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.”