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Now playing: The Police

Vishnupriya Sengupta | Updated on April 10, 2020 Published on April 10, 2020

Force to reckon with: The ongoing global health crisis is a litmus test for the country’s police forces   -  R RAVINDRAN / THE HINDU

Mics have replaced batons, as cops, battling an invisible enemy and extraordinary circumstances, sing to spread the word about Covid-19

It’s around six in the evening. The streetlights on a lane in Gariahat, a neighbourhood in South Kolkata, have just flickered to life. The otherwise busy residential area is a picture of eerie calm on the 10th day of the nationwide lockdown. The tea stalls are shut, the footpaths are empty and even frisky stray dogs lie motionless.

 

The arrival of a group of men, in starched white uniforms and face masks, is the first conspicuous sign of activity that evening. It seems like they are on patrol duty — only until they start playing a track on small black speakers. On cue, a couple of microphones appear in the hands of two officers, and one of them, with the confidence of a seasoned performer, starts singing: “Bishwe ekhon mahamari Bela shunchho, ekhon ar keu atkate parchhe na, WHO bolechhe bhorsha ekhon Bharat, Italy kimba America parchhe na (there is a global pandemic, do you hear, Bela?/ No one is able to stop it/ WHO says India is the only hope/ Neither Italy nor America is of help)”.

The song, set to the tune of a popular Bengali number from the ’90s, immediately draws residents of the neighbourhood to their windows and balconies while the non-singers in the police team encourage the audience to clap as they stand and listen.

Within minutes of the surprise performance, videos from various neighbourhoods in Kolkata start crowding social media — all of them showing Kolkata Police using popular songs to raise awareness around Covid-19.

Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention. And the mother of innovation is probably a scenario that no one has dreamt of or perhaps seen only in dystopian films. The ongoing global health crisis is an acid test for the country’s police forces, who have been tasked with enforcing the lockdown. The police now find themselves at a completely new frontline, where they are battling an invisible enemy, working around the clock without standard operating procedures, grappling with “out of syllabus questions” from the public and also drawing flak, in several instances, for lack of compassion and understanding in dealing with civilians, especially migrant workers and staff delivering essential goods.

“It is easier to deal with crime and chase crooks than handle this unprecedented scenario,” Soumya Banerjee, officer in charge, Gariahat police station, says. Of late, he has been known more for his rendition of the reworded version of popular singer-composer Anjan Dutt’s Bela Bose. “It was our police commissioner’s [Anuj Sharma] idea, possibly taking a leaf out of the Spanish police’s book (referring to videos of cops singing to residents in quarantine in one of the worst-affected countries). He wanted us to devise ways and means to ensure that people understand the gravity of the situation and stay home,” Banerjee explains.

Keep the faith: Apart from Bela Bose, other songs were put to good use by the men-in-white crooners in different parts of Kolkata   -  IMAGE COURTESY: KOLKATA POLICE

 

With that clear directive, it was in office that Banerjee along with two of his colleagues zeroed in on the Bela Bose number — “as it was easy to sing”. They changed the lyrics overnight. “We found a track on the Internet, rehearsed a couple of times. All of this alongside our day job. None of us had ever performed on stage but for us, this was more a call of duty,” Banerjee adds.

The call of duty prompted a call to action on the people front. It helped build trust and those who were initially being unreasonable and obstinate got the message. They responded positively to this unusual gesture, applauding the police for this show of talent. Apart from Bela Bose, other songs — from We Shall Overcome, heard in almost every protest rally and political gathering to Halla Raja from the Satyajit Ray film, Gupi Gayen Bagha Bayen — were put to good use by the men-in-white crooners in different parts of the city.

The Kolkata Police has been no exception. A group of policemen in Kerala danced to a Malayalam song about the need for washing hands in a March video. A police sub-inspector sang in Punjabi on the novel coronavirus in a video that’s gone viral, while an officer in Chhattisgarh turned a popular Hindi song — Ek Pyar Ka Nagma Hai — into a message on defeating Covid-19.

