Lathi charge, a deadly holdover from colonial times
Police use of the lathi is inextricably tied to a tactic known in India as the lathi charge. In essence, a baton charge consists of a coordinated rapid advance by police, using lathis to strike at individuals and disperse a crowd through the threat of pain. Like baton charges around the world, the chaotic environment created by a sudden rush of armed police leads to direct injuries from lathi strikes and indirect injuries from the panicked crowd. Unlike other nations’ baton charges, however, the Indian police’s extensive use of the tactic is linked with a startling number of deaths.
The medical literature of the earliest 20th century recognized the danger posed by lathis. One report from 1902 specifically noted 14 deaths from skull fractures and three deaths from a cerebral haemorrhage at a single medical centre in Bihar. Perhaps the best-known victim of a lathi charge lived during this period of violence. Lala Lajpat Rai, a leader of the Indian independence movement, was fatally wounded in 1928 during a lathi charge ordered by the British superintendent of police in Lahore (modern Pakistan). Over a hundred years later, little has changed about the prevalence of the lathi in policing.
Victims span demographic divides, although lathi charges have been especially pervasive in police response to student protests, enforcement of COVID-19 restrictions, and response to demonstrations by rural workers. The chaotic nature of lathi charges results in serious injuries to bystanders, such as one case in which an 18-month-old died from head injuries in 2021 and another in which an eight-year-old boy died in a stampede produced by lathi charges in 2019.
Since 2015, the Indian National Crime Records Database has recorded in its annual Crime in India reports the civilian injuries and fatalities resulting from police lathi charges. These reports found 78 civilians have died in police lathi charges since 2014. Over 2,000 civilian injuries from police lathi charges were recorded during this time period.
No details are available pertaining to the injuries that led to the fatalities, and it is likely that at least some of the deaths may be attributed to crowd crushing or trampling in the panicked environment that often follows a lathi charge. Strikes to the head likely account for many of the fatalities from lathis. The significant length of the lathi may account for the high number of fatalities. Impact energy at the tip of a baton increases in proportion to the length of the lever (baton and arm), so the exaggerated length of the typical lathi can cause severe injuries. Furthermore, in crowds, the length of the lathi limits the use of slashing strikes from the sides, leaving the dangerous overhand strike as the most viable option.