Police diary: ‘You either die a hero or a villain’

Coronavirus Police
Police high-handedness, most police personnel say, comes from the fact that they are poorly staffed and most of the times overworked, with little perks or relief. | Image - Prathap Ravishankar

For constable Bittu Singh (name changed), a childhood memory has remained etched into his mind like words on a tombstone. Bittu, along with his elder bother and friends, was playing cricket in the lane leading to their red-brick house with a leaking tin roof in Uttar Pradesh’s Azamgarh district.

Suddenly an argument ensued over a missed wicket and Bittu, then 8 years old, had thrown a fit. “My brother lunged forward and slapped me hard in the face — chataak,” Bittu says, adding his own sound effect.

It’s not that the slap hurt for long, but the damage it had done to his reputation in front of the other boys. “That day I realised the power of chaanta (slap) — it may not hurt someone much physically, but can break one emotionally.”

Years later when he joined the Uttar Pradesh Police, he knew his time had come to unleash that trusted weapon on petty criminals. Now in his mid-40s, Bittu Singh confesses to have well-utilised the power of chaanta in his decades-old-career — “chataak, chataak, chataak”.

His other ‘weapon of mob destruction’, of course, is the danda (baton) that he swings with as much precision as ‘Rajput boy’ Ravindra Jadeja wields his sword.

But the past few days have been particularly difficult for him following the lockdown in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. “It’s not only because the police have been asked to deal with violators with empathy. There is also a danger of catching the virus by going too close or touching people,” says the constable who is now posted in Noida.

Enforcing lockdown

Soon after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nation-wide lockdown on March 24, police across the country went on an overdrive to enforce the prohibitory orders. But as the virus deepened its grip and criticisms mounted on the men in uniform for harassing people into submission, policemen seemed to have softened their ‘blows’, though far less than what was expected.

A traffic policeman hit the headlines in Tamil Nadu after he was seen pleading motorists, with folded hands, not to venture out.

But Sidharth Charan, a healthcare worker in Coimbatore, has seen too much of “police high-handedness” to trust this sudden change in behaviour. “Most cops are still functioning in a biased manner and living up to their ‘danda’ image.”

Following media reports linking a religious congregation in Delhi to the spread of the disease, Charan claims he was stopped by policemen because of his long beard.

“The police first asked me whether I am a Muslim. When I said I am a health worker, they asked me again. When I resisted again, they said they will ‘check’ me (for physical identifiers like circumcised genitalia) to confirm that I don’t belong to the minority community.”

Fearing the humiliation, Charan finally had to tell them he was a Hindu and was let off once they were convinced he wasn’t a Muslim.

But ask this to the cops and they say “nothing is intentional”.

“We do not do such things intentionally. It was out of pressure from the higher-ups,” says a constable posted in Tamil Nadu’s Coimbatore.

“When prohibitory orders are in place, and our senior officers see hundreds of people on the streets, they won’t go and question them. They would only shout at us.”

The constable from Coimbatore, however, attributes this to the lack of proper communication between the higher-ups and the lower rung, especially about exemptions given to frontline workers during the ongoing health crisis.

“We were plainly asked to stop whoever ventures out on the streets. We were not told about any exemptions. But when we stop a people working in banks or medical staff, we land in trouble,” he rues.

It is not just about the exemptions. “In the initial days, we were asked to strictly check and make people wear face masks. But no such orders were given to the people in the state,” says S Ramesh, sub-inspector, Greater Chennai Police.

“Only recently after Chennai, Coimbatore and Tirupur district administrations made wearing face masks compulsory, we started to fine violators. Now some people claim that they could even wear a handkerchief/cloth/bandana as mask. But we were not informed about this,” he adds.

Low manpower and motivation

This high-handedness, most police personnel say, also comes from the fact that they are poorly staffed and most of the times overworked, with little perks or relief.

A woman cop posted at a check post at a wholesale market in Coimbatore says she has to stand guard for at least eight hours, with nobody to replace her even if she has  to use the restroom.

“Since people are allowed to purchase essentials till 1 pm, I cannot move anywhere till that time. But after that since there is no public toilet or government office nearby, I have to wait until the duty hours get over, standing under the sun for eight hours, to use the restroom,” she says.

Women police personnel in India often face sanitation and privacy issues. According to a CSDS study, Status of Policing in India Report 2019, even in police stations, one in five women personnel does not have a separate toilet.

The long working hours is another big issue. The Economist in an August 2018 report cited a 2014 national survey to state that 90% of Indian police officers worked longer than eight hours a day, and 73% got no more than one day off per week.

According to data put out by the Bureau of Police Research and Development, India’s police-to-population ratio was a meagre 144: 100,000 as of 2016. In many western countries they have over 200 cops for the same number of people.

The shortage of forces was more at the constabulary than at the officer level, the CSDS report noted.

