Mumbai Police on the forefront in battle against pandemic
“3820 infections, 55 dead,” read the headline in a popular online newspaper. These figures didn’t refer to the scale of the spread of COVID-19 in a major metropolis or a small country but merely of that within the Mumbai Police. The city’s police force which is perhaps India’s most feted has borne the brunt of the disease due to their roles as frontline actors in the fight against the raging pandemic. The Mumbai Police force is not alone in its misery, police personnel across the country have fallen to the disease, often unsung and almost always unappreciated for the arterial role they’ve performed in meeting the challenge that has brought even the mightiest powers in the world to their knees.
The discourse in popular culture surrounding the police has always oscillated between two extremes, policemen have either been portrayed as either larger than life ‘Singhams’, in pursuit of justice with scant regard for their own safety or indeed, the law, or as potbellied thugs working on behalf of the evil antagonist. The media on the other hand often depicts an image of the police as state backed tormentors suffering from a colonial hangover and at the root of much of the evil that has befallen the republic. Where then does the truth lie? Who is today’s policeman and where does he fit in the gargantuan apparatus of the state? In order to answer these questions it is imperative that we locate the roles that a policeman is expected to perform in today’s day and age. The role of a cop begins at India’s outermost extremities. Every single land border that India shares with another country (with the exception of Myanmar) is secured by a police force designated for the purpose.
Whereas the Indio-Pakistan and Indo-Bangladesh borders fall within the area of responsibility of the Border Security Force, the Indo-Nepal border is secured by the Sashastra Seema Bal, and the Indo-China border falls within the AoR of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police. Each of these borders presents unique challenges to the forces that man them. The BSF, raised in 1965 by the legendary IPS officer KF Rustamji, finds itself engaged regularly by the Pakistan Army in cross-LoC fire and on quieter days by the famously savage Border Action Teams populated variously with army regulars as well as terrorists. It is also our first line of defence against smugglers of an assorted variety and strives to keep the country safe from the, often lethal objects of their trade such as drugs, arms, and the like.
On the China front, the ITBP is often subject to the hostile and uniquely disharmonious shenanigans of the Chinese PLA when its not battling the vagaries of nature in one of the worlds’ most inhospitable parts. Even a peaceful border brings to the police its own challenges. The SSB is on constant vigil against criminal gangs trafficking people, to the designs of the Pakistani ISI which leaves no route unexplored in seeking to infiltrate their malevolent spawn into India in pursuit of what passes for ‘strategic objectives’ in Aabpara. All this merely covers their role in times of peace, each of these organisations have also fought shoulder to shoulder with the armed forces in times of war.
The role of the BSF in training the Mukti Bahini and generating invaluable intelligence about the goings on with East Pakistan cannot be overstated. On the 9th of April 1965, the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) achieved a feat unheard of in global military history when a small contingent of the 2nd battalion of the force repulsed a brigade strength Pakistani attack on Sardar Post in the Rann of Kutch, killing 34 and capturing 4 Pakistan Army soldiers. On a different day and a different border a few years earlier on the 21st of October, 1959, affairs took a tragic turn when a combined patrol of the Intelligence Bureau and the CRPF was ambushed and killed by the Chinese PLA in Hot Springs, Ladakh. October 21st has since been observed as Police Commemoration Day, in remembrance of the policemen who gave up their lives in the frigid climes of Ladakh then and those who we’ve lost in the line of duty since.
Coming closer home it is important for us to understand the arterial role essayed by state and central police forces in keeping the Union secure from enemies within. Every single insurgency that has ever been crushed in India has been done through the intervention and under the leadership of its police forces.The CRPF, a central police force has been deployed in virtually every theatre of conflict in India. From the verdant valley of Kashmir to the jungles of Central India as well as the North East, the CRPF has ably assisted state police units in eliminating insurgencies that have, in some cases, lasted for the better part of the Republic’s existence.
