcuffing of a colleague accused of theft.
While Bedi supported the police action, advocates went on a strike and stopped the courts from functioning in Delhi and its neighbouring states for at least two months demanding her resignation.
Not surprising then that chants of “police commissioner kaisa ho, Kiran Bedi jaisa ho” rose as security personnel gathered outside the police headquarters Tuesday to beckon present Commissioner Amulya Patnaik.
One of the agitators told ThePrint: “The top officials do not care about the lower rung. We are the lifeline, the foot soldiers of the Delhi Police.”
Right to unionise
The last time that Delhi Police personnel had gathered to protest in uniform was in 1966. In May that year, over 7,000 officers had come together to fight for better working and living conditions, as well as reasonable working hours. Most pressingly, the officers had demanded they be granted the right to unionise.
Lower rung personnel under the unrecognised Delhi Police Union had marched 12 kilometers across the city to the Rashtrapati Bhawan — inviting ire of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
Gandhi wanted the protesters dispersed immediately. But negotiations with the then Director General of Border Security Force, K.F. Rustomji, fell flat and the protests dragged on for a year.
They were finally quelled in 1968, when the Khosla Commission — led by Justice G.D. Khosla — reorganised the services and reduced working hours. But the central government never granted Delhi Police, which comes directly under the Ministry of Home Affairs, the right to unionise.
Recalling the 1966 protests, a Twitter user, Ashok Agarwal, posted Tuesday: “Delhi Police protest today is not 1st time. In 1965-66 my father had organised delhi police personnel into a trade union though trade union was not registered by Govt.”
“Father was put under preventive detention for 17 months. Police then for 1st time agitated for their demands,” adds the post by Agarwal, whose Twitter bio says he is a lawyer practising in the Supreme Court and Delhi High Court.
In a series of tweets, Agarwal gave more details of the protests. “As a result of 1st police agitation in1965-66, delhi police personnel got full pant in uniform in place of half pant.”
As far as I remember, while my father Mr. C.P.Agarwal was lodged in Tihar Central Jail in 1966, there was a call for police strike inDelhi. MHA through CRPF locked delhi police personnel in their barracks in policelines. After lot of hallaGulla, policestrike was frustrated byGovt
— Ashok Agarwal (@socialjurist) November 6, 2019
According to the book Police in India by M.B. Chande, the West Bengal Police had carried out a procession on 31 July, 1969, after one of their colleagues was killed by a member of the CPI(M). The protesting police personnel had carried the constable’s body to the Legislative Assembly Chamber to confront Jyoti Basu, then deputy chief minister, home.
PAC revolt of 1973
In another instance of police revolt, the Bihar State Reserve Police went on a hunger strike in 1977 to protest the “rude” behaviour of a senior official.
But one of the most violent agitations by servicemen was said to be in 1973. Personnel of the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) stationed at the Lucknow university had joined hands with student agitators to protest “unfair” treatment, higher pay, better working conditions, and the right the unionise.
Over 600 protesters were arrested, and about 40 soldiers, police, and civilians killed in clashes that ensued between the PAC and loyal army members.
A nationwide protest in 1979
Demands to unionise, however, failed to die and six years later, in May 1979, the forces were up in arms again. This time in Punjab’s Patiala where nearly 200 uniformed personnel took out a procession demanding their Punjab Police Union be recognised.
The movement soon gained traction across the country and officers from Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan, Odisha, Bihar and Gujarat erupted in protest, demanding better wages and working conditions. Paramilitary and in some cases, such as in Gujarat, military forces were forced to substitute officers on strike. In Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, strikes went on for 10 days.
Being a state subject, some states, such as Bihar, agreed to let police form associations and unions, but others did not.
Bombay Police riots of 1982
A short-lived police union in Mumbai in the 1980s was disbanded in 1982 after officers went on a violent rampage, setting shops on fire and shooting at civilians.
In August 1982, police personnel wore black arm bands on Independence Day to protest against low wages and pitiable working conditions. The arrest of some union leaders had led to a revolt by over 9,000 police personnel. Mill workers, who were protesting against unfair wages for over seven months at the time, also joined hands with the rebellious policemen in their rampage.