Jammu and Kashmir police use batons and FIRs to enforce COVID-19 lockdown, hospitals struggle

30 March 2020
On the morning of 28 March, when Bhagat was near Jammu’s Jewel Chowk, he again saw police beating up young men. According to him, the young men told the police that “they worked at local pharmacies and had been summoned by their employers. However, police were insisting on curfew passes which they couldn’t show.” Naresh Bhagat

On the evening of 26 March, a group of around five policemen armed with batons rounded up at least ten men who were present at Jammu city’s Bharat Mata Chowk, according to Naresh Bhagat, a photojournalist at the daily newspaper Early Times who witnessed the scene. The chowk, which was called the City Chowk up until a month back, is surrounded by chemist shops and pharmacies. Bhagat told me that the policemen beat the ten men with lathis, and made them sit on the road, each around a metre away from the other. One policeman walked around the men who had been forced to sit and directed them to repeat each sentence he said. “Say that ‘We’re enemies of the society,’” the policemen directed, and the ten men repeated meekly in unison. They followed all of the policeman’s statements: “We’re enemies of the police”; “We’re enemies of the country”; “We’re enemies of Modi sahab.” 

The policemen made the men promise that they will stay indoors and follow the prime minister’s instructions. They then asked the men to get lost and chased them with batons. Bhagat told me he had witnessed many such cases in Jammu since the countrywide lockdown was imposed to contain the COVID-19 outbreak. “Pedestrians and bikers getting punished by the police along the road or on the streets is a common sight nowadays in Jammu city,” he said. On a daily basis, “policemen round up people out on the streets and roads, reprimand them, insult them, subject them to corporal punishment or even brutally thrash them with lathis.” But, Bhagat added, the “police looks largely lenient with those travelling in four-wheelers.” 

Modi declared a 21-day lockdown on the night of 24 March. According to guidelines issued by the union home ministry, sections of the Disaster Management Act, 2005 and Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code—which details the punishment for disobeying orders by a public servant—can be imposed on violators of the containment measures. Apart from this, restrictive orders under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure were also applied in several districts of Jammu and Kashmir.

In Jammu and Kashmir, however, the police has made violators of the lockdown do sit-ups on the roads, according to Bhagat. Residents told me that the police beat them when they were outdoors even when the centre had specified that their jobs were exceptions to the lockdown’s rules. On 27 March, a press note from the office of Dilbag Singh, the director general of the Jammu and Kashmir police, stated, “People have to cooperate in breaking the chain of this deadly virus … At times Police has to be harsh but that is for betterment of the community.” Meanwhile, doctors have raised alarm over the lack of protective equipment that is required to tackle COVID-19. 

According to Bilal Ahmed Wani, a 30-year-old resident of Seer Jagir village in Baramulla district’s Sopore tehsil, the police assaulted him at around 9.45 am on the first morning of the lockdown. Wani works at the Jammu and Kashmir government’s department of food, civil supplies and consumer affairs—which ensures distribution of essential commodities such as rice, wheat, sugar and kerosene oil under the public-distribution system—as an assistant store keeper and clerk. 

That morning, he was on his way to his workplace, around twenty kilometres away from his home. “I was on my scooty when a group of [around six] policemen intercepted me near Rabban and started beating me with lathis. Though I pleaded that I’m an employee of the department that provides essential services, they did not relent,” he said. If he was not wearing a helmet, Wani said, he would have sustained serious head injuries. “I even showed my identity card but to no avail,” he added. It was only when his department issued him a special curfew pass, the next day, that he could travel without fear.

On the second day of the lockdown, the police arrested Mohammad Yaseen Sheikh, the chairman of the Block Development Council in Handwara tehsil’s Vilgam area, located in the district of Kupwara. Sheikh recounted the story of his arrest, hours after he was released two days later. “Following the prime minister’s call for civil lockdown, I received a message on WhatsApp from the district panchayat officer, Sajjad Ahmed, and the district administration: all the BDC chairpersons were directed to reach the crowded places like ATMs, hospitals and government run food stores and make people aware about the coronavirus threat and preventive measures,” Sheikh said. “I followed the instructions and had been doing what I was supposed to do as an elected public representative and a government functionary.” 

On 26 March, Sheikh said, he first visited the local primary health centre in Vilgam, and later dropped an ailing elderly man at his home. “When I was returning home, police stopped me and started thrashing me. They dragged me out of my car and took me to the police station in their own vehicle,” he recounted. “Mohammad Suleman, the local station-house officer, who was also present on the spot didn’t even look at my identity card and treated me like a criminal.” Suleman, who confirmed he was present at the scene, told me that Sheikh had “attacked and abused a policeman when asked about his business at a public place in lockdown.” 

Sheikh said that along with Section 188 of the IPC, he was also charged with Sections 353 and 506—use of criminal force against a public servant to deter him from discharging his duty, and criminal intimidation. Sheikh denied these charges, and Suleman’s accusation. “The FIR won’t stand legal scrutiny,” he told me. “The local police doesn’t want Panchayat raj to be successful. They were looking for a pretext to dissuade me from raising my voice—the lockdown gave them a nice opportunity,” he said. “Government gives me a monthly salary of Rs 15,000. But I was punished for doing my duty.”

In the police lock-up, Sheikh added, “I didn’t get any food or clothes. My family members were not allowed to meet me. My children were harassed.” He told me that representatives of the Panchayati Raj institutions in the district then threatened to resign en masse on social media at the office of Anshul Garg, the district commissioner of Kupwara, on 29 March. It was only when Garg and GV Sundeep Chakravarthy, the superintendent of police in Handwara, intervened in the matter that he was released on bail, Sheikh said. 