“So, when the media blames police is not doing enough, just answer this question. How can a small bunch of cops take care of a barrage of crimes,” says Bittu Singh.

Angry with the “poor portrayal of cops”, the constable from Noida takes a dig at the media. “The media too creates so much unneccessary problems. First they publish fake news, then we are expected to keep a tab of such things and warn them,” he says referring to a number of Covid-related news wherein the police had to warn news organisation/s from misreporting.

“Ab yeh kaam bhi hum hi karen toh journalist kya karegey (What are journalists for if we have to keep correcting them.”

Baton charge and bribery charges

What makes him more angry is that the media always blames policemen.

“Is it because it’s easier to blame the lower-rung personnel than to question the senior officers?”

According to him, the prejudice flows from above. “While the sahebs get all the respect and perks, we are the ones who have to deal with all kinds of people — from petty criminals to gangsters. We are neither trained nor armed to do that.”

“Aap kya kijiyega jab saamne se phattar phekh rahe ho (what does one do when a mob starts  attacking the cops with stones). We can’t wait for mobs to attack us. We have to put our batons to use.”

However, a former cop who recently retired as an assistant sub-inspector, tells The Federal how he always resented the arbitrary baton-wielding. “I was never comfortable with lathi charge,” says the man whose last big assignment was controlling the crowd during the anti-CAA protests in Delhi.

His friend, a senior inspector who still has eight more months of service left, disagrees. “It is only when police use a baton, criminals start singing like a canary.”

“So many times, you must have heard of cops being attacked, ran over by cars and killed even under normal circumstances.”

The retired ASI nods with a half-hearted smile. “Sometimes it’s true. In our country both police and public understand just one language — danda.”

Sometimes, his friend adds, it’s inevitable that innocents too get punished. “Collateral damage is unfortunate but unavoidable.”

When asked about another ‘B’ the police is often accused to resorting to — bribery — the sub-inspector first takes offence. Almost as an afterthought, he adds: “It’s totally illegal and not every cop indulges in it. But I also blame the public for this. Some people whip out ₹1,000 notes even before a cop demands. Now, policewalahs are also human beings.”

The ongoing lockdown, he says, has seen several wilful violators, out on the streets in their cars to buy cigarettes and such things that don’t even come under essential services.

“This coronavirus crisis is completely new to everyone. We too are scared. Initially, we didn’t know whether to show more compassion or strictness to enforce the lockdown.”

Senior officers, however, claim this is slowly changing.

“In the initial days, we handled the lockdown like any other law and order situation,” says A Saravanan, deputy commissioner (law & order), Tirunelveli city. “Only after a couple of days, we realised this situation is different. We could handle it only by being kind to the people and creating awareness about the disease.”

An inspector-general of police in Tamil Nadu, who doesn’t want to be identified, says policemen sometimes need time to get accustomed to the new ways, just as people are coming to terms with an extended lockdown.

This was especially a case in areas with high crime rate where policemen are generally used to behaving harshly.

“People are terribly angry because of the lockdown. And we are supposed to maintain order under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC). We cannot convince them just by saying it is a pandemic. People have never been inside their houses for this long. They are getting impatient, especially since they are losing their jobs.”

He believes it’s the police’s job to calm people down, arrange food for the needy and explain the dangers of the disease.

Others like A Mohanraj, a cop associated with the Greater Chennai police, sees it as an opportunity for the police to redeem their reputation.“We entered the profession with a passion to help people and crack down on crimes. But we ended up with a negative image. At least now we got a chance to show our human side and I’m proud of my colleagues.”

Cops contracting COVID-19

Compassionate or not, the worst aspect of their job, the IG adds, is that they are at risk of contracting coronavirus themselves, especially since they come in contact with hundreds of people every day.

Several police personnel across cities, including Mumbai and Delhi, have tested positive for coronavirus since the outbreak, possibly after coming in contact with COVID-19 patients while performing their duties during the ongoing lockdown.

“We do not know who has been infected or who has recovered from the disease. But we have to stop each person and talk to them, irrespective of their demands. Although we have been given gloves and masks, I do not think, that will be enough,” says a woman constable who was on duty at the district collector’s office in Coimbatore.

After knowing that three people who tested positive for COVID-19 had visited the collector’s office, the constable freaked out.

“I have children and elderly people at home to take care of. I can’t take a chance. For a constable like me, it is not even possible to ask for a separate quarantine room. It’s given only to doctors.”

She is scared to talk about her dilemma with family members as they will get more alarmed. “I have to wait for 14 days and see, what happens.”

The disease spares no one. But the pandemic has surely changed a few uniformed men and women. “Nothing lasts forever. One day everyone has to die. What matters is if one is remembered as a villain or a hero,” she smiles.

(With inputs from Sanghamitra Baruah)

(This story is part of a series on frontline personnel in the fight against COVID-19. You can read the other stories here)

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