High time police become responsible, reflect and change

Braj Bhushan, Shri Deva Raj Chair, Professor of Psychology and head of Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Kanpur

The COVID-19 has threatened lives, liberties, and livelihood of people across the globe. To prevent the outbreak of the COVID-19 in our country, Prime Minister Narendra Modi first requested for a public curfew on March 22 and then announced a 3-week lockdown on March 24 and a 19-day further extension on April 14. While the Prime Minister has been globally commended for his foresight and intervention, the nation has witnessed some unprecedented and many unacceptable behaviours as illustrated by the following news.

Right on the first day of the ockdown, on 25 March, a woman bit and spitted at the policemen in Kolkata when the rented car in which she was travelling was stopped by the police for defying the nationwide lockdown. The women and her friend had come to Salt Lake from Ballygunge for medicine. However, she failed to produce any medical prescription. A week later a medical team was attacked in Indore on 3 April. On 7 April a doctor was attacked in Bariyatu locality of Ranchi in Jharkhand. The attackers also spitted at the doctor. On 13 April hundreds of people blocked National Highway- 31 near Biharsharief Pahadi and attached policemen. They were protesting against police excess during lockdown. On 14 April over 100 people attacked policemen in Nalanda district at a quarantine centre. On 15 April policemen and medical team were attacked by villagers in East Champaran in Bihar. The villagers were outraged at the non-distribution of ration from Public Distribution System (PDS) shops. Policemen and three-member medical team was attacked in Aurangabad district of Bihar. The team had gone to screen a villager who had recently returned from Delhi.

On 16 April a medical team and policemen were attacked in Nawabpura locality in Moradabad city injuring four members of the medical team and three policemen. On 18 April three policemen patrolling in Kasai Mohalla in Tonk in Rajasthan were attacked.The police termed it as a case of misunderstanding as there was rumour on the social media that some people are targeting Muslims. On 22 April there were news of clash between the locals and policemen in North 24 Pargana of West Bengal, Patna in Bihar, Aligarh and Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh, and Sagar in Madhya Pradesh.

The picture has a brighter side as well. At few places flower petals were showered at the medical team and policemen. However, the incidence of violent clash outnumbers the episodes of showering petals. The foregoing deviant behaviour raise several questions. Why are the saviours targeted and that too mostly by suspects or those in the hotspots? What overpowers the perception of risk of getting infected by COVID-19 which make the suspect or their well-wishers attack the medical team? Why are policemen being attacked?  

Let us look at the composition of saviours separately. Violent attack on doctors and rampage in nursing homes is not a rare event in India. Assault on police force is not rare either. In fact, both of these groups have sporadically been assaulted and it is usually accepted as a professional hazard. Government hospitals have negative image among the public, and the very same hospitals are now safeguarding them against the pandemic. The image of police force is also largely negative. These two sets of professionals who have routinely been stereotyped as inefficient and substandard are now clubbed together to implement the locality-specific pandemic control procedures. Would an individual or group hesitate turning offensive if they have done so in the past or have been a witness to it with such stereotyped groups?  

The series of such events involving healthcare workers and policemen brings us to a point where we should look at situations creating social-ethical problems where behaviour of individuals or groups, their attitude, and trust in the scientific evidence-based knowledge clash. The world became aware of the COVID-19 at the beginning of the year itself. The first response from the Indian government to the pandemic was in early January and the mass became aware of it when the lockdown was tried as a public curfew. The formal decision on lockdown was supposedly taken in consultation with the health experts and the scientists. As scientific arguments do not easily penetrate public debates, communicating evidence-based policy to the public at large and expecting adherence from them becomes extremely challenging.

When a common man has to trust the information and advisory coming from a source, they are likely to think of their expertise level before trusting what they say. Here, source credibility, a function of expertise and trustworthiness, is vital. Sociologist Harry Collins has described the interaction between society and expertise, referring to technocratic fascism and technological populism. When technical experts have monopoly and their decisions do not take political negotiation into account, it leads to technocratic fascism. On the other hand, technological populism does not take scientific expert’s role in public policy debate. Collins argue that mistrust in the scientists empower scientific populism. He also refers to how someone is considered an expert and, in that context, he refers to contributory and interactional expertise.

Contributory experts have the needed competence for the task; interactional experts, in contrast, have the capability of meaningful conversation regardless of their knowledge of the issue. The regular press briefing by the Government of India has made the public familiar with three faces—the Joint Secretaries of Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, and Ministry of Home Affairs, and the Head of the Epidemiology and Communicable Diseases-I (ECD-I), Division of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). This group is a combination of contributory and interactional experts. How does it help a common man perceive credibility of the source? We have seen the explanation provided by sociologists. So, the scientific information and updates come from the medical expert while administrative and other stuff comes from the bureaucrats. But then comes update such as the failure of fast-track test kits, management of patients, etc., which destabilizes the source credibility. It is important to keep in mind that the localities where such attacks have taken place have also witnessed increase in the number of corona positive cases. For instance, in a span of 20 days Indore has seen a jump in Covid-19 positive cases from 4 on March 24 to 900. Increase in number of positive cases have also been reported from Moradabad and other places. Combined with the unfavourable attitude towards the government healthcare mechanism, lowering of faith in source credibility could be the dominant reason which does not allow self-prohibition on attack on medical team.

Where do policemen fall? They are neither of the two kinds of experts, yet they have an obligation of performing their duties and in that context, they keep advising people beside enforcing the lockdown. Police has a perception in the eyes of a common man. It represents state’s agency which has the role in implementing whatever the state instructs irrespective of whether it is popular among the mass or not. Thus, assuming an advisory coming from that source to augment risk perception is more than what one should expect. Unless one perceives the risk of COVID-19, ensuring compliance to precautionary measures would remain a challenge for the police. The agency which was into law and order finds itself in a role reversal.

The same policemen are supposed to ensure precautionary and preventive measures as part of their duty. The context has changed, but the force remains the same. Is the unfavourable attitude not allowing them gain public support and thus they are becoming prey to their attack? Perhaps the conglomeration of lower source credibility in science or system does not seem to help people develop confidence in the joint team of healthcare workers and policemen. This experience guides us to recalibrate our strategy. The Source, Message, and Audience, all have their own importance; the message itself is not enough. Attack is a case of boomerang of the message wrapped in attitudinal predisposition. 

Sincere thanks to Ramadhar Singh, Distinguished University Professor at the Ahmedabad University, for his comments on early version of this article.


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