Police Brutality during COVID-19 Pandemic

INTRODUCTION

The COVID-19 pandemic created social upheaval and altered norms for all members of society, but its effects on first responders have been particularly profound. Law enforcement officers have been expected to coordinate local shutdowns, encourage social distancing, and enforce stay-at-home mandates all while completing the responsibilities for which they are already understaffed and underfunded. But it is seen that during lockdown, the extent of police brutality is elevating to such an extent which needs to be assessed and proper regulations should be implemented to curb the harassment which common man suffers by police.

The lockdown count during the 1st week: Brutal assault of at least 173 persons & at least 27 lockdown related deaths

In his address to the nation at 8 pm on 24 March 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared complete lockdown of the country to tackle spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) for a period of 21 days effective from midnight i.e. 25 March 2020 to 14 April 2020. This report examines the incidents of police brutality that has drawn national and international attention during the first week of the lockdown.

As the enforcement of lockdown begun, India witnessed brazen display of police brutality across the country, some of which were widely reported in social media and news media. After reviewing the videos and news reports, it can be safely stated that over 173 persons in 43 emblematic case studies involving 50 instances, excluding the victims in groups lathi-charged, were tortured/beaten up by the police and the Central Armed Police Forces during the first week of the lockdown. Those tortured include 63 persons in Assam followed by 32 in Punjab, 12 in Jammu and Kashmir, 10 each in Arunachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, 9 in Gujarat, 8 in Andhra Pradesh, 7 in Kerala, 4 in Uttar Pradesh, 3 each in Telangana and Maharashtra, 2 each in Delhi, Goa, Odisha and West Bengal, and 1 each in Bihar, Manipur, Madhya Pradesh and Haryana. 

Most of the people were out to buy essential items like groceries, milk, medicines etc because of the abrupt declaration of the nation-wide lockdown or simply trying to escape to the villages in the wake of no food, job homes in metropolis. Even doctors who were going to duties to attend coronavirus patients were beaten up by the overzealous police.  The images of torture and inhuman and degrading treatment is a stark reminder of what goes on inside the four walls of police custody, while dealing with challenging law and order situations like riots or public protests, and or in insurgency situations by the police/security forces in India. 
On the very first day of the lockdown, a 32-year-old man identified as Lal Swami was allegedly beaten to death in Sankrail town in Howrah district, West Bengal when he went out to buy milk. The deceased’s wife alleged that her husband was among the crowd that the police baton-charged. Injured Lal Swami was taken to a local hospital where doctors declared him dead.

Apart from beating up, the police brutality and torture during the lockdown involved unprovoked firing by Bihar Police to extort bribe, making people hop like frogs in Goa and Assam, writing inscription on lockdown violation on migrant’s forehead in Madhya Pradesh, making people kneel down in Andhra Pradesh, making people rub their noses on the ground in Punjab, beating up youths by rotating the baton like a cop in the movies in Andhra Pradesh, making crawl as punishment in Uttar Pradesh, thrashing after chasing inside the house in Punjab and damaging vegetable carts in Delhi.

Those tortured and assaulted included a large number of persons who were providing essential services and exempted from the lockdown. These victims included Sonu Sah, who was shot at for not paying Rs 5,000 bribe in Bihar; Dr Aravind Ashok, in charge of COVID-19 isolation ward in Kasaragod, Kerala; husband of a pregnant women who had gone to fetch medicines in Punjab; electricity board employee G Madhava Raj who was returning home after repairing a transformer in Andhra Pradesh; a differently-abled man in Tamil Nadu;  fireman on duty Naresh Sharma of Punjab; Shaijan Joseph, employee of Eben Telecom, Kerala; NGO activist Sajjad of Access Foundation in Telangana; Priyanka Rathod, employed with the National Urban Health Mission in Maharashtra; Uttkarsh Chaturvedi, deputy news editor with ET Now in Maharastra; dialysis patient Nishal of Kerala; a jockey of the All India Radio etc.

