Mondays were special for Head Constable Ratan Lal. He’d been born on a Monday; he’d gotten married on a Monday, and he got his Delhi Police job on a Monday. A religious man, he used to fast on Mondays. On Monday, the 24th of February, Ratan Lal was fasting as usual.
“He hadn’t eaten all day. As he’d left the house at 8:30 in the morning, he told me that his boss was alone in the field,” recounts his wife Poonam. “He said that riots had broken out in Delhi, and he had to hurry,” she says.
“How was I to know that I’d never see him again,” says Poonam. “He wasn’t even feeling well that day, but he still went to work.” On that fateful day, Ratan Lal faced off against crowds after violence had broken out against the Citizenship Amendment Act, and received a bullet would to his left shoulder. He succumbed to his injuries.
“I tried calling him at around 1 pm, but his phone was switched off. The kids had just returned from school,” remembers Poonam. “I tried calling him again a little while later, but I couldn’t get through. That’s when I turned on the TV. Channels were reporting that he had been killed.”
Poonam had fainted at the news. Two weeks after the incident, she’s trying to piece her life together, and wondering how she’s going to raise their three children. But underneath the sorrow, there’s also resentment. “There were large-scale protests. Why are unarmed policemen made to face these violent rioters? The policemen should at least be provided weapons so that they can control the situation,” she says.
“I’d seen another policeman armed with just a lathi face off against a rioter with a gun,” says Poonam, referring to Deepak Dahiya, the man who’d faced Shahrukh unarmed, and the pictures had subsequently gone viral. “Policemen should be given weapons too. They’re sons and fathers as well,” she breaks down.
It’s a concern that several people have raised, as they’ve seen horrific visuals come in from Delhi. During the violence, the police was often outnumbered by large mobs, with not only surrounded them and threw stones at them with impunity, but, as in the very public case of Shahrukh, even shot at them. And it’s not only the rank-and-file constables who were in the firing line — Shahdara’s DCP Amit Sharma was surrounded by a group of women, one of whom took off his helmet, and then assaulted by a crowd of men. He barely managed to escape with his life.
While the riots in Delhi have now died down, and peace has returned to the national capital, there are clear lessons for the government to take — India’s police forces are ill-equipped to deal with large, motivated crowds that are not averse to using violence. And one way to level the playing field might be to arm them so that they can effectively take on rioters. Head Constable Ratan Lal has laid down his life in the line of duty, but his martyrdom can be used to ensure that no police officer is outnumbered by a violent mob armed with nothing more than a lathi. It’ll be the best way to honour his memory.