How India’s cops play Good Samaritans and brutal oppressors, dealing with a national emergency

Ever since India went into lockdown, the police have been the most visible on the ground trying to enforce it -- donning various caps at different times. But lack of adequate training in disaster management often leaves them as much out of depth as anyone else.

It is the best of times and the worst of times for police around the country who have been ordered to enforce the Prime Minister’s nationwide lockdown, with images and videos of police behaviour, swinging from humane to violent playing out on TV screens and smart phones in every home. 

 Take the case of Bhairon Lal Lohar, for instance. A furniture dealer in Thane near Mumbai, Lohar received the news of his mother passing away in their village in Rajasthan’s Rajsamand district and as the only son, wanted to go to his village to cremate her. A Shiv Sena leader arranged an ambulance for Bhairon and his family to go to Rajasthan. Bhairon had got his mother’s death certificate via WhatsApp and using a print out, got permission from the local police for the journey.

But the Gujarat police manning the Maharashtra-Gujarat border check post refused to accept Lohar’s plea to be allowed to travel, even after he showed them, through a video call, his mother’s body. The police tore up the print of the death certificate and thrashed Lohar, stopping his onward journey.

And then there was 73-year-old Ritu Menon, a resident of Prayavarn complex in the national capital at Saidulajab near the popular Garden of Five Senses. On March  28, she called the SHO of the local police station and told him she was alone at home with no money and out of ration. Her son, she said, could not remit money from the USA because of the global lockdown impacting fund transfers. The police, after a couple of hours, knocked at her door with atta, rice, sugar and oil. And yes, they gave her some money too.

A tall order

Today, the two main uniforms visible on phone and TV screens are the Personal Protective Equipment worn by doctors and health workers, and the Khaki police uniform. But unlike the qualified and trained health professionals, the average policeman is performing a duty which he has just not been trained for. They were not even briefed about what is expected of them as they were given their marching orders—to go out and patrol the streets and enforce the lockdown and social distancing. 

“The health and wellbeing of 1.3 billion citizens literally depends on how well we in the police forces work with our colleagues in healthcare, civil administration and other essential services to ensure that this lockdown achieves its intended goal,” wrote Senior IPS officer Abhinav Kumar in The Indian Express on April 3rd.  The goal he mentions is to arrest the rate of corona transmission by keeping people off the streets, ensuring they maintain the safe one-metre distance when they are out shopping for essentials, and ensuring those in quarantine do not play hooky. “Nothing in our training and our practical experience as police officers has prepared us for this task”.

Added S T Ramesh, former Director General of Police, Karnataka, in an interview to Citizen Matters: “The police today are doing what they normally do during serious law and order situations, using rough and ready methods. The force knows how to enforce section 144 CrPC or a curfew, where the goal is to isolate and apprehend trouble mongers. But now they find they have to ensure people have access to medical help, to home essentials, to travel to visit an ailing relative and other such chores. Add to that ensuring that service sector employees like milkmen, sewage workers, government servants, bank employees etc reach their places of work under lockdown conditions.  And to top it all, they are faced with irate citizens who are frustrated over the lockdown”.

Equally candid is Rajbir Deswal, former joint director of the Police Training Academy at Madhuban near Karnal in Haryana. “The police are doing their jobs without being trained for it. I am happy that 70-80 per cent of them are doing a wonderful job”.

Other senior police officers too are in total agreement that the country’s police force is simply not trained to respond to this kind of a national calamity. “The experience of dealing with tsunami and floods may stand the Tamil Nadu police in good stead,” said Letika Saran, former Director General of Police, Tamil Nadu. “But, nobody in the world is prepared for a pandemic like COVID-19”. Letika Saran emphasises the fact that two things happened together — a pandemic followed by a lockdown. “While those who go out to work could not come to terms with having to stay indoors, the police lost their cool when their pleas to people to stay indoors went unanswered”.

Attacked…or attacker?

Ever since India went into lockdown on March 24 midnight, the police have been the most visible on the ground trying to enforce it. They are on the roads, deciding who is to be stopped and why, what he has to be told and, in some cases, how he is to be sheltered and fed. It is the average beat constable having to manage all this. His uniform may make him seem all-powerful at this time. But he is as much out of his depth as anyone else. Add to that his concern about his own safety.

In an April 3 video that went viral, constable Gopal, enforcing the lockdown at Moula Ali in Hyderabad, was assaulted by a youth and his mother. Gopal was rescued by other policemen posted nearby and the Malkajgiri police are reportedly investigating the incident. In another case, a motorcycle pillion rider grabbed the constable’s lathi and sped away. The police have filed a complaint saying the stick was “lost in action”.