The Jammu and Kashmir police appears to be apathetic towards the citizens who are inconvenienced by the lockdown. On the morning of 28 March, when Bhagat was near Jammu’s Jewel Chowk, he again saw police beating up young men. According to him, the young men told the police that “they worked at local pharmacies and had been summoned by their employers. However, police was insisting on curfew passes which they couldn’t show.”

It is not known if the police has taken cognisance of the complaints of excesses by its personnel, barring one instance. On 27 March, the police dismissed Riyaz Ahmed, a special police officer, from service after a video circulated on social media, in which he could be seen announcing over a public-address system, “O Kashmiris! Listen you scoundrels! Enough is enough! Go inside your homes. Otherwise, we’ll beat the shit out of you!” The SPO can also be heard abusing a woman and asking her to go home, in a Pahari language. 

I sent a questionnaire to Dilbag Singh about the allegations against the police, via WhatsApp. “Doing an excellent job. Keep it up. This the best time for the story,” he replied. 

A press note from the office of Dilbag Singh on 29 March stated that 337 FIRs have been registered and 627 persons arrested for violating prohibitory orders. Apart from this, 118 shops and 490 vehicles were seized for defying the government orders. In at least a couple of these FIRs, the police has also invoked charges that are not mentioned in the centre’s lockdown guidelines. These charges include Sections 269, 270 and 271 of the IPC, pertaining to negligent or malignant acts that are likely to spread infection of a dangerous disease, and knowingly disobeying quarantine rules. 

The police has also deployed drones for making public announcements about COVID-19. Two local journalists told me, on condition of anonymity, that they were being used to keep an eye on the public. “Drones so far were used by the security forces in counter-insurgency operations in Kashmir. But this is for the first time that civil administration and police are using them to keep a watch on the movement of people,” a Srinagar-based journalist said. On 27 March, according to a Baramulla-based reporter, “drones were used in all the sensitive district headquarters, as the authorities were expecting people to come out in hordes to offer namaz in local mosques.”

As of 7 pm on 29 March, the number of active COVID-19 cases in Jammu and Kashmir was 34. Two deaths had been reported. The number of samples sent for testing stood at 588. The police and the administration have been announcing the stringent measures they are taking to contain the virus. 

The Jammu and Kashmir government said that 6,465 travellers and persons in contact with suspected cases have been put under surveillance. It further stated that as many as 3,260 persons have been kept under home quarantine, whereas 307 are quarantined in hospital. There are 2,163 people who are under home surveillance. The police has roped in the Panchayat Raj system, too, to trace out people with suspected travel history.  

However, according to Dr Manjeet Singh, the general secretary of the Doctors Association Jammu, there is a dearth of police personnel in hospitals. “One patient is usually visited by at least thirty people in 24 hours. It puts hospital staff, doctors and the visitors themselves at greater risk,” Singh told me. “Authorities in civil and police administration must deploy round the clock, adequate police security in hospitals to check unrestricted entry of visitors on hospital premises.” He was in favour of “harsh immediate steps” taken by the police.

The doctors I spoke to, as well as the doctors’ associations of Jammu and Kashmir, have flagged a dearth of equipment essential to tackle the outbreak to the administration. However, they said, these demands have not been met. 

The doctors’ association of Jammu had raised the issue of lack of protective gear in early March. “Most of the hospitals are not providing masks and hand sanitisers to doctors in Jammu division. If the doctors get infected while treating patients, the infection can be then spread to other patients too,” Dr Balwinder Singh, the president of the association, told the press. He said he had urged the administration to equip the health workers better. Two days later, he was transferred to a remote hospital in Batote, a town in Ramban district. 

The Doctors Association Kashmir responded to this. Dr Suhail Naik, its president, issued a statement asking the government to focus on screening of travellers at airports and railway stations rather than transferring doctors for political reasons. “It is doctors and other healthcare providers who are at the forefront in dealing with the coronavirus threat,” he said. “They can save the patients only when they are first themselves protected from the same.” 

The hospitals appear to be underprepared. According to a doctor at the government medical college and hospital in Doda, who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, the hospital is not equipped to deal with the outbreak. “There are only three ventilators, for instance, whereas the average footfall at the hospital’s OPD is 700,” the doctor said. “Assuming an outbreak of the disease, the healthcare facilities at the hospital will just collapse. Unfortunately, all the hospitals in Jammu and Kashmir are equally ill-equipped.”

Atal Dulloo, the financial commissioner of Jammu and Kashmir’s department of health and medical education, spoke about the adequacy of the erstwhile state’s healthcare infrastructure on 27 March. “We have decided to dedicate Gandhi Nagar Hospital, Chest Diseases Hospital and Psychiatry Hospital in Jammu entirely for COVID-19 patients,” he said. “However we have to ensure that our critical care services in other hospitals must not suffer.” The patients of Chest Diseases Hospital and Psychiatry Hospital in Jammu have been shifted to other hospitals, he added. Several district hospitals have been declared as isolation facilities, and their out-patient and in-patient facilities have been suspended, he said. 

Even the primary health centre in Vilgam cannot cater to the entire block, Sheikh mentioned. “God forbid, if the coronavirus crisis hits our area, the PHC is ill-equipped to deal with it,” he said. “Unfortunately, now I can’t go out and see the arrangements or take up the matter with higher authorities concerned for redress of public grievances. Despite being their elected representative, now I am as helpless as people of my block.”

Ashutosh Sharma is a freelance journalist.