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With the onslaught of the massive pandemic worldwide, state and central police forces’ activities increased significantly in India. From the street corner to the deep alleys, the police became one of the frontline forces having close proximity with the suspected victims and also with communities. While describing the exercise of power by the state apparatus on public, Foucault, the French historian and philosopher asserts, “We should not forget that in the eighteenth century the police force was not invented only for maintaining law and order, nor for assisting governments in their struggle against their enemies, but for assuring urban supplies, hygiene, health, and standards considered necessary for handicrafts and commerce” (The subject and power, p784).
Pondering upon the huge impact of the first wave and the ongoing second wave, we can see a close resonance of Foucault’s words in our present condition: the pandemic, nationwide lockdown, stay-at-home orders, curfew, and the overcrowded vaccination centers. This new avatar of police forces started to be seen, initially, with the awareness campaign during the first wave of the corona. Several creative re-creations of popular songs and dance numbers were performed by the police at the street corners, residential areas, markets, and other public spaces. Kolkata police gave a twist to Anjan Dutt’s iconic song ‘Bela Bose’ and cheered up the citizens staying inside the home during the national lockdown. The initiative taken by the Gariahat police station was acclaimed worldwide and shared by the Kolkata Police Twitter handle. Similarly, the celebrated song from Satyajit Ray’s Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1969) ‘O re sahar basi (Oh, the city dwellers)’ was deftly modified by the Rabindra Sarobar Police Station to reinstall patience and faith in the citizens.
Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra police also adapted the popular Bollywood number ‘Zindagi maut na ban jaye Yaaro’(Friends beware, life should not become death)’ from the 1999 Amir Khan action-drama Sarfarosh and made it a corona awareness song.
Few more popular reincarnations of songs like, ‘Ae Mere Humsafar’ from the film Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988) to “Ae mere deshbaisyo, ghar me hi tum raho. Bahar coronavirus hain, bahar na niklo (O my countrymen! you stay at home. Coronavirus is out there, do not come out)” by the MP Police; ‘Mera mulk, mera desh, mera ye watan (My country, my homeland)’ from the film Diljale (1996) by the Andaman Nicobar Police; and many more were modified and sung by Indian policemen to spread awareness as well as to keep people positive during the new-normal.
The Kerala police went a step ahead in this new creative exploration came up with a unique dance number, and the official uploaded video became an instant hit. Following a similar line, police from Chhattisgarh, Pune, Delhi and other states and cities, also made us experience a new creative side of them: an experience like roadside concert even in the lockdown. Not only in India but also the Spanish policemen were seen singing on the empty street of Majorca during their nationwide lockdown.
Holding placards, wearing coronavirus-inspired helmets, donning the attire of the Yamraj ( the god of death in Hindu lore), and the pop-cultural renderings of singing and dancing are the innovative side of the police, directing us towards a new orientation and new conception of the word ‘police’. Owing its origin to the Medieval Latin ‘politia’ meaning citizenship or government, it has changed its significance a lot with time. In the past few decades with growing urban violence, Maoist upsurge in several parts of India, student protest in the premier institutions, and communal combats around events and organisations, the term police and its social significance tend towards a more limited understanding of law, order, and control.
The ongoing pandemic presents before us a new image of police who sing songs, deliver food, campaign for health awareness, assist the migrants with food, water, and shelter; quite a close rendering of the words of Foucault, showing a new compassionate side of them. While we are disturbed, both physically and mentally, watching the viral videos of lathi-charge following the Tablighi Jamaat, huge mass gathering at Bandra (Mumbai) or Anand Vihar, or the farmers’ protest at Delhi, we should also look at the other side of the coin: a new public role that Indian police have been assigned.
Lokmani, a low-income wage-earning woman in Andhra Pradesh, giving cold drinks to the on-duty policeman with affection, was a warm acceptance of this new role: a mutual exchange of respect and care. The Indian police, which is often criticized for rudeness, bribery, and high-handedness, has to be seen from a more humane angle during this ongoing pandemic. A report prepared collectively by Hanns Seidel Foundation and Janaagraha Trust in Bangalore suggests that ninety percent of the surveyed citizens are accepting the police from a new positive perspective. A similar narrative prevails almost throughout the globe.
But what is the new lesson to be learned? It is something that demands mutual consents from both the government and the citizens. What corona taught us is a new image of the police and thus refers to a reformed legal sensibility that we all should bring into existence and carry forward. Our popular Bollywood films have often presented the hero figure or the ‘saviour’ image of police in the hits like Singham, Mardaani, Simba to Article 15, and many others. But when it comes to the real scenario of the police-public relationship, the narrative is quite different.
They are seen as the ‘privileged alien forces’ who are an obstacle to the smooth life conduct of general citizens. Similarly, the police station is also perceived as a place of fear and terror. The different spectacle of ‘policing’ by the police and other contextual brutalities created a fear-figure of them, very authentically. In our childhood, policemen were used to instill fear in us. This was probably the start of imbibing the ‘fearful-figure’ syndrome into our minds. But it is essential to bridge the gulf between reel life and real life, and the corona crisis provides us an idiom for that. This new attentiveness of the police towards the public, their different methods of spreading awareness, helping families in cremation, and other pandemic related help have made them a new emblem of hope and courage. As the Commissioner of Delhi Police, SN Shrivastava tweeted recently, “Policemen are living upto the motto of ‘Service’, even though it entails risk to their own safety. Despite many of them falling sick, it has not dented their morale and desire to help citizens gasping for breath. They are the ultimate saviour.”
On our part, we need to transform our concept of tyranny associated with policemen to a more humane identification of these men as our local guardians or local legal representatives. The government, on their part, should ensure the same by giving a permissible space where the local police and administration can frolic at ease. The police, because of its proximity to the public, can become a significant tool for public health, risk management, and other inclusive public services. The legal system could re-animate its view of law and police, from as an over-autonomous power which is separate and self-contained, to a kinder configuration where they are more constructive, interpretative, and contextual: rooted in the local life, local necessities. It is like giving the police more power: power to become more humane.
However, though this will not change mindsets overnight, it widens the possibility of making the police and the citizens work for each other in the future. Hopefully, corona will respond one day by becoming endemic or disappearing, to either the ‘Go Corona, Corona Go’ chanting at the Gateway of India, or to the vaccination drive (the sooner, the better), but the new affinity that is building up between the police and the civilian should be retained for a better future. As the corona crisis continues to hover, it has proven that we could learn to build a reciprocal sensibility between police and public for the benefit of both.
Whenever the necessity comes, we should again be together with a safe distance and sing with the Chhattisgarh cop, “Ek pyar ka nagma hai, hum sabne ye thana hain, milke ab humko corona ko harana hain (This is a song of love, we have all decided in unison, together we need to defeat corona).”
Subhankar Dutta is a Research Scholar and Teaching Assistant at Humanities and Social Sciences Department, IIT Bombay. For more details, please visit the link. https://subhankarduttas.wordpress.com/
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