The morning of April 21 was just like any other day for K Narayanan, Mumbai president of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), who had stepped out in Andheri West, along with two of his colleagues, to distribute food to stranded migrant labourers.
Hours later, Narayanan found himself locked up by Mumbai Police in quarantine, in spite of showing no symptoms for COVID-19. He would spend the next two weeks at the facility, till May 5, while the police withheld from him the report of the COVID19 test he was made to undergo.
Earlier this week, the Bombay High Court reprimanded the Mumbai Police for putting him in quarantine without any reason, saying that “quarantine cannot be used for preventive detention”. It ordered the police to let him go, by which time he had already spent 14 days at the facility.
According to Narayanan, he and his colleagues had been distributing food and essential supplies to migrant workers and the poor. On April 21, around 10 am, in light of a nationwide protest called by CITU against Centre’s alleged apathetic attitude to the plight of farmers and workers, Narayanan and his two colleagues arrived near Ajmeri Masjid carrying flags, placards and food items to be distributed to participants there and in Gaodevi Dongar area in Andheri West. “Prior notice had been sent to the tahsildar and police. We were wearing face masks and maintaining social distancing protocols,” Narayanan told The Indian Express.
He said that at the distribution site, Deputy Commissioner (Zone 9) Abhishek Trimukhe and senior Inspector Parmeshwar Gamane of D N Nagar police asked Narayanan and his colleagues to come to the police station. There, while his colleagues were allowed to leave, Narayanan was taken to a private lab.
“I was taken to Suburban Diagnostics in Jogeshwari without being told why. A test was conducted, a quarantine stamp was put on my hand and I was told result will be sent on my phone within 48 hours,” said Narayanan.
He claimed he was sent back to the police station and police proceeded under Section 41 of CrPC, which empowers it to arrest any person without a warrant or order of the magistrate. He was told he was being booked under sections 188 (disobedience to order promulgated by government servant) and 269 (negligent act likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life) of IPC and under Disaster Management Act.
“The police took away my phone and my request to inform CITU members or lawyers was refused. I was then taken to a quarantine facility at West Blue hotel and put in a room on the seventh floor.”
When his colleagues approached police, they were directed to BMC officials, but to no avail. Thereafter, CITU members rushed to the facility and spoke to Narayanan briefly through the hotel intercom. Told that his test result would not be declared for at least two weeks, CITU moved HC. “Narayanan’s detention shows abuse of power exercised as a punitive measure to make an example of him,” the plea moved by Mahendra Singh, a CITU member, said.
On the first hearing on April 27, Justice C V Bhadang ordered the police to return Narayanan’s phone and provide him with fresh clothes. At the next hearing on April 30, while Public Prosecutor Deepak Thakare and advocate S R Shinde – appearing for the police – claimed BMC had detained Narayanan. The BMC denied any knowledge of the incident.
“He was detained since he was seen coming out of a red zone area in Andheri (West) and was found to be residing in a containment zone,” the police said.
At the final hearing on May 5 – heard by a new judge, Justice Revati Mohite-Dere – BMC told the court Narayanan was sent to the facility as per police’s direction. However, it said he had tested negative and his 14-day quarantine period had ended the previous day, on May 4.
Narayanan told The Indian Express he was staying at the CITU office in Andheri since the lockdown began.
The court observed, “Quarantine cannot be used for preventive detention. A COVID-19 negative person may catch coronavirus in the facility.” The judge noted the police had failed to establish any due procedure of law under which Narayanan’s phone and other belongings were confiscated. She said there was no law to keep Narayanan in custody and ordered his immediate release.