Coronavirus Outbreak: Assam Police was notorious for reckless lathi charges, now they're handing out food for all

From tracing missing COVID-19 vulnerable individuals, contact tracing of COVID-19 positive individuals, enforcing lockdown to embarking on humanitarian missions, the role of Assam Police in these times of crisis has expanded exponentially.

Simantik Dowerah April 10, 2020 15:38:09 IST
Coronavirus Outbreak: Assam Police was notorious for reckless lathi charges, now they're handing out food for all

"Corona ne kuch aur kya ya na kya, lekin insaan ko insaan bana diya."(Whatever Corona has done or not done, it has made people human). This was from Anand Mishra, superintendent of police, Charaideo district in Assam.

As the novel coronavirus or the COVID-19 emerges as the global pandemic, the fight against the disease has been not left with the healthcare professionals alone but other arms of the administration like the police have become deeply involved with it. From tracing missing COVID-19 vulnerable individuals, contact tracing of COVID-19 positive individuals, enforcing lockdown to embarking on humanitarian missions, the role of police in these times of crisis has expanded exponentially. The Assam Police is no exception to this phenomenon which is now a common sight across the country.

Enforcing lockdown a challenge initially

"I have been on the ground since day one. Initially, it was becoming very difficult to make people understand why it is important to stay home. People used to question the necessity of it. There were times police used to lose control. There were incidents where people were beaten up and sent home. There were a few incidents where some innocent people were hit. But there were also elements who came out with a sense of mischief and uploaded videos on social media taking self-gratification on how they have fooled the police. The police also got irritated at the beginning because they were trying really hard to enforce the lockdown but the situation was getting out of hand. Actually, neither the police nor the public knew how to handle it," Mishra told Firstpost admitting there was confusion initially as to how to implement the lockdown.

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Assam Police personnel punishing lockdown violators. Bipul Barman/News18 Assam

What remains a challenge for the police are the willful violators who consider breaking the lockdown as some kind of achievement.

"A lot of people are cooperating but then there is a certain section of people who would always want to violate. We have registered a lot of cases. We have been working round-the-clock to just make sure that people are kept in lockdown. We go and tell the people not to come out and then after the police leave the place they again tend to come back. You just keep chasing them. That section of society is causing a problem everywhere. We are no different. It is tough on the field but we are taking strict action against violators. It has so far been okay by and large. But in general people in rural areas are aware that somebody from outside might come and infect us," said Nalbari district superintendent of police Amanjeet Kaur.

A similar sentiment was echoed by Inspector Rajen Saikia from the Special Branch of police in Dibrugarh district.

"Police are doing everything to impose lockdown by explaining its necessity to the people, doing public announcement and even using the baton sometimes but there is one segment who simply refuses to oblige," Saikia said.

Ironic though it may sound the spurt in cases has actually helped the police and the administration alike in maintaining the lockdown.

"If an individual has not seen the magnitude and impact in his or her neighbourhood, for that individual it is difficult to believe things which are shown in the news and social media. But now since there are a few cases in my district voluntarily people are staying inside their homes. Whatever people see on social media and news, unfortunately, they have developed the tendency to be sceptical about the information. Until a few days back, Assam had zero cases. Then it was very difficult for them to believe that this is real. As cases are coming out now, people are cautious and are staying inside," said Golaghat superintendent of police Pushpraj Singh.

Over time people have started understanding the seriousness of the situation and that the threat is real.

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"We let people understand that this lockdown is for people only. This is not for the administration. People have to stay safe. Social media has also created awareness about what coronavirus is. Our main focus was to inform them that there is no medicine to treat this disease. Apart from one or two violations nowadays, everybody now wears a mask which indicates awareness. People have started understanding the gravity of the situation," said Kokrajhar superintendent of police Rakesh Raushan.

The importance of lockdown was underlined by a person no less than an expert on Community Medicine.

"The decision of the lockdown was timely and had it been delayed then the casualty would have been high. The main worry is if the infected people don't take the precautions and roam around freely. That is the most dangerous thing," said Jenita Baruah, associate professor, Community Medicine, Assam Medical College in Dibrugarh.

From hardened enforcers of law to a mellowed force

Compared to the scenes that the country witnessed of police highhandedness, a semblance of peace and order has returned to the streets barring a few incidents of a willful violation of the restrictions imposed. The police on the ground have now taken on the role of counsellors in a visible image makeover and sought to understand the problem of the individual instead of going straight for the baton.

