Across Maharashtra, police personnel down the ranks term the ongoing nationwide lockdown as an unprecedented situation they simply weren’t prepared for. Until curfew passes were distributed beginning Wednesday, the past week has been marked by confusion in the constabulary over allowing the movement of ancillary services vital for the functioning of essential services, continuous briefings to stay abreast of the changing list of exempted services and orders not to use force.
“No amount of training prepares you for a situation like this. There is nothing written down on how to tackle a lockdown curfew,” said a Superintendent of Police of a western Maharashtra district who asked not to be identified. There are over 2 lakh policemen in the state with almost everyone being put on bandobast duty over the past few days.
While curfews imposed to quell riots or other sensitive law and order situations tend to be finite and include windows of two hours every morning and evening for citizens to step out of their homes to stock up on essentials, the lockdown necessitated by the spread of COVID-19 has required law enforcement departments to form a different set of rules. The major feature of this curfew has been constant communication and ensuring that every official is briefed continuously on the changing instructions issued by the central and state government and working out interpretations of each new exemption.
Several district in-charges and senior IPS officials who spoke to The Indian Express on the condition of anonymity said that multiple instructions are passed every day to ensure that there is no disruption of services vital to sustain life. “The first thing we did is to translate the list of exempted services from English to Marathi and give copies to our men and women patrolling the streets. For any situation that arises beyond the list of exemptions, we have asked them to take judicious decisions on a case-by-case basis,” added the SP.
This has resulted in the police making multiple relaxations to the curfew to ensure that supply chains of essential services are not affected. A senior Mumbai Police official said that this meant overruling decisions taken by the constables on the streets to stop a WiFi technician to travel from his home in Nallasopara to a housing society in Goregaon to fix its internet connection, a truck carrying chemicals required in the production of hand sanitisers and a movers and packers company from helping a retired Armed Forces official vacate his quarters and shift into his new home.
“There are so many support services attached to the exempted services that this has formed a complex web of concessions. When we make concessions, we are castigated for being lax. Our instructions are to allow essential services to pass and to discourage people from gathering in large groups. Both instructions are not always compatible and constables enforcing these orders cannot always be expected to make that fine distinction. Our constables on the ground assume that under Section 144 (of the Criminal Procedure Code) no one should move anywhere,” said the official.
In spite of repeated instructions and reminders not to exercise force, the police allegedly assaulted a medical professional in Hingoli District and a journalist in Dahisar in the last 48 hours. These incidents have prompted police chiefs to issue circulars warning of strict action against personnel assaulting citizens and motorists with lathis.
The incidents also led Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray to appeal to the police not to use force while ensuring that citizens do not violate the curfew. His message, however, is at odds with an interview that state Home Minister Anil Deshmukh gave to a television new channel this week in which he urged constables to use their lathis if the need arises.
Another senior Mumbai Police official said that his daily briefings to his subordinates prominently feature a refrain to not assault citizens roaming around aimlessly. “I have told my staff to be humane in dealing with citizens. People are frustrated and scared at the moment. If we start assaulting citizens, tomorrow we will be the first to face the ire of the public,” said the official.
Senior officers have sought to protect field personnel by assuring them that offences will be registered against individuals assaulting them while also giving them to liberty to use proportional force. “We cannot expect a policeman not to strike back if he is hit. We have told our people not to go overboard in defending themselves,” added another district SP.
Police personnel deployed on the streets admitted that this is easier said than done. For instance, in Bhandara district alone, three FIRs have been registered so far against members of the public attacking patrolling policemen. “Instructions from the top take time to disseminate down to us. In the first few days before we asked citizens to carry identification cards and letters stating their purpose of travel and started to issue curfew passes, it was very difficult to enforce the curfew. Egos are hurt when we ask people to return to their homes,” said a constable posted in Mumbai.
Another constable posted in Thane said that in spite of streamlining the process of allowing the movement of individuals and groups providing back-end support and the delivery of goods to consumers from godowns in Bhiwandi, these decisions tend to go wrong. “It is not possible to check the identification of every person passing through or to verify the route and intention of each vehicle,” he said.
Field officers have been tasked with erring while allowing nurses attending to senior citizens and individuals supplying food and medicines to the invalid and home-quarantined to move around.
The peculiar nature of the lockdown has come with its own set of pressures on the constabulary, with families requesting them to remain safely indoors on one hand and enforcing the curfew on the other. In Osmanabad District, a dedicated helpline has been set up for the families of police personnel to address their concerns and fears and to ensure that they are stocked with essential items.
“Even though we have been instructed to ensure that people stay away from each other, we are not able to practice social distancing in such situations. Our families are afraid of us being infected by the virus. This a social curfew and no one knows how long it will last,” added the constable.
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