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Lathi (Devanagari: ????) is an ancient armed martial art of India. It also refers to the weapon used in this martial art. The word lathi, in Hindi, means cane. A lathi is basically a 6 to 8-foot (2.4 m) long cane tipped with a metal blunt. It is used by swinging it back and forth like a sword. The metal blunt is an optional part for a lathi. It is the Indian Police’s most used crowd control device. When referring to the weapon itself, a lathi could be considered the world’s oldest weapon.

Lathi originated as a yogic spiritual practice.

Wielding the lathi involves giving quick lethal blows to the opponent. A lathial needs to be quick and precise. Lathi blows are powerful and sometimes even fatal. A good lathial must be able to fight with lathis of different lengths and thicknesses.

Lathi became popular among villages of India, especially eastern and southern India. Other than fighting lathi was often used to control domestic animals. A common Hindi saying goes “Jiski lathi, uski bhains” meaning, “he who wields the lathi gets to keep the buffalo” (“bhains” in Hindi)

Local warlords and landlords often raised armies of lathials for settling disputes and for security purposes. Lathial armies were also used to oppress and punish common people. The size of the army was also an indication of the power of a warlord or landlord. At the same time lathi had also evolved as a sport. Tournaments involving lathi duels often took place in Indian villages.

The Zamindari System was introduced by the Mughals in India and continued during British rule. The Zamindar raised lathial armies to forcefully collect taxes from people. The British introduced lathi as a weapon for the Indian Police. This gave birth to the lathi charge, a military-style rush (or charge) that uses lathis to disperse crowds. Lathis were now often used by Indian Police to control riots and also as a secondary weapon.

After independence of India in 1947, the Zamindari system was abolished. This led to a decline in lathial armies and also lathi as a martial art. Urbanisation has also led to decline of this rural martial art. Rich farmers and other rich & eminent people in today’s Indian villages still hire lathials for security and as a symbol of their power. Disputes in villages, when settled illegally (not a common practice), still involve lathi battles if not shootouts although legal methods have now replaced them. Lathi remains a famous sport in rural India.

In modern India, Lathi is the primary weapon of Indian Riot Police along with helmets, shields, tear gas and other weapons and methods. Policemen are trained in methods of a Lathi charge. They have highly co-ordinated drill movements, with which gravely injurious blows can be given to the rioters. Generally, it leaves many of them crippled. This drill has been quite controversial in the human rights context. So in many places the police do not follow the drill, but hit in such a way to disperse the crowds. Security guards and police guards often carry a lathi along with or in place of firearms. They prefer lathis and use firearms only in situations when lathis cannot be used efficiently.

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