Good cop: Across states, the image of the police personnel has got a significant facelift   -  VENKATACHALAPATHY / THE HINDU

 

Across states, the image of the police personnel has got a significant facelift. The earliest images after the lockdown showed men in khaki ruthlessly caning bikers on the roads. But the needle has moved considerably — from baton-wielder to “messiah” in some states, “good Samaritan” in others. Toiling hours on end to ensure the safety of the citizens, they have also been going out of their way to show their humane side.

From ensuring that senior citizens have medicines delivered to their doorstep to feeding stray animals and helping families that have to deal with bereavement, they have been walking that extra mile, at times even risking their lives to help the common man.

Social media has been generous with both appreciation and criticism for the #Coronawarriors in uniform. Several have spoken out against cases where police have used lathis on migrant workers who left cities in big numbers after the Centre’s decision to impose lockdown from March 24. Video clips of constables abusing and punishing people out on the roads were loudly criticised.

But many also heaped praise on cops who have been sleeping behind barricades on empty streets or eating outside their quarters to avoid contact with family members — images shared widely on social media.

Take the case of Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) personnel, who had been put in charge of screening air passengers arriving from other countries for Covid-19 symptoms. “In Mumbai like elsewhere they were not prepared to grapple with this sudden turn of events. Owing to a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), a few of our men got infected and had to be quarantined,” says a CISF official, adding that most of them have families that depend on their earnings alone.

“The pandemic has come without a warning,” says Shantanu Mukharji, retired IPS officer. “We have faced natural calamities such as the tsunami but nothing of this nature or scale. Given this scenario, the police across the country are doing a commendable job — considering they are equally vulnerable, do not have PPE, nor any specific guidelines,” he adds.

Prakash Singh, chairman of the Indian Police Foundation, and former director general of police, agrees. Singh, known for the police reforms he has initiated over the years, says, “There has been neither a precedent of any such operation, nor any standard operating procedures. We noticed the lacuna and framed a pandemic preparedness plan on what all could be done by the police forces in the country under the prevailing circumstances and have shared that with the states.”

That has yielded some results. “Apart from creating awareness, buying groceries for those who are infirm or living alone, we have also tied up with local clubs, at times, NGOs, and are distributing food in slums and areas where there are daily wage earners,” says Jayanta Ghosh, the officer in charge of the Lake police station in Kolkata.

In the initial days, when the pandemic just broke out, the police were seen more as baton-wielders. That is when Singh issued a letter to all DGPs mentioning the need to maintain unrelenting vigil but with empathy and compassion.

The letter dated April 2, 2020, states: “Police and health services are in the forefront of this battle against Coronavirus... Policemen, in the present environment, should not be using force in any situation which has arisen out of the pandemic except when it degenerates into a purely law and order situation and there is no option but to use force to bring the situation under control... If someone is found violating the restrictions he should be told, sternly if necessary, to go home and not be beaten up... Making people leap-frog or do murga position are frowned upon today as reflective of a feudal mindset. These must be avoided...”

The police it appears has paid heed and are availing of this opportunity to reduce the trust deficit that has set in. “They have certainly risen to the occasion,” emphasises Mukharji.

Praveen Dixit, former DGP, Maharashtra, agrees. “Everyone including the police are trying to cope with this difficult time. Unfortunately for various reasons, affected people as well as some sections are not cooperating with the directions being issued for coming forward and reporting to health authorities or maintaining lockout,” he says. In times such as these, cooperation has to be a two-way street, Dixit adds. Citizens have as important a role to play as the healthcare and essential service providers, along with the police force.

Dixit contends that while efforts are being made to provide protective gear to police who are the first respondents on streets, these are not enough. “Certain state governments have announced insurance for policemen. This needs to be done by all states and the Centre to boost the morale of the police. It should also include their family members so that they would fight the battle wholeheartedly.”

That is some food for thought. Meanwhile, however, there is music to help make their jobs a little less stressful. And even the funky Corona helmets, used by the police in Chennai, to give themselves and the public a rare moment of laughter amid the overall gloom.

Vishnupriya Sengupta is an independent researcher and works for a professional services firm

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Published on April 10, 2020
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