While these two are two rare cases of the police being at the receiving end, the visuals from across the country mostly tell stories of police thrashing and punishing people ignoring the lockdown. In Ahmedabad’s Krishna Nagar, an inspector enforcing lockdown did not stop or send back vegetable vendors. He upturned three vegetable carts spilling their produce all over the road at a time when people were desperate to buy them. He, however, did not get away with this and has been suspended.

In Jangaon, Telengana, the police were seen raining their canes on three men who were playing cards in their verandah that opens onto the road. The video that went viral shows police making these men sit on their haunches before beating them. In Andhra’s West Godavari district, a policeman went berserk and beat up people, including women, who were on the road, protesting against a proposal to set up an isolation ward in the locality. In Faridabad, part of the National Capital Region, a bus driver was beaten up for helping migrant workers get to their hometowns. Action has been ordered against the policeman. 

In Bihar’s Agariya, police made even senior citizens do sit ups and showered lathi blows on them. In UP’s Lakhimpur, those who violated the lockdown had to frog march holding up their bicycles! 

Such incidents are being reported from across the country, big cities, small towns and the countryside. Thousands of migrants who tried to walk back from the capital to their villages, have tasted police excess in different forms. A video clip showed a few boys being beaten by a policeman in Badaun, UP, who made them leap like frogs, with backpacks strapped on. The district police chief later apologised and said the cop in question was a new recruit.

Managing a disaster

Police officers Citizen Matters spoke to attribute such police behaviour to lack of training in disaster management, which is not quite the same thing as maintaining public law and order. The lockdown, it may be recalled, was ordered under the National Disaster Management Act.

Deswal explains that police training for disaster management is “starkly lacking”. About five years ago, the government created a National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) under the National Disaster Management Act, when state governments got a directive from the Home Ministry to build such a force.

“It was incumbent upon all states to have at least two companies, meaning 200-300 people, who were exclusively meant to manage disasters like floods, fire, tsunami, earthquake, major train accidents, air crashes and all that. But that was only on paper. They identified 200-300 guys, named them disaster management force, but they knew nothing about what disaster management is”.

According to the former ADG, although biological problems are new the world over, our police forces were starkly lacking in every kind of training, not only at the level of lower constabulary but even among senior officers. “There is nothing for them in the name of disaster management, but only the courses that we undergo once in a while,” said Deswal. “The disaster management courses would be a 3-day workshop or a week-long programme on managing floods, fire, air crashes, how to manage a particular scenario.”

Saviours in uniform

But even as instances of police highhandedness get reported, it would be unfair to tar the entire police force with this brush. For there have been an equal number of examples where the policeman has come across as a knight in shining armour. 

In Jhansi, Police commissioner Subhash Chandra Sharma along with his wife travelled many kilometres to ensure that people were receiving food. In Meerut, SHO Vijay Kumar has turned his home into a community kitchen. In Banda, also in UP, a pregnant woman whose husband was stuck in Hyderabad, pleaded for help. The police took her to the hospital for her delivery. In the Subzi Mandi area of the national capital, the police helped a woman and her new born stuck in the hospital get home.

In Delhi, as people lit lamps on April 6 night  in deference to the Prime Minister’s call, members of the ISKCON in Dwarka lit lamps at the office of the DCP, the formation of their diyas reading “Thanks Delhi Police, Doctors”. A few days earlier, as thousands of migrant workers gathered at the Anand Vihar ISBT to get back home, lots of policemen were seen serving food brought there by NGOs. In fact, police distributing food to the poor has become a common sight across the country. Their very presence seem to reassure people. 

Policemen in some cities wore “corona helmets” to convey the message, sang “we shall overcome” to cheer citizens up, and danced at traffic lights to create awareness around the virus and explain what needs to be done. In one town, the police painted pink corona spots on a horse and rode it, to make a point!

Like medical and health care warriors against, the police too are facing a shortage of N95 masks, and many police personnel have been quarantined. On April 5th, senior Security Advisor of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) K Vijay Kumar and CRPF DG AP Maheshwari went into self-quarantine after coming into indirect contact with a CRPF doctor who tested positive.  At least three Inspector Generals, whose wards returned from foreign countries, have been quarantined as a precautionary measure. 

But what sticks in public memory are the excesses. “During the pandemic, it is not always about law and order,” said Letika Saran. “I agree that police across the country used force to push people inside their homes. It will not be overlooked. Disciplinary action will be taken if there are any excesses”.

Only better training can overcome these deficiencies, argue all the officers Citizen Matters spoke to. Not only training in disaster management, but also general training. “Status of Policing in India Report 2018: A study of performance and perceptions”, presented by the  the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) , a social science research institute and Common Cause, which champions  public causes, says that “a mere 6.5 percent of the total police force has received training in the last five years”.

The study also points out that the percentage of police personnel provided training depends largely on the funds allocated for training, which is a paltry 1.38% of the total policing budget at the all India level for the last five years. In many states it is less than 1%, the report adds.

Will the Corona experience push up that percentage? One can only hope.

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