The lockdown that India adopted in order to give a fight to the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded some grim pictures—mass exodus of migrant labourers back to their homes and villages, some barefoot, some on bicycle, some bundling themselves into trucks—with whatever mere means they could. Many died of starvation, accidents in the middle of their way.
Alongside, what was even more pathetic was the brutality unleashed by the police; there hardly remained any place in the country that has not witnessed police brutalities. In the name of fighting a pandemic, a situation resembling a law and order emergency has pervaded the country. Even now, when lockdown is in place in some places, police does not seem to have ceased raining their lathis on poor people.
This is despite the fact that the Gauhati High Court, hearing a petition filed by advocate Rahul Sensua seeking judicial intervention in prevention of the police atrocities, had observed that the public cannot and should not be subjected to such “inhuman treatment” in the garb of lockdown.
The HC, therefore,allowed liberty, not only to the petitioner but to any citizen who notices such inhuman treatment and torture at the instance of public servants, to collect actionable material and initiate individual action against the law breakers. Unfortunately, even after delivering such an in-depth observation we have been witnessing large number of such police torture cases in every part of this country. For a democratic country what can be more hardship than this.
Details of the petition
In the petition (Rahul Sensua Vs The State of Assam & Anr, PIL 25/2020), the petitioner mentionedmany incidents of brutality and torturethat have been widely reported in the visual media as well as on online portals. Although several eminent personalities have written letters to the Office of the Chief Minister of Assam regarding the atrocities committed by the police on people during the ongoing lockdown but there seems to be no end to incidents of uniformed men abusing and beating up poor citizens.A few incidents mentioned by the petitioner are as follows:
On March 30, a video was broadcast by DY365, a leading Assamese news channel wherein a policeman was seen whacking women in Golaghat District of eastern Assam. In the video, two women, seen carrying vegetables on a bicycle, were stopped, abused and beaten with a stick by the enraged policemen, allegedly for violating the lockdown. A little later, the policemen walked ahead and assaulted another woman carrying firewood from a field.
There were reports that a pharmacy owner in Golaghat District was brutally caned by the police when he was going to open his establishment.
In another incident, a newspaper vendor/hawker was reportedly assaulted by police in Nalbari district. A similar incident happened in Majuli too.
In a newspaper report dated March 29, published in the regional daily Asomiya Protidin, people were seen kneeling down and holding their ears in public as punishment given by the policemen at Boko which falls within Kamrup (R) district.
In another incident reported on March 31 in Asomiya Protidin, the police were reported to have used lathi-charge on people at Diphu.
In another news report dated March 31, published in Asomiya Protidin, the police personnel at Nagarbera in Kamrup (R) district had reportedly used lathis and beaten people.
In some of the video footage circulated on various social media platforms as well as shown by different news channels, police were seen taking extreme steps to enforce the lockdown by using bamboo sticks to beat people or punish them by forcing sit-ups or rolling on the floor. In one such short video, police could be seen forcing violators to roll on the road instead of walking in Fancy Bazar area of Guwahati.
In many cases, the innocent citizens have been targeted by the police. Footages also surfaced where human dignity was snatched without reason. If media reports are to be believed, in some of the cases, the police had gone to the extent of beating essential service providers despite showing ID cards to enforce lockdown.
Referring these incidents of torture during lockdown, the petitioner also stated that the guideline which was published on March 24 by the Ministry of Home Affairs was derived from the Disaster Management Act, 2005. Clause 17 of the said guideline states that “any person violating these containment measures will be liable to be proceeded against as per the provision of Section 51 to 60 of the Disaster Management Act, 2005, besides Legal action under Section 188 of IPC”. It is to mention here that, generally under The Disaster Management Act, the violators are punished with one year imprisonment and fine which may extend to two years.
On the other hand, Assam Government has prepared and effected a regulation (The Assam COVID-19 Containment Regulation, 2020) under the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1987, which also provides for punishment under Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code to any person violating the containment measures. It is worth remembering that under the Section 188 IPC, a person is punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one month or with fine which may extend to Rs 200 or with both and if such acts cause or tends to cause danger to human life, health or safety, or cause or tends to cause a riot or affray, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to six months, or with fine which may extend to Rs 1,000, or with both.
On April 22, the Ministry of Law and Justice published the Epidemic Disease (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020. In order to protect the healthcare workers combating epidemic diseases, this Ordinance criminalised several acts such as attacking the healthcare personal, causing damage to their property or any other loss (like forcing to vacate rented house) as a non-bailable offence. Contravention of this provision is punishable with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than six months, but which may extend to seven years and with fine, which shall not be less than Rs 1 lakh, but which may extend to Rs 5 lakh.
It is notable that the laws, regulations and ordinances passed by the government during lockdown has not given the right to the police to use physical force or to hit any person/law breaker. It should be mentioned here that after consideration of the Public Interest Litigation, the Hon’ble Judge of the Gauhati High Court while passing the judgement had stated that, “We are of the considered view that in the garb of such lockdown, surely innocent public should not be subjected to torture or inhuman treatment, particularly because at this point in time, the innocent citizens/ordinary people are highly sensitive and emotionally volatile. Such conditions surely cannot be treated in manner that is quite inhuman treatment. We are also of the view that the police people working on frontline are facing possible contamination and infection. Their duties, however, demand that they go close to the public, one of whom might be already infected. We are also conscious of the fact that the police personnel might be working overtime in these conditions.”
But, even after the observations made by the High Court, police beating up vendors, daily wage earners continued unabated. Kamrup metropolitan district, which includes the state capital Guwahati, is undergoing another spell of total lockdown following the surge in COVID-19 cases. A periodical release of the lockdown to open grocery shops, vending of vegetables and fruits were allowed, but the police did not stay away from beating up the vendors and people who were out for buying essential items.
(The author is a practising advocate and a regular columnist based in Guwahti. The views are personal.)