Updated: August 27, 2021 8:24:25 am
It was 7:10 pm on a rainy day in late June. Majeed, along with his son, was pulling down the shutters of his supermarket located in Old Vythiri, a picturesque village in Wayanad district of Kerala. Just then, two cops arrived in a jeep out of nowhere and scolded him for keeping the shop open past curfew hours. It was a time when Covid-19 infections were still raging in the state as part of the second wave and all shops and offices were ordered to close by 7 pm.
“We thought it was just a warning. They had taken our names and contact details. In any case, we had wrapped things up at the supermarket that day, ready to close and there were no customers either. But we got a shock the next day when we got a call from the local police station asking us to pay a fine of Rs 3,000. That’s the fine for keeping the shop open for 10 extra minutes,” said Majeed on a recent day.
At the police station the next day, Majeed said he pleaded with the local inspector to let the fine go that time or at least reduce it. He explained that the fine amount was more than the entire sales made at the supermarket that day and that he was under great financial duress.
“But they made it clear that there was no other option but to pay the entire fine. So we paid it off. What else can we do? Can we react against the police? If we do, they’ll slap a case against us,” said Majeed.
Ironically, Majeed’s fears were borne soon instead by his next-door neighbour, Shameer, who ran a hole-in-the-wall shop that sold tea and snacks. On the evening of August 3, a sector magistrate, appointed by the district administration to check lapses in following of Covid-19 protocols, in a jeep stopped in front of Shameer’s shop named ‘Hot & Cold.’ Noticing a group of three persons sipping tea in front of the shop, the sector magistrate questioned them and Shameer. The charges were that they had slipped their masks down in a public place while drinking tea and that the shop’s owners had allowed them to. He noted down their names and phone-numbers, indicating that they would be fined by the police.
“Immediately, Shameer and my younger brother Ashiq requested him not to proceed with the fine. They told him that they had been fined before, on a similar charge, and that they won’t be able to pay it this time due to financial constraints. The shop had to be shut for many weeks due to the lockdowns and restrictions. Three families depend on that shop,” said Shaheer, the brother of Shameer, who also has a stake in the shop.
But when the sector magistrate refused to dismiss the fine, Shameer and other locals surrounded the jeep, preventing him from leaving the place. In a video that went viral on social media, a man, who could not be identified, is seen lying down on the road in front of the jeep. “If you must go, you will have to run over me,” he is heard yelling.
Other locals, seemingly enraged, are heard saying, “When you get a little authority, don’t try to misuse it. There are thousands of people staying inside the resorts here without masks. Do you impose fines on them? A common man can’t drink tea on the street.”
A day after that protest, based on the statement of the sector magistrate, the local police booked a case against Shameer on charge of ‘deterring a public servant from discharging his duty.’ While he hasn’t been arrested till date, the shop has been shut since.
Shaheer continued, “We reacted because we had no choice. Even a fine of Rs 500 is lofty for us because we can’t even make that much in a day selling tea. We will fight this case legally because we have not done anything wrong.”
The police action against Majeed and Shameer are not isolated instances. Across Kerala, especially in the last three months, there has been a public wave of antipathy against the police force for the ‘indiscriminate’ method of slapping fines and booking cases in the name of Covid-protocol management. The accusation is also that the police are ruthless at those from lower and middle stratas of society while being lenient towards the super-rich and privileged.
In Kollam, a case was booked against a young woman who questioned a police officer for slapping a fine on an elderly man waiting in a bank queue. In Ernakulam, a man returning from offering prayers to ancestors was fined Rs 2,000 for Covid protocol violation, but the receipt said Rs 500. In Kasaragod, a man was fined Rs 2,000 for stepping out of home and cutting grass in an open field to feed his cows. The list goes on.
The row even made it to the floor of the state Assembly with Opposition UDF MLAs assailing the LDF government and Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who handles the home ministry, for inflicting a ‘police raj’ on the streets.
“The government has given a free hand to the police to do anything. They can stop anyone on the street and slap fines and book cases on them as they please. I have details of so many cases of police excesses and atrocities across Kerala…should Covid be fought by unleashing lathis and uttering profanities at the general public? There is no janamaithri (people friendly) police anymore. This government has taken the police force back several decades when it was looked upon as feared and creepy,” argued VD Satheeshan, the Leader of Opposition.
In response, however, CM Vijayan defended the police actions. “The Opposition leader tried to portray as if imposing fines on those violating Covid protocols was a big malfeasance. On top of their usual responsibilities, the police officers are duty-bound to check violations during a pandemic and they have done a commendable job in the last one-and-a-half years… we must not trivialise the selfless work done by the police in protecting our people. We must not insult and abuse them to score political points.”
According to media reports, the police amassed over Rs 125 crore in fines over the last three months, registering over 17 lakh violations for a range of offences including not wearing masks and practicing social distancing.
Kemal Pasha, a retired judge of the Kerala High Court, said the whopping fine collected in the last three months is an outcome of ‘targets’ given to each police station by higher-ups to register petty cases. “When an inspector is given such targets, obviously he will go to any length to meet them. The police are basically extracting money from the poorest of people when they are already under heavy financial burden. It is most unfortunate that this is happening in Kerala,” he said.
“The police are unnecessarily snatching vehicles and locking them up at stations. After ten days when they are released, people have complained that their vehicles’ tyres and radiators have been replaced with inferior-quality ones.”
(Tomorrow, in part five, we throw the spotlight on the string of suicides exacerbated by Covid-19 and lockdowns.)
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