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Non-lethal Weapons and Crowd Control

Gp Capt Ajey Lele (Retd.) is a Consultant at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • September 03, 2010

    Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently announced that the security forces deployed in the Kashmir Valley need to adopt more humane measures to disperse agitating crowds. Particularly, after 62 civilians have lost their lives in the ongoing unrest in Kashmir Valley, it has become important to undertake an audit of the methods adopted by the security agencies to control crowds there. An argument has been put forth by the separatist leaders that while many groups demonstrating in the Valley are no longer using violent tactics like firing or using explosives but are only involved in stone pelting, the security forces are however still continuing with existing policies of crowd control. The Prime Minister’s suggestion sends a clear signal to the people in Valley that the security forces are not blood thirsty and are open to modifying their ways of controlling rioting crowds.

    It is important to note that non-lethal ways of mob control by security agencies is already in practice in the Kashmir Valley for many years though in a limited form. Unfortunately these methods were not advertised properly. The use of tear gas shells, rubber/plastic bullets and at times firing in the air are all non-lethal ways of mob dispersion. Such practices have been in use for many years but were never properly articulated at the highest level. Now, with the Prime Minister articulating the need for non-lethal ways, the security agencies should start looking for many such options.

    Non-lethal weapons (NLWs) are weapons designed to reduce the loss of human life and to a certain extent loss of property as well as loss of life among security personnel themselves. They are essentially used in counter-personnel and crowed control roles. This is achieved mainly by incapacitating individuals. Various techniques involving the release of chemicals, light rays, generation of electromagnetic signals, sound waves, etc. could be used for this purpose. There are weapons available which could discharge a jolt of electric current to temporarily immobilize the demonstrator so that he/she could be arrested without causing any physical harm. One of the basic purposes of using non-lethal weapons is to stun the target. Weapons such as stun grenades/flash bangs are used to create a blinding flash of light followed by a loud explosion.

    Another category of such weapons are designed to disturb and irritate the rioters/terrorists. Weapons like Bright xenon flashlight and Isotropic radiators could be effectively used against groups of terrorists at night. Some laser-based weapons are capable of blinding the enemy momentarily. High power low frequency acoustic beam weapons like Infrasound-acoustic beam can cause nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pains. Pepper balls discharge highly irritating fumes and force gathered mobs to disperse quickly.

    At the global level the concept of using non-lethal weapons is not new. They were used during the Vietnam War. In fact for many years such weapons were perceived as one of the instruments of conventional war fighting by some states. Post 9/11, US agencies have accelerated the development of non-lethal weapons as an instrument for asymmetric warfare. Here the purpose is multifold, from capturing terrorists to avoiding any damage to the life of civilians. Also, such weapons are useful to damage the terrorist infrastructure. For example, microwave bombs are capable of destroying electronic systems, disabling communications, and blocking vehicle ignitions, without hurting onlookers.

    In Indian context, non-lethal weapons are a relatively new phenomenon. It is important to use such technology very carefully particularly for crowd control. The key challenge for Indian security forces is to maintain some amount of distance from the protesters. Otherwise even a rubber bullet could end up killing a protestor, particularly small children or weak individuals. At times dealing with situations where the life of hundreds of innocent civilians is at stake becomes a difficult task. In the year 2002 around 170 hostages died when Russian authorities had used Fentanyl gas to incapacitate terrorists who had seized a Moscow theatre and took the audience hostage. This incidence had given rise to a debate on the use of non-lethal weapons in such type of situations and its efficacy.

    Now, the issue is ‘are Indian security forces geared enough to use such weapons’? Are they adequately equipped and trained to use them? Security forces need to have defensive gear available to protect them while using weapons like gas dispersers. For any country, it is also important to operate with the limits of UN treaty mechanisms while developing and using such weapons. There are some riot control chemicals like tear gas/psychedelic agents which are universally accepted. But the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) is generally silent on the usage of chemical weapons in non-lethal form. A 1995 UN protocol prohibits the use and transfer of blinding leaser weapons.

    The suggestion by the Prime Minister for using non-lethal methods to address the situation is the Kashmir Valley is a welcome step. Such methods could also be used in situations outside the valley. May be, methods like using gas to incapacitate terrorists could have proved useful even during a situation like 26/11. However, any hasty implementation of the Prime Minister’s idea is unwelcome. There is a need to appreciate the medical, social and ethical consequences and liabilities of the use of such weapons before putting them to use.