COVID-19: Vigilantism or enforcement? Villa managers go overboard with lockdown

What is seriously worrisome is that in India today it is eminently possible for any group or individuals to take the self-appointed position of a law-enforcing authority and resort to vigilantism with no worries

The local authorities justify this on the grounds that it will help neighbours keep an eye on foreign returnees. Photo: iStock

Apartment associations and gated communities across the country have sought to cocoon themselves fearing the marauding coronavirus. In their over-enthusiasm, excessive zeal or the chance to wield raw power, many have imposed their own rules ostensibly to enforce the ongoing nationwide lockdown. In doing so, it may just be possible that some of them are guilty of vigilantism against hapless residents.

It is well within the scope of managing committees to issue guidelines to residents. But, preventing them from going about their physical activities and questioning their every move smacks of repression.

For instance, the diktat not to allow newspapers and milk packets into a residential complex based on spurious WhatsApp forwards and dubious unverified studies reflects either extreme insecurity or the result of bottled up bias against the media. There is no problem in issuing a guideline, but it must be left to the discretion of residents to take a call.

After all, most of these apartments and gated communities are inhabited by well-educated and responsible individuals in key positions of Indian society who can decide for themselves.

Or, for that matter, the issue of letting in housekeepers, gardeners, cooks and the like into a complex.  Social media and residential groups are replete with heated arguments and fights over whether anyone should be allowed to use their services at this time.  Again, if the managing committees feel that it must be avoided, that can be indicated but the final decision rests with individual families.  By staying in an apartment complex or a gated community, individuals  have not surrendered their brains and civil liberties to the association managers.

Managing committees cannot arrogate to themselves legal rights that do not belong to them.  Apartments and gated communities cannot be mini-republics which have their own constitutions and laws that run counter to the country’s constitutional framework.

After all, the nation is itself in a shutdown mode with a curfew in every nook and corner.  Whether this will work to bring down the coronavirus  infections is one issue, but what is worrying is the proclivity of  citizens’ groups to turn vigilante  just because they happen to be in charge of taking care of the basic needs of a residential community.

In some association complexes, residents are not being allowed to take a walk even with social distancing.  Individuals have to notify the association if they go out of town, the details of where they are going and from where they are coming, lifts have been marked with boxes inside which residents are meant to stand, etc etc. While undoubtedly all these moves can be justified, the issue is the manner of enforcing them – do you stalk individuals to see if they are following the rules, or do you let their good sense take care of the rules of their own accord?

In one instance, a colleague narrated a situation in his complex where a woman whose daughter is in quarantine was not allowed to take her dog for a walk.  Matters came to a head and the association called in the police to sort out the issue.  Both sides have a point, but all that mattered was whether the woman wore a mask and was maintaining a “social distance” because there is no other way: the dog has to be taken for a walk.

As if the rules within associations are not suffocating enough,  the government’s move to make public the address of all individuals and families  who returned to India from abroad is again controversial as it directly impinges on individual  privacy. The local authorities justify this on the grounds that it will help neighbours keep an eye on foreign returnees. In other words, civilians are given de facto power to police their neighbours.

While this may be dismissed as a one-off much-required move, such actions can set a precedent which in future may extend to spying on other civilians and report their activities to authorities – the kind of stuff one has seen during the fascist period of the 1930’s in several countries of Europe including Germany.

The commitment and honesty of several of these managing committees and owners of properties too is in question. On March 22, the entire country or much of it, made a song and dance about applauding the medical community for their selfless service to Indians in the treatment of coronavirus patients.

But then, soon after, many of the very same medical and paramedical professionals  who stay in rented accommodations were asked to leave their premises by their owners and in some cases, by managing committees, as they were seen as top-security risks for their work with coronavirus patients.

The problem has been so severe that the government has had to step in and issue orders to take legal action against those attempting to evict medical professionals from their premises.

Of course, one cannot forget the “inspiring” treatment meted to those who were part of the Air-India team that flew out of the country to evacuate Indians from coronavirus-hit countries like Iran and China.   For all the applause, these individuals were ostracised and prevented from returning to their homes until the government again stepped in and sorted out the issue.

What is seriously worrisome is that in India today it is eminently possible for any group, association or individuals to take the self-appointed position of a law-enforcing authority and resort to vigilantism with no worries over whether they are trampling on the civil liberties of others.

The scores of ordinary people beaten by lathis and punished by police personnel for being seen on the streets during the lockdown is another instance of vigilantism.  Though the government had made it clear that there would be no disturbance to essential supplies,   the police beat up those who were part of this group, ranging from e-commerce staff, online delivery agents and in some cases, even medical professionals.

Seen in this context, the question needs to be asked whether India’s democracy barely survives only because it is constitutionally mandated.  Sadly, it doesn’t take long for the repressive mindset to take hold when a crisis is at hand.

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