In fact, so extensive is the deployment of the CRPF across the country that it is jocularly referred to by its personnel as the Chalte Raho Pyare Force! When it comes to insurgencies the role of the state police forces in ending them cannot be overstated. Any insurgency requires not just the establishment of physical control over territory but also the winning over of the hearts and minds of the people who form its political and material support base. No force that is largely drawn from outside of the conflict zone can hope to comprehensively do both. As the American diplomat Henry Kissinger once observed, the conventional army loses if it doesn’t win, the guerrilla wins if he doesn’t lose. It is important hence, that no element of the insurgency, political or military, is left to thrive. This is where state police forces have excelled. Their roots in their communities have not only helped them build intelligence networks amongst strife torn communities but also helped the counter-insurgency effort remain humane and measured. Ensuring that the process of defeating the insurgency doesn’t create more insurgents. Examples of Police successes in this regard abound across states in India. The state of Tripura for instance, was the worst hit by insurgencies in the 1990s. Far more so than Manipur, Nagaland, or Assam.
This was when the Tripura Police raised the Tripura State Rifles, a specialized counter-insurgent force consisting of locals from social backgrounds similar to that of the insurgents themselves. The result was that Tripura became the first state in the North East to remove AFSPA from the entire state in 2015, due to the comprehensive destruction of militancy there. The role of the Punjab Police led by the formidable KPS Gill in eliminating the pro-Khalistan terror groups has become the stuff of legend. Even the ‘Red Corridor,’ once reputed to have extended from the foothills of the Himalayas in Nepal to the Krishna-Godavari basin in Andhra has shrunk to miniscule proportions thanks to the efforts of police forces across states from Bihar to Andhra Pradesh.
The J&K Police meanwhile, has acquitted itself admirably in the manner by which they’ve managed to clamp down on an insurgency whose success or failure has ramifications far beyond the valley. The Special Operations Group of the force has become a byword for operational success and virtually every CI operation conducted there is made possible due to the intelligence gathering as well as operational capabilities of this unit. So deep is its intelligence network that it is rumored to have active intelligence sources within militant groups based in Pakistan! Its clear as day then that the geographical and political boundaries of our country have been kept in pristine order thanks to the consistent and relentless efforts of our police forces. Wars, insurgencies, intelligence gathering etc., are roles that the police performs in addition to their core function of enforcing the law which comes with its own set of challenges. As a developing country we face challenges that are typical of countries such as ours.
Unlike in wealthier nations where every contingency is dealt with a specific agency, where police-public ratios are manageable, where the police are equipped adequately, and training processes are lavishly funded, Indian police forces make do with what they get. Police in India have been historically and remain today, the most potent arm of the state.They are the first responders in every crisis whether it is a personal crisis faced by a citizen or a disaster, man-made or natural. Nowhere has this been experienced as clearly as in the states’ response to the COVID19 crisis. The police have not only enforced what has been dubbed the worlds’ most stringent lockdown, but also found the time to essay their regular functions.
What’s more, they have also gone out of their way to ensure that those who’re alone and vulnerable during the lockdown are made to feel less so by celebrating their birthdays and anniversaries with them. From ensuring that returning migrant workers are fed to celebrating birthdays and anniversaries with senior citizens complete, in some cases, with cakes and party hats.The latter has especially shown the humane side of the police force with netizens across the country lauding them for their kind overtures. The truth however, is this it is not a new phenomenon. Many states have institutionalized mechanisms by which the local police keeps a tab on the wellbeing of senior citizens who live alone and thus, regularly celebrate their life’s milestones with them. What of police apathy then? Or what about their brutal side?
In any democracy the police have to abide by the rule of law and remain professional at all times. But lets remember they are, before anything else, human. 12-16 hour shifts where they have to grapple with crisis after crisis, enforcing the law in a country where even issuing a simple traffic chalan to an errant driver is met with protests and threats, can take a toll. It would make even the most equanimous person irritable. India has made giant strides in the direction of speaking about mental health but this conversation seems to have excluded those who most desperately need to find a place within it. India’s police force is not perfect, far from it, but what it requires more than anything else is to be looked upon with empathy not disdain. A demonized police force is a demoralized police force. And India cannot afford for the members of one of its most critical institutions to be demoralized or feel beaten down. the police response to COVID19 has won them plaudits and many admirers, let’s not allow this moment to pass in vain.
Lets acknowledge the sacrifices that the force makes everyday to keep us safe, lets ensure that the conversation around reform is informed by kindness and understanding rather than by anger and ignorance. Prime Minister Modi in his Mann Ki Baat address on the 26th if April stated, “Our policemen today are feeding the poor, the needy, and providing medicines. The way the police are coming forward to help, the human and sensitive side of policing has emerged in front of us, has touched our hearts.” Lets hope for the sake of our republic that we don’t forget in a hurry the immense work that the police have indeed put in. Now and always.