India’s coronavirus lockdown is bringing out the worst in its police force

Salt to wound.
Salt to wound.
Image: Reuters/Adnan Abidi
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This post has been updated.

Sonu Shah was, till a few days ago, among the thousands of essential service providers keeping India going amid an unprecedented, debilitating lockdown of the country. On March 26, he was shot.

Local policemen fired at his foot after Shah, a pickup truck driver ferrying potatoes in the northern Indian city of Patna in the state of Bihar, reportedly refused them a bribe. “I was asked to take my vehicle to the police station. They hinted that the issue can be solved by paying Rs5000 ($67),” Shah said, a leading Hindi-language newspaper reported yesterday.

The driver is now undergoing treatment; the three policemen have reportedly been suspended.

Shah’s nightmare isn’t an isolated instance.

In neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, cops were seen forcing people to hop like frogs for simply being seen on the road during the curfew.

These were migrant labourers returning to their native villages and towns after the Gwalior city factory that employed them in neighbouring Madhya Pradesh shut down. They were among the millions of poor, jobless Indians on the way back to their homes hundreds of kilometres away—on foot since public and private transport has come to a standstill across India.

And all of this is happening amid the onset of the Indian summer when day temperatures could hit up to 40 degrees centigrade.

Instead of helping distraught citizens cope with these frustrating and hungry times, many Indian police personnel are increasingly caught harassing and assaulting them.

Indian social media feeds are flooded with examples like these.

According to the lockdown guidelines issued by prime minister Narendra Modi’s government, essential service providers like medical and health professionals, food and grain transporters, and media personnel are exempted.

However, often these very people suffer the worst, irrespective of gender or age.

Police officials themselves rarely acknowledge the gravity of the problem.

“When it’s such a massive exercise, there could be some isolated instances (of violence) here and there,” Viswa Prasad, a senior Hyderabad police official in southern India’s Telangana state, told Quartz. Ultimately, his force’s goal is to ensure the lockdown doesn’t inconvenience too many people, the deputy commissioner of police said. “In the process, here and there, there could be some wrongdoing on the part of the police.”

Besides, it must also be acknowledged that the 21-day curfew has put authorities themselves under extraordinary pressure, given India’s poor police personnel-population ratio of around 144 to 100,000 citizens, as opposed to the UN recommendation of 222. The fact that there are only 3 million officers to ensure that a majority of 1.3 billion Indians stay put at home would boggle minds.

Yet, the lockdown has only exacerbated a chronic problem, not created a new one. 

The police’s brazenness and high-handedness have been on full display in recent years across the country, with protesters and university students being arrested on apparently false charges and assaulted on campuses. During the recent Delhi riots, police personnel were caught damaging public property like CCTV cameras, even as they allegedly sided with rioters.

The age of social media has only amplified what is routine—and springs from historic and structural flaws.

Political instruments

In 2018, research institute Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) found that less than 25% of Indians (pdf) trusted the police.

This has mostly to do with India’s policing laws, governed by the colonial-era Police Act that came into effect four years after India’s 1857 uprising against the British.

“The policing system was developed to control the colonial subject, and adopted by the postcolonial state to maintain social control over marginalised communities,” said Ameya Bokil, speaking also on behalf of Nikita Sonavane. The researcher duo runs the Criminal Justice and Police Accountability Project, a litigation and research platform based in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh.

The relationship between police and citizen, therefore, remains feudal.

“The ethos of everyday policing in India rests on the subjugation of marginalised communities,” said Bokil and Sonavane.

This only makes blatant prejudice inherent to the force.

For instance, around 50% of all Indian police personnel think Muslims are more likely to commit crimes, according to a Common Cause-CSDS survey. Scheduled castes (SCs), caste groups formerly deemed untouchable, and scheduled tribes (STs), are the other communities which the police found to be more “naturally prone” to committing crimes.

Yet, people with even a semblance of influence in the power structures are often treated very differently.

For instance, merely hours after the prime minister’s March 24 call for the 21-day lockdown across the country, Uttar Pradesh chief minister—handpicked by Modi to govern the state—was at a religious ceremony at Ayodhya. He was brazen enough to tweet about it.

There have been no murmurs from the police on this violation of the PM’s call.

Similarly, after Ravi Reddy, the Hyderabad bureau chief of The Hindu newspaper, was assaulted on March 25, he received calls from several senior police officials. “A DCP said…I’m very sorry for what has happened, we will ensure that nothing of that sort happens again,” Reddy said.

The occasional homily aside, ordinary citizens seldom expect such grace from the police.

All this ultimately boils down to one thing.

Simply not equipped

An August 2018 report of The Economist magazine said:

Contrary to impressions of laziness, Indian police tend to be overworked. A national survey in 2014 found that 90% of officers worked longer than eight hours a day, and 73% got no more than one day off per week. Researchers say the recent introduction of eight-hour shifts in the state of Kerala and for city police in Mumbai has radically improved morale.

Most importantly, though, they are poorly trained. This could explain their lack of patience in dealing with the public.

“There is something drastically wrong with their training,” said Ashis Nandy, one of India’s best-known sociologists and political theorists. “(The) police think that only beating up people is the answer and using violence is the only thing they know.”

In the Indian Police Service exams of 2018, up to 119 of the 122 trainee officers failed in at least one subject, The Times of India newspaper reported. Most failed to clear the internal security and law and order papers. Even award-winners failed, illustrating the poor standards of training, the report said.

Effective reforms could fix a lot of these problems. However, Indian states have rarely taken steps in that direction. Many are happy with the colonial-era law, according to Prakash Singh, the former chief of the Uttar Pradesh police.

The Economist article said, “One state’s police chief recently asked officers to rank their top three problems. In ascending order, they were poor communications inside the force, lack of manpower or resources—and meddling politicians.”

Under the pressure cooker conditions that Modi’s abrupt lockdown of the country has created, this could create a potentially explosive situation.

Signs of a pushback are already here. Reports have been emerging of citizens, angry and frustrated with the police’s barbarity even in times of extreme distress, retaliating.

“There has been no major problem yet,” said Singh. But when the lockdown is a week old, he expects the real law & order problems to arise “as the feeling of restlessness grows in India.”

India simply cannot afford to see the already iffy police-citizen relationship unravel.