SI Sone, a female sub-inspector in charge of the Dera Sahib police chowki in Goindwal, in Punjab’s Taran Taran district, was out distributing food to those in need in her area on 28 March, with a couple of other police personnel and some local Gurdwara volunteers. People largely appreciated the gesture, she said over the phone, but, in the village of Lohar, “some unscrupulous and notorious elements started pelting and chasing the police vehicle. They also attacked the Gurudwara volunteers.” The senior superintendant of police for Taran Taran, Dhruv Dahia, confirmed the incident when contacted. Kulwant Singh, one of the volunteers, told me people were targeting the police to take out their frustration at the mess created by the coronavirus lockdown, which has exposed glaring failures of planning and implementation by the government. There were videos of similar assaults circulating on social media, he added, and these were emboldening the public.
Harjyot Singh, a sales manager at an automotive dealership in Chandigarh, learnt on 26 March that one of his closest friends had died that morning in a car accident. Since his friend’s family was away, he got on a scooter and headed out to collect the body from the civil hospital in Mohali, adjoining Chandigarh. He was stopped by police on the way. “I tried my best to explain it to them, when a constable came and started caning me,” he said. He remembered that the policeman assaulting him kept saying, “Jad tak scooter ghuma ke race nahin dinda, dande vajde rehenge”—The canes will keep coming until you the scooter around. Harjyot described the incident in a Facebook post and tagged media houses, the Mohali police, the local deputy commissioner’s office and the Punjab chief minister, Amarinder Singh. When contacted, the SSP for Mohali, Kuldeep Singh Chahal, said he was not aware of any such incident. “I have given strict instructions to my personnel to refrain from high handedness,” he said.
Harjyot was left outraged by the police’s “immoral and stupid” ways. “We all laugh and enjoy such forwards on WhatsApp,” he wrote in his post, “but trust me we never know when anyone of us may need to step out and this can happen to you guys as well. Whereas police in other states are requesting people with folded hands to stay inside, the very infamous, insensitive and incapable Punjab Police often forget that they are public servants and not goons in uniforms.”
Punjab faces the possibility of a major outbreak of COVID-19, likely exacerbated by a heavy influx of NRIs from other affected countries into the state in recent months. The lockdown implemented to contain the outbreak has been badly planned and badly executed, here as much as in many other states. The Punjab police, tasked with enforcing the lockdown, has emerged in the role of both the good cop and the bad cop. Instances abound of the police assaulting or humiliating people found outside. People have posted numerous videos online of cases of police violence, and of public humiliation of people found outside. Some footage shows police forcing people to roll on the ground, or to hold up signs saying that declare them “enemies of the people.” Especially in a state where the police have long been criticised for their excesses, including in operations against the Khalistani insurgency, these incidents have triggered public outrage. On 26 March, Amarinder Singh tweeted that he had ordered the police to take action against “the few policemen who were unreasonable.” He added, “They are overshadowing the good work being done by most. I will not tolerate these excesses.”
Meanwhile, the police have also been pressed into action to deliver relief to vulnerable people caught out by the lockdown, filling in for other government agencies that are meant to handle such work but, by and large, have been conspicuously absent. This has meant extra working hours and added pressures, only made worse by a lack of basic protective measures such as face masks for personnel and sanitisation of police facilities. As the most visible agents of the government on the ground, the police have become a symbol of the administration’s malfunction and a magnet for the resulting fallout.