"But gradually what happened is there was a realisation that cops are also part of the society. They understood what the situation is all about, how it is all about life and death. As a policeman, as senior officers, we also keep briefing and debriefing them (cops on the ground) like what is happening around. A sensitisation from the higher-ups also came up. They told us that people should not be beaten up left and right. They should rather be counselled. There will be some people whom we have booked for violations and will continue to do so. We have been very strictly implementing this and we have registered more than 25 cases already under Section 141 (IPC)," the Charaideo superintendent of police said.

What is important to note is the role that the families of police personnel on the ground have played to soften their stand.

"At home, their relatives are also there. They also talk to their relatives. They gradually understood how the lockdown is really making life difficult for the general public and adding to the hardships," Mishra said.

He went on to explain the nature of emergencies people face during the lockdown.

"For some, it was like 'my mother is dying', 'my father is dying', 'you beat me up but I still need that medicine'. These are the kind of personal experiences many police personnel had. I personally had one such experience. When I met a young boy while patrolling he started crying. He said he needed to go or else his father will die," the Charaideo superintendent of police said.

Feeding the hungry, getting medicines for the sick

The lockdown, which is the only effective step so far, to control the spread of the contagion, plunged the country into another crisis of hunger among the poor.

"On the ground when we move around for patrolling we see people lying here and there not eating. People, in fact, shout out at us saying they need help, they are hungry," the Charaideo superintendent of police said.

"Firstly I was caring about the policemen only who had to stand in a picket or a naka for 12 to 15 hours. All shops are closed including restaurants, even tea stalls. That's when the thought came to me that we need to feed our boys. When I had a word about it with a constable about it he said 'it's fine for us because we are on duty. But I meet so many people who just lie around hungry'," Mishra said.

Soon the Charaideo Police started a mission 'Food For All' wholeheartedly.

"After that, we started distributing food items to people in different places but still we missed something. So we made a list of poor but what happened was the same set of poor were getting the relief repeatedly because everybody had the same list. The same beneficiary was getting the foodstuff from everyone. Still, there were many people who were left out like homeless, beggars, differently-abled and even the animals. These people didn't have things like a ration card," he said.

"Initially, my officers joined me and we contributed from out salaries and figured out what we can feed them within that range. We started off with a nutritious khichdi. On the first day itself, we were surprised to see how many people were actually going without food. The reaction from those people was an emotional moment for all of us. Now we have this Food For All campaign running in eight police stations of Charaideo district. Now there are various different organisations which participate with us. Even officers from the neighbouring state of Arunachal Pradesh have contributed to our efforts in cash or kind. There are judges who have also contributed who don't want to be named. This whole effort is run by the society. Suddenly we have realised that there are so many nice people in the society. This has been a grand success. Only yesterday we fed over 2,000 people, 840 directly. And out of them we gave 500 people packed lunch so that they can take back home with them for those who could not come. We also have a mobile vehicle also which goes around to distribute food," Mishra said.

"Today (on Thursday) a local organisation came in and served Pulao and Shahi Paneer in Moranhat. The whole thing has been very encouraging. Society is feeling empowered. In our knowledge, there s no person who is sleeping hungry. The Assam government and the district administration are also doing an exceptionally good job," the Charaideo superintendent of police said. These acts of kindness are not limited to Charaideo alone. "On humanitarian grounds on a daily basis, we are providing help to needy people. We arrange for those people who don't have anything to eat. All ranks right up to the Home Guards have responded to my appeal and helping out many poor families. We have been arranging food for those people who are in quarantine including Horlicks, Cerelac for children and infants," said Kokrajhar superintendent of police Raushan.

Another key area where the police are helping out is getting medicines for the sick.

"Although pharmacies were open there are people who need medicines from faraway places. Everything is not available locally. This is a far-flung remote district in the country where things are not easily available. We don't have anything like Swiggy here. Whatever has to be done it has to be led by us only. We keep patrolling, we keep on moving. We have our own channels of communication across the police thanas. We can get things delivered by the patrolling teams also. I helped one fellow initially. The reaction I got from that person is food for the soul," the Charaideo superintendent of police said.

"People have started calling us up willing to volunteer. Someone even called us up to say if we allow them they can go and deliver medicines as they own two-wheelers. In the beginning, a few youths joined us, then a few paramedics and followed by the pharmacists and overnight we had a team of 30 people. This was something phenomenal for a district like Charaideo. In fact, just before you called there were two calls asking for medicines from Dibrugarh which we said we will get to them by evening. Beneath the khaki, we are also human beings. The police have now realised that if somebody is coming out he must have come out for some real exigency. Even if somebody is loitering around, now we counsel them why we are doing this and send them back home," said Mishra.

