Police in a new Avatar
Every crisis throws up a challenge and is an opportunity to prove your mettle. The challenges thrown up by COVID-19 were unique for the Indian Police. There had never been any such crisis before and the police manuals had no standard operating procedures to deal with the situation and yet, it is heartening to see how the police rose to the occasion and not only came up to 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), etc. However, the police leadership addressed these aberrations promptly. The Indian Police Foundation, a think tank on police matters, comprising not only retired police officers but also distinguished citizens from other walks of life, also prepared guidelines which could be followed by the state police. The results of these advisories were visible 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 hard hit by the closure of economic activities. Patrol cars, whenever not otherwise engaged, were utilised to transport the sick to hospitals or bring succor 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 enumerated here. Suffice it to say, that the policemen showed compassion and empathy to those in distress in complete disregard of their own safety and that 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 the incidents in Jamia Milia and the JNU and cut a sorry figure during the recent riots in Delhi, suddenly come up trumps during the Corona crisis? This was the question posed to me by a reputed journalist. My answer was simple: the Indian Police is capable of producing phenomenal results if no constraints are placed on them and they are allowed freedom of action in a given situation within well-defined parameters. There is problem 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 the reason why we have been repeatedly emphasizing the need to insulate police from external pressures and giving it operational autonomy. When would our leaders wake up to this fundamental requirement 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 really needed to have a SMART police in the country? When would the Supreme Court wield the whip to 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; people are showering flower petals on them. 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. They should all be given necessary protective gear while going on duty. Reports of their getting infected and even succumbing to corona have started coming in. Secondly, they should be given insurance cover on the same pattern as given to the medical staff. And, thirdly, the legal framework needs urgent review.
Police in other countries, for a change, have not come out with flying colors. 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, government has deployed the military to enforce quarantine. The United States, as indicated by Brookings President, is planning to mobilize 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, never complained, did not ask for any assistance of central armed police forces and, what is most pleasant, they have been even singing and dancing to entertain the people to boost their morale.
Perhaps a new chapter is opening – a chapter when the police would be 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, of the legislators and the parliamentarians.