Incidents of police brutality were reported from across the length and breadth of the country from Arunachal Pradesh in the East to Gujarat in the West, from Jammu and Kashmir in the North to Kerala  in the South.

In all the cases of assault and torture, there was no law and order issue except people out to buy essentials, or simply trying to escape from metropolitan cities due to insecurity of housing, food and job. They were locked up, like in Siwan, Bihar due to lack of transport to reach their home  or bleached with Sodium Hypochloride on 30 March 2020 at Bareilly district in Uttar Pradesh.

At least 27 persons died in 11 lockdown related incidents from 25 to 30 March 2020. These incidents include death of  four people after being caught in forest fire while escaping the main road closed due to the lockdown on 24 March night;  one Lal Swami, in alleged police beating in West Bengal on 25 March;  starvation death of an eight year old boy identified as Rakesh Musaha in Bihar on 26 March;  death of  eight migrant workers in Karnataka on the night of 27 March 2020 while returning home from Telangana;  death of 26-year-old migrant worker Nitin Kumar, who was walking to his native place at Rampur in Uttar Pradesh from Sonipat in Haryana, after being hit by a bus on 28 March;  death of 62-year-old man Gangaram Yelenge in Surat, Gujarat after walking from a hospital to his house after finding no vehicle due to the lockdown on 28 March;  death of four migrant workers after being hit by a tempo in Palghar on Mumbai-Ahmedabad highway while returning home after lockdown on 28 March;  death of Ranveer Singh after walking almost 200 kilometers from Delhi while trying to reach his home in Morena, Madhya Pradesh on 28 March;  death of four persons after being run over by a vehicle on Kundli–Manesar–Palwal (KMP) Expressway in Nuh, Haryana while returning home amid coronavirus lockdown on 29 March;  70-year-old woman named Pathunji of Karnataka, who after denial of permission to the ambulance to enter Karnataka on 29 March;  and death of Aldrin Lyngdoh, hailing from Shillong in Meghalaya, who committed suicide in Agra on 31 March blaming the lockdown and his landlady.

On the other hand, only 22 persons had died due to COVID-19 from 25 to 31 March 2020[2]. It is clear that more persons have died in lock-down related incidents than actual COVID-19 during the period.

Police brutality reached such proportion that on 26 March 2020 Kerala High Court Judge, Justice Devan Ramachandran wrote to the Director General of Police, Loknath Behra to direct the officers not to use force against the violators of lockdown unless it is absolutely essential, that too only to the extent necessary.[3] On 30 March 2002, the Kerala High Court took suo motu cognisance of reports of police brutality against those breaking the lockdown norms, stating that it cannot allow fundamental rights of citizens to be infringed.[4]

The State and police officials promised to take departmental action in a number of cases but these are not enough. Neither these brutalities by the police can be dismissed as instances of “few bad apples”.
COVID-19 must be defeated and it is the responsibility of each and every person to cooperate with the measures taken by the Government of India and the State governments. However, brutalities by the police are illegal and unlawful and dent the entire efforts by the people of India. The authorities must order the registration of criminal cases where penal offences of bodily harm and injuries were caused. This also calls for enactment of a national law against torture which successive governments have refused to enact as on date.

Emblematic cases of torture and inhumane and degrading treatment during the 1st week of the lockdown


The National Campaign Against Torture (NCAT) monitored the incidents and based on the review of  the videos and news reports, it can be safely stated that a minimum of 173 persons in 43 cases studies involving 50 instances, excluding the victims lathi-charged in groups, were tortured/beaten up by the police and the Central Armed Police Forces during the first week of the lockdown. Those tortured include 63 persons in Assam followed by 32 in Punjab, 12 in Jammu and Kashmir, 10 each in Arunachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, 9 in Gujarat, 8 in Andhra Pradesh, 7 in Kerala, 4 in Uttar Pradesh, 3 each in Telangana and Maharashtra, 2 each in Delhi, Goa, Odisha and West Bengal, and 1 each in Bihar, Manipur, Madhya Pradesh and Haryana.

