Policing at the frontlines of a Pandemic

Image: ET

Historian and author par excellence Yuval Noah Harari, speaking in an interview, underscored the need for ‘Global Solidarity’ in times of this unprecedented crisis that the world is facing today. Needless to say, the zoonotic virus of COVID-19 has swept the entire world under its garb. What allegedly originated from the wet markets of the busy port city of Wuhan in China, the hyper-connected and globalised world has transported it to the other end of the planet. The aftermath of its spread is for all of us to see and live through. The most significant blow is felt on the developing economies of the South, with already stressed health facilities and a disproportionate amount of people under the poverty line. Global solidarity is, thus, much solicited.

However, at the national level and narrowing down to cities and towns, the crisis has been managed more locally than globally. At the forefront, it is the doctors and the health care workers, police personnel as well as the sanitary workers who are managing the affairs. Rightly termed as “Corona Warriors”, these front line service providers have been managing, arresting and treating the pandemic of a scale that the world has never faced before.

In this article, we intend to look at the role of the police in responding, managing, and controlling this pandemic in the Indian context. In a federal democracy like India, where the constitution allocates the function, control and management of the Police and Public order to the respective states, there are bound to be different strategies. However, the magnanimity and the distinctive nature of this health crisis call for a look at the quintessential law enforcement wing of the State that is now donning many hats.

The idea of stability in a pandemic

The seminal academic and political scientist, James Q. Wilson, describes the primary functions of the police to be of crime control, maintenance of order, and service which accord a level of stability to any polity. However, the idea of stability in a pandemic is going a step further. During a crisis of the nature of a pandemic like COVID-19, it would require them to perform a host of other functions that could be falling under the purview of maintenance of law and order, rendering them the most vital organisation in regulating and ensuring the same. This becomes a prerequisite in sustaining stability in an otherwise unsafe, chaotic situation.

Image: Livemint

Maintaining public order: The double whammy of ensuring public safety and access to critical and essential services.

It might be sacrilegious at the time of a pandemic to prioritize anything else other than human lives and public safety. Although the assurance of human lives primarily depends on the healthcare system of a particular country, however in a pandemic of the nature of COVID-19, where the mitigation strategies involve social distancing and remaining indoors, the role of police becomes equally crucial. Here, the police is faced with the double whammy of ensuring that people do not participate in spreading the virus by making sure that directives of the lockdown are implemented in letter and spirit. But on the other hand, they have to warrant smooth access to healthcare, medical supplies, food supply under restrictive conditions, and at the same time, keep a check on the activities of hoarding and creation of artificial scarcity.

There has been an old chestnut of debate about the role of police, which ranges from police being considered a coercive force with the primary function of enforcing criminal law, to providers of service: calming a sea of social troubles. The mode of policing practised during this pandemic is the smooth transition of this police officer from one ensuring law and order to that of a peace officer. In the Indian context, this scenario has led to the police in helping reinforce the idea of a stable political system, a welfare state and ensuring that the system operates without any hindrances. It is indeed true that many people, the poorest of the poor, including the migrant workers amongst others, have access to food and medicine only because of the police.

Image: The Hindu

Public safety over freedom and liberty

In the case of a pandemic, human lives are governed by public safety, which assumes considerable significance over personal freedom and liberty. The lockdown and curtailment of movement, practising of social distancing along with the rule of adorning masks for protection have seen new norms at play which have compromised our freedom to a certain extent. However, the tensions between liberty and order do not seem to be applicable in this scenario as liberty is essentially circumscribed within norms of public safety.

The instances of the use of just force by means of wielding the lathi as well as lodging of FIRs against those who resist the “new normal” seem to be necessary and proportionate. Notwithstanding the cases when there have been reports of police excesses, the police have been resorting to innovative punitive ways. One instance would be that of the Uttarakhand Police forcing some foreigners to pen down “I am sorry” a certain number of times, as a punishment for violating the lockdown rules.

Innovation in disseminating information

The pandemic has prompted the police from around the country to take resort to unique methods of disseminating information regarding the virus and in the process, educating the masses. Often the police in India is accused of yielding force without adequately instructing the citizens about the norms. However, this seems to change with this crisis. Policemen wearing coronavirus helmets and coronavirus themed uniforms urging people to stay indoors, to singing rap songs, making dance videos on the benefits of handwashing and social distancing, to parading animals (dogs and horses) with banners and corona motif painted on their bodies: the list is endless. 

Image: The Hindu

Conclusion

The police is required to respond to this health pandemic with as much courage as a soldier on a war footing.  However, it has been a daunting task to manage the pandemic in as diverse and big a country like India. What we need to realize is how the police as an institution are battling its own limitations to overcome this crisis and create a stable, sustainable environment for us. The police in India, particularly in some states, are grossly understaffed and overworked.

The police guarding people’s interests and maintaining law and order often endanger their own lives, becoming highly susceptible to sometimes unprotected exposure to the virus. The constraint of crucial personal protective equipment kit and other safety gear has exposed the members of the police to the risk. More and more members of the force are testing positive, and some have succumbed to the deadly virus. Among a host of other challenges, the police also need to maintain a tight grip over tackling miscreants, spreading misinformation and fake news on social media.

Inter alia, the police as a coercive arm of the state is of crucial importance for ensuring stability and order in the polity today. As we see our lives dramatically change in the face of a life-threatening virus and a potential life-altering political order, the police is still at work to ensure public safety and maintain law and order for the citizens and the State alike.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Sukanya Bharadwaj & Aneedrisha Hazarika

Sukanya Bharadwaj is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Gauhati University. She has recently submitted her PhD thesis at the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India |||| Aneedrisha Hazarika is currently pursuing her doctoral research at the Centre for Indo-Pacific Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

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