Tracing Tablighi Jamaat attendees and support from people

Unlike anywhere else in the country, the Tablighi Jamaat event in March in Delhi's Nizamuddin had sent the whole country into a tizzy including Assam. It necessitated an immediate action of tracing the attendees besides those who came in close contact with them. Assam had a whopping list of 831 and barring a few nearly all have been tracked down. Except for a very few cases where the attendees voluntarily came forward, it was the collaboration of the public and the police that helped majorly in getting hold of these people.

"We are getting a lot of community help because people are generally aware of the seriousness of the disease. A lot of people have informed us and they are also helping us. Apart from that, there are our usual ways and means. We have our people on the ground. There are Gaonburhas and other people in the village system. We are also seeking help from community leaders. Of course, we have technology also where everything else fails. But so far we have been getting help from the people in our district. It's a challenge but we have to find ways and means to do it. There is a lot of awareness on the ground also that it is important that these people are found as they can become major spreader," Kaur said.

"Whatever information we received so far we have done our own analysis and we are also getting information from other places. From Nizamuddin also information came like how many people of Assam went there and left. Information is flowing from above and also from the ground. We also tracked a few people whose names had not come from above and quarantined them and got them tested also. All the people we got to know from above that these many people from Nalbari have gone, we have been able to track them all," the Nalbari superintendent of police said.

"Apart from that whatever more people could have come from outside (the state) and those who have not returned yet and those have actually come back and not yet reported we are tracking them one by one. Many of them have been found and some of them have gone from Nizamuddin to some other state. We are sharing this information with our higher-ups so that it can be shared with other states and everybody is benefitted," Kaur said.

The Golaghat superintendent of police pointed out to another important factor.

"We are tracing them with the help of their neighbours and their mobile numbers. There is no problem as such. But the problem is we cannot just say how many are left to be traced. Suppose I was in there situation and I returned to my village on 22 March. If you ask me how many people I met yesterday in the normal course of the day it is very difficult to remember. The amount of information we are getting we are verifying with other people also. More or less we have traced most of them and if some are left we are trying to trace and quarantine them," said Singh highlighting on the risk of an individual becoming a spreader of the virus which has been globally acknowledged to be highly infectious.

Like for many districts in the country, the Tablighi Jamaat event managed to surprise the Kokrajhar Police as well.

"We got a list from a reliable source that 29 people attended the Tablighi Jamaat in Delhi. We have traced all of them and right now all are outside Assam. We have continuous watch over their locations. If they move we will know immediately. Some of them are in Indore, some in Kolkata and some in Delhi itself. We have advised them to be in quarantine and told them this is good for themselves and their family. There are two quarantine centres in Kokrajhar district -- Fakiragram and Srirampur. There are 467 people in quarantine in Srirampur and 107 in Fakiragram taking the total to 574 and most of them will be released if their health parameters permit," said Raushan.

The local mosques did play a key role in tracing the Tablighi Jamaat attendees in some places.

"We contacted the maulavis of each and every mosque to find out if anyone from their area visited Nizamuddin recently. They provided us with a list of names and accordingly we located these people. Whatever names were given to us we have traced them all. There were around 40 in Dibrugarh and we have detected all of them. There are two from Dibrugarh in Delhi now and a few are in Uttar Pradesh," Inspector Saikia said.

In many cases, the stigma that has come up along with the COVID-19 is also to be blamed.

"When people are quarantined they usually feel that they are being stigmatised. But that is not the case. Due to the availability of technology an individual can be traced relatively easily. In many cases, the organisations themselves have come forward to share the travel history of an individual so that they can be traced and effective action can be taken," said Baruah, a specialist on Community Medicine.

An image makeover

The coronavirus has come as an opportunity for the police to show their humane side. Overcoming initial hiccups it looks like the police are well on course to do that.

"Usually, police are despised by the people and they are talked about badly. Now we are getting respect. We are helping out people with genuine consideration without really asking for anything. Generally, the job of the police is negative. We have to punish, we have to hit. We don't give anything good that would make somebody really feel good. The things, which we are doing now make us feel good in return as well," said Mishra.

Seems the novel coronavirus can not only kill but also melt hearts too.

Updated Date:

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