Every crisis throws up a challenge and is an opportunity to prove one’s mettle. COVID-19 has posed a set of unique challenges for the Indian Police. There had never been any such crisis before and the police manuals have no standard operating procedures to deal with the situation. Hence, it is heartening to see how the police rose to the occasion and not only met the expectations of the people, but, perhaps, went beyond that.
The police were called upon to enforce the lockdown, which they did. In the process, some excesses were committed. There were reports from different parts of the country about people being beaten up with lathis, migrant labour being ask to squat (murga position) in punishment etc.
However, the police leadership addressed these aberrations promptly. The Indian Police Foundation, a think tank that studies issues concerning police, prepared guidelines that the state police could follow. The advisories produced visible results in no time. Policemen were seen not only enforcing the regulatory orders, but also extending humanitarian assistance to those in distress. At the local level, they coordinated with several NGOs like the Vivekananda Kendra to distribute relief material among those hit by the closure of economic activities. Patrol cars, whenever not otherwise engaged, were utilised to transport the sick to hospitals or bring succour to senior citizens. There were even cases of policemen giving their blood to patients in critical condition. The tragedy is that even though they were performing duties under such hazardous conditions, there were incidents of people attacking and throwing stones at them. In Punjab, a crazy Nihang chopped off the hand of an ASI. The stories are far too many to be reiterated here.
However, the policemen showed compassion and empathy to those in distress in complete disregard of their own safety. They went beyond their call of duty in extending all kinds of assistance to the people. The police, as one commentator said, are presently “the frontline of the frontline”. Even the prime minister acknowledged that the “human and sensitive side of policing has touched our hearts”.
How could the police, which had the other day mishandled incidents in Jamia Milia and JNU and cut a sorry figure during the recent riots in Delhi, suddenly come up trumps during the coronavirus crisis? The answer is simple. The Indian Police is capable of producing phenomenal results if they are free to act in a given situation within well-defined parameters. Problems crop up only when the executive puts pressure on them to act in a particular way or insist on partisan or discriminatory conduct in handling a situation.
This is why we have been repeatedly emphasising the need to insulate police from external pressures and give the force operational autonomy. When would our leaders wake up to this fundamental aspect of police reforms? How long are we going to be saddled with the colonial system of policing? When will the zamindari of the executive over the police end? When would the prime minister support measures necessary to have a SMART police in the country? When would the Supreme Court wield the whip and discipline the states? When would the people articulate the demand to have police reforms in the country in a manner the elected representatives will not be able to refuse?
Till then, alas, the status quo will prevail. Today the policemen are getting bouquets. It could be brickbats tomorrow again.
Coming back to the present times, there are three things the government needs to do with respect to the police. First, they should all be given necessary protective gear while going on duty. There are reports of police personnel getting infected and even succumbing to coronavirus. Second, they should be given insurance cover on the same pattern as given to the medical staff. Third, the legal framework needs urgent review. The Epidemic Diseases Act is a skeletal legislation of 1897 while offences under the Disaster Management Act, 2005 are non-cognisable.
Police in other countries, for a change, have not come out with flying colours. Sir Peter Fahy, a former Chief Constable of Greater Manchester police, said that enforcing the lockdown would be impossible. “The police in this country don’t have that presence on the ground. There is no surge capacity. Police can’t achieve a degree of presence in every community.” In Italy, the Carabinieri, which normally patrol the rural areas, have been sent to cities. In Spain, the government has deployed the military to enforce quarantine. The US is planning to mobilise the National Guard to supplement the police forces. The police are avoiding going into homes and buildings and substituting arrests for tickets. Our police, while attending to their multifarious duties, has never complained, did not ask for any assistance from the central armed police forces and, most pleasantly, have been even singing and dancing to entertain the people and boost their morale.
Perhaps, a new chapter is opening — which reveals a police that is more sensitive and humane, people-friendly and committed to the rule of law. This transformation would, however, need the support of the people, of the media and, above all, the legislators and parliamentarians.
(The writer is chairman, Indian Police Foundation)