Case 1: Lal Swami dies due to alleged police torture in West Bengal
On 25 March 2020, Lal Swami (32 years) died after he was allegedly beaten by the police while out to buy milk during the nationwide coronavirus lockdown in Banipur locality in Howrah district, West Bengal. The deceased’s wife alleged that her husband was among the crowd that the police baton-charged. Injured Lal Swami was taken to a local hospital where doctors pronounced his death.[5]

Case 2:  Woman police officer canes a health worker and her dad in Maharashtra
On 25 March 2020, a female health department assistant and her father were thrashed by a woman Assistant Sub Inspector Prabha Pundge who was leading a team of personnel who were enforcing the ongoing lockdown in Hingoli district of Maharashtra. The health assistant, identified as Priyanka Rathod (30 years), suffered a head injury and had to be given five stitches. Rathod is currently on deputation as a surveyor for the novel coronavirus spread in urban Hingoli division and is employed with the National Urban Health Mission. She was returning home with her father on their motorcycle after completing her work when the incident took place. Hingoli Superintendent of Police Yogesh Kumar issued directives for the registration of a case against the woman assistant inspector.[6]

Case 3: Sukhdev Singh thrashed by police in Amritsar, Punjab
On 25 March 2020, Sukhdev Singh was thrashed by the police when he went outside with his 8-month-old pregnant wife, Renu Bala, to get medicines for her. Renu Bala accused two policemen of thrashing her husband when they went outside to get medicine for her. The cops even chased her husband to his house in Sultanwind Road area. The incident was captured in CCTV cameras. Sukhdev suffered an injury in his nose and was admitted to hospital. Confirming the incident, Police Commissioner Dr Sukhchain Singh Gill stated that the incident was brought to his notice and action had been initiated against the accused cops.

Case 4: TV journalist beaten up by police in Maharashtra
On 25 March 2020, Uttkarsh Chaturvedi, deputy news editor with ET Now, a leading business news channel, alleged that he was beaten up by policemen while reporting on lockdown in Thane district. The incident took place near Dahisar Check Post in western suburbs which falls under the jurisdiction of the Thane Rural police. He claimed that he showed his press card, but that did not stop the police from hitting him with sticks. The media was exempted from restrictions put in place under the nationwide lockdown clamped to contain the spread of coronavirus.  The incident came to light when Chaturvedi tweeted his ordeal and tagged the Mumbai police and Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray on their Twitter handles. He alleged that he was reporting from his bike ahead of Dahisar Check Naka when four or five policemen hit him.

Case 5: On 25 March 2020, 28-year-old Nishal, a dialysis patient in Kannur’s Thalassery was beaten up by the police: He was on his way back home from the dialysis unit on a two-wheeler when he was stopped by the police near Koduvalli. He was allegedly beaten even before he could explain why he was on the road. When he complained about the incident at the Thalassery police station, the police asked him why he didn’t take a taxi to go.  In his Facebook post, Nishal had written, “Honorable chief minister, majority of people in Kerala are cooperating with social distancing and lockdown. But the police action on people who go out for meeting urgent requirements without any enquiry must be rectified. I have a kidney disease, and I was beaten by Thalassery police brutally on my way back from dialysis. You must take action after examining my documents. Do not deter, but stay with us.”  Nishal filed a complaint to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, Health Minister KK Shailaja, and Kannur district collector Subhash.

Case 6:  Delhi police constable suspended for damaging vegetable carts
On 25 March 2020, a video surfaced wherein a police constable identified as Rajbir posted at Anand Parbat Police Station was seen allegedly damaging vegetable carts during the lockdown. In the short clip which went viral, the constable can be seen overturning three vegetable carts one by one.  Police Commissioner S N Shrivastava confirmed the incident and stated that he had received reports of “misconduct” by some personnel with essential services staffers. The police constable was suspended on 26 March 2020 over the incident.

