To deal with the health crisis created by the coronavirus pandemic (Covid-19), Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his televised address on March 24, instructed over a billion Indian citizens to “stay home, stay safe” and used a creative poster with corona written in Hindi to reiterate: “Koi road par na nikle” (no one to come on the road).
It has been almost a week since this diktat was announced, and enforcing this directive has had a tumultuous impact on law and order across the country. Ordering 1.3 billion people to stay indoors with little or no notice, and where many do not even have a roof over their heads, will have a catastrophic effect on human security among the more vulnerable.
Hunger can arouse the most intense survival responses, and the non-linear linkages with India’s internal security challenges will prove daunting. This exigency, which is already discernible, must be addressed and calls for very swift policy responses, both by the Centre and state governments. Citizen transgressions of this lockdown will occur and one chief minister, K Chandrashekar Rao (Telangana), threatened to “impose a round-the-clock curfew, bring in the army and issue shoot-at-sight orders,” if there was no strict compliance.
The police are the first line of governance in enforcing law and order and in these challenging times, the khaki force across the country has been under severe stress. While some police officials have acted with commendable empathy and compassion in certain cases of citizen distress, the larger pattern of policing since the Covid-19 curfew has been reprehensible. In many instances, the police lathi has been wielded ferociously and news reports that have since emerged are distressing.
In one case in West Bengal, a man stepping out for milk was allegedly beaten so badly that he later died. In Telangana, a female doctor was physically assaulted by a police officer and verbally abused when returning from work. Video clips show a cop in civvies in Delhi overturning vegetable carts and an Uttar Pradesh policeman forcing daily wagers to squat for daring to walk back to their villages. These are perhaps the tip of the iceberg.
Policing in India remains colonial in its orientation and the force is more feared than respected. This is a deeper structural problem and many well-meaning attempts at instituting reforms have floundered due to political chicanery and the nexus with organised crime.
However, India’s societal stability over the next few months will depend to a large extent on the competence and integrity of the police as they deal with an unprecedented scale of human dislocation and deprivation. Mass hunger has to be prevented and the State machinery is evolving policy responses daily and firefighting to the best of its limited ability.
Yet, it merits recall at this bleak moment that with objective political oversight, professionals in India can rise to the challenge. This has been demonstrated periodically quietly and unobtrusively — be it the Kumbh Mela where almost 150 million pilgrims are managed over a 100-day period quite smoothly, or similar large congregations that punctuate the Indian calendar.
But the current Covid-19 curfew is sui generis and national capacity will have to be mobilised on a war-footing to protect the rudimentary envelope of human security in India with its myriad distortions. Distribution of food stocks from the national granary and enabling this to reach the poor, evolving food-for-work programmes while respecting social distancing norms, catering to the elderly/sick/children on priority, providing public toilets with appropriate disposal of waste to avoid further health problems — the immediate list of must-do activities is daunting.
Human security and a certain modicum of survival and dignity in India are maintained through a complex and fragile web of informal networks — many of which are outside the State. They include the rural, semi-urban and densely-populated cities that are serviced by the daily-wage earner, the ragpicker, the dhabas and the neighbourhood kirana shops and chemist to list a few. We are now waiting for day 21 to pass — hopefully with Covid-19 contained. But which exigency will unfold is moot for now.
The worst-case scenario may call for temporary hospitals to house hundreds of thousands of sick citizens while social anxiety spreads. Staying indoors may not be an option for many in India. The situation in European nations, currently struggling to ensure enough coffins for a surge in burials, is a tragic reminder of what may lie ahead in the world’s largest democracy.
India’s internal security is heavily affected by the external stimulus and, with the recent Islamic State terror attack on a gurdwara in Kabul, the imperative of tracking jihadi modules remains a 24*7 task. Furthermore, the Maoist attack in Chhattisgarh on March 23 that killed 17 security personnel points to the spectrum of national security challenges that have to be kept on the policy radar. Mobilising volunteers from every institution to manage the 21-day national curfew and containing mass social disorder is imperative. It may be prudent to direct the armed forces to step in and provide aid to civil power as mandated by the Constitution.