As a deterrent for lockdown violators, Maharashtra Police has started filing cases under Indian Penal Code Section 188 for ‘disobedience of order promulgated by public officer’. So far, over 1.2 lakh FIRs have been filed across the state, the highest number being from Pune.
While police believe that filing these offences is necessary for stringent implementation of the lockdown, the action did come with its pitfalls – a large number of cases, legal doubts and apprehension of bias.
Following the announcement of the nationwide lockdown in March, the 44 police jurisdictions in Maharashtra had issued prohibitory orders in their respective jurisdictions. Since then, these prohibitory orders have been renewed, with changes as per the changing nature and rules of the lockdowns. At the same time, the Epidemic Diseases Act and Disaster Management Act were also invoked, which empowered government authorities to put restrictions, including closure of district and state boundaries, and making masks compulsory in public places.
In areas which have been declared as containment zones, more stringent restrictions, including curfews in some cases, remain in force.
Police jurisdictions across the state have continued registering these cases on a daily basis. Maharashtra Home Minister Anil Deshmukh tweeted on Monday, “As many as 1,21,075 offences have been registered under Section 188 of IPC since the lockdown leading to 23,641 arrests and seizure of 76,883 vehicles. Rs 6,11,93,848 has been collected in fines from offenders.”
Section 188, often used against lockdown violators, can even attract a jail term of up to six months and a fine — if the disobedience causes danger to human life, health or safety. Otherwise, the quantum of punishment is one month.The data shows that on an average, nearly 1,000 offences have beeen registered in the recent days, but the number of cases filed was much higher in the initial days of the lockdown. In many other states, a large number of offences under the same section has been registered. For example, the case count in Uttar Pradesh crossed 60,000 recently.
Retired IPS officer and former UP DGP Vikram Singh had moved the Supreme Court in April, seeking quashing of these FIRs on various legal and administrative grounds. The apex court dismissed the petition in first week of May.
Senior lawyer Gopal Sankaranarayanan, who argued for Singh in the Supreme Court, said, “From an administrative point of view, these cases are going to be a huge burden on the police for the investigation and prosecution in each of the FIRs that have been filed. Legally, they will have to get each public servant whose orders have been disobeyed to file a complaint for each and every case, which they will not get easily and it will ultimately reflect badly on the police machinery. More importantly, this is also turning out to be a class issue. Someone with means can take a private jet to get to his family home without fear of an FIR, but an old lady hobbling to an ATM to withdraw money gets booked and a migrant bicycling to his native place is arrested and his cycle confiscated. To make matters worse, the Supreme Court thinks a petition to ameliorate their conditions is motivated.”
But the administration believes clamping these charges on violators acts as a deterrent. A senior officer from Pune City Police said, “There is no doubt that these offences have acted as a deterrent, especially in the beginning… and we will continue to take action. Pune leading in Maharashtra in the number of offences registered is not something we can be proud of. But it simply calls for more action, either this way or some other.”
However, concerns have been raised about using the section against violators.
Pune-based human rights lawyer Asim Sarode said, “On one hand was the reckless behaviour of the people that compelled police to continue registering the offences. On the other hand, invoking this section gave mammoth power in the hands of the police and they haven’t been completely impartial in taking action — more people from weaker sections seem to have been booked. There is a very strong possibility that the pending offences… will be withdrawn by the government at some point in time — a move which will be certainly politically beneficial.”
A police inspector, who is the in-charge of a police station in Mumbai, said, “All these cases have been registered as first information reports. A chargesheet has to be filed in court and the accused has to be summoned at the time of the hearing. All this takes man hours and efforts. Not to mention the load of these cases will also be a burden on the judiciary.”
Many police officials whom The Indian Express spoke to said that they will not be surprised if these offences are withdrawn by the state government at a later point, as is often done with cases registered during social agitations or festivals.
In some cases, violators were also put under arrest, but in most such cases, bail was granted immediately due to the nature of the offence and the risk of putting people in custody during the pandemic. While some of the vehicles seized during these actions have been released to the owners after payment of fines, many are still lying at the premises of police stations.
In the first conviction for lockdown violation on April 1, a court in Baramati had sentenced three persons to three days’ imprisonment after they were caught commuting on the road without a valid reason or police permit. Because courts are functioning only for urgent matters right now, the number of cases which have concluded remains low. Many police stations have started preparing chargesheets for these cases. But for the hearings to be held, police and the accused both will have to wait for courts to start functioning normally.
Maharashtra numbers, from March 23 to Monday
Pimpri Chinchwad: 13,791
Mumbai City: 11,699
Nashik City: 7,116
Pune Rural: 6,193
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