Case 7: Delivery executives and sanitation workers harassed by police in Gurugram, Haryana
On 25 March 2020, delivery personnel of online companies faced harassment throughout Gurugram despite the government’s assurance, forcing many firms to temporarily suspend their operations. A local farmer and marketer who supplies dairy items and vegetables straight from the farm claimed that his vehicle wasn’t allowed to enter the city. He also claimed that a ‘drunk’ cop had stopped him on the night of 24 March when he was coming from the farm with vegetables and harassed him.

Case 8: Delhi Police beat up meat shop owner in Delhi
A video posted online on 25 March 2020 shows police men up beating meat shop owners and forcing them shut down the shops. The incident captured in the video that went vital allegedly happened in Jamia Nagar, Delhi. The owner of Parvez Mutton shop is seen being beaten up by a police personal with a baton. The police harassed the meat shop owner for keeping his shop open on the day of the lockdown despite the Delhi government’s announcement that all essential services including shops that sell meat, fish, milk and other food items will remain open through this period. The meat shop owner Parvez alleged that police came and forced him to shut while nearby milk shops were allowed to remain open.

Case 9: Police beat up residents stepping out to buy groceries, Chennai, Tamil Nadu
On 25 March 2020, several Chennai residents complained that they were abused and harassed and in some cases even hit by the police for stepping out to buy groceries, medicines and other essentials during the first few days of the lockdown.
A medical doctor driving a scooter was beaten with a lathi by a police officer before he could reveal that his identity.
A resident of Adambakkam, Srini Swaminathan, said that he was scared to go to buy vegetables anymore after his experience with the police on 25 March 2020 morning near Balaji Nagar Main road junction at Adambakkam where he was threatened with slapping of a case against him if they see him again.
Subhash V, a sales assistant at a TUCS ration shop, alleged that he was asked to pay a bribe of Rs. 100 for stepping out when he was going from Tambaram to Keelkatalai, near Gurukulam signal. He also claimed that one of his colleagues was beaten up even before he could show them his ID.[13]

Case 10: Police make migrant workers crawl in Badaun, UP
On 25 March 2020, News agency, ANI reported incident of police brutality in Badaun in Uttar Pradesh where policemen made four migrant workers who were walking towards their native places to crawl with their backpacks on as a punishment for violating lockdown.In the video, the police officer was seen forcing a group of migrant workers to hop down a main road with bags strapped to their backs. The migrant workers were returning home amid the lockdown. They were caught by the police, who refused to listen to their pleas and were humiliated by being made to hop and crawl in this heat. Ashok Kumar Tripathi, senior superintendent of police, Badaun confirmed the incident and apologised. He said that an inquiry had been initiated against the official involved.

Case 11: Alleged highhandedness of police in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu
On 26 March 2020, Police in Coimbatore reportedly clamped down on newspaper agents, food delivery agents, milk vendors and even people who came out for essential services.
A differently-abled man from R.S. Puram who had come out to buy medicine was chased and beaten up. Reportedly newspaper agents who supply various dailies were stopped by some police personnel who were on duty at places like R.S. Puram, Ramanathapuram, Singanallur and some parts of Coimbatore rural. A newspaper agent from R.S. Puram area alleged that the policeman raised lathi at him and warned that he should not be seen around.  J. James, Coimbatore District President of Tamil Nadu Association of Cottage and Micro Enterprises, was also harassed and abused and asked to return.

Conclusion

Thus it is extremely important to understand that excessive force and violence by law enforcement officers is a violation of a person’s civil rights. Instead of ‘teaching’ people a ‘lesson’, the police should follow the due course of justice and rehabilitation.  ‘Behaving’ or ‘following the law’ doesn’t prevent intentional police violence against the oppressed because of the power that the police possesses. Custodial sexual violence, especially against women, also highlights how this power is abused by the police.

AUTHOR:

Shruti Tripathi