Bengaluru: Karnataka Director General of Police (DGP) Praveen Sood believes police personnel who die in the line of Covid-19 duty deserve martyr status.
Speaking to ThePrint, Sood was responding to a query on Maharashtra’s decision to award emergency service medals to police personnel who contracted Covid-19 while on duty and subsequently succumbed to the virus.
“While discharging their duties, they put their lives at risk. This is no less than a war, but of a bigger and different kind. I completely agree with Maharashtra… that that those who have lost their lives while in the line of duty should be given martyr status,” he said. “It is no less than shahaadat (martyrdom),” Sood said.
By virtue of their job, the police have served a crucial role during the Covid-19 pandemic, especially with respect to implementing the unprecedented complete lockdown announced by the central government.
As of 21 June, as many as 132 policemen in Karnataka had been diagnosed with Covid-19, with at least three fatalities. In Maharashtra, the state worst affected by coronavirus, the figure stands at 4,103 diagnoses among police personnel and as many as 48 deaths.
“It is sad to say that, until today, we have lost three of our brave men to the virus. But this has not stopped any of them from serving the people day and night, leaving their families at home,” said Sood. “As police, we are hoping to keep all of you safe, while risking our men’s lives.”
‘Unlike other wars’
Sood said the battle against coronavirus is “unlike other wars”, adding that it is directed at an unknown enemy. Those in the line of duty have no idea when and where they will be infected, he added, noting that police personnel have nevertheless been working tirelessly to ensure people stay home and are safe.
“Along with the medical officers and Covid warriors, our policemen are also extremely vulnerable as they are stationed or sent to areas that maybe infected to ensure the safety of people or just maintain law and order,” he said.
Sood cited an example from Shivamogga, where he said several police personnel had contracted the infection while helping an alleged rape victim.
After the woman was rescued, the police officer leading the effort took her to the closest hospital in his jeep. A few days later, the victim tested Covid-19 positive, Sood said.
“From the superintendent of police to the constable, we had to send each officer for a test, quarantine them and send replacements,” Sood added.
There was also a Covid-19 scare among police personnel following an incident reported on 19 April from Bengaluru’s Padarayanapura locality, which had been identified as a hotspot.
A mob in the locality allegedly resorted to vandalism and chased away health workers who had arrived to quarantine the secondary contacts of a deceased Covid-19 patient. The contacts refused to accompany health officials to quarantine centres and police had to be rushed in to control the situation.
Of the 120 people subsequently arrested for vandalism, two tested positive, sending the police department into a tizzy. However, the over 100 police personnel who had helped round up the alleged vandals eventually tested negative.
As a precaution, Sood said, all police personnel above the age of 55 have been asked to go on leave as they fall in the vulnerable category.
“Chief Minister B.S. Yediyurappa has also announced a compensation of Rs 50 lakh to those personnel who have died of Covid infection while in the line of duty,” he added.
According to Sood, the Covid-19 pandemic has seen police assume roles “they had never imagined”.
“Never did we imagine that we would be involved in matters that were not related to policing. We are part of the decision-making process along with the chief secretary, CM and other health officials,” he said.
“Our rapid response vehicles, also called Hoysalas, became ambulances to transport non-Covid patients to hospitals if they needed treatment, our police stations became food centres and lakhs of food packets were distributed to the poor and hungry, then the stations became railway booking counters when the Shramik trains (to take migrants home) began,” he added. “Our men had compassion and were supportive of people in trouble.”
‘Strict action required to tackle violations’
Karnataka, especially capital Bengaluru, is believed to be doing much better than other states in its Covid-control efforts. As of Monday, the state had recorded 9,157 coronavirus cases, of which over 5,600 have been cured. The number of active cases stood at 3,395 Monday, with 137 deaths so far.
However, police role in the lockdown effort has often come under the scanner for alleged excesses. In the initial days of the lockdown towards March-end, a man was shot at in Bengaluru’s Sanjaynagar when he allegedly brutally assaulted police personnel while trying to flee custody.
He had reportedly been arrested on the first day of the lockdown with another man for allegedly assaulting police.
According to the police, they tried to catch the two as they were trying to escape barricades while doing wheelies on their bikes. Seen breaching a checkpost in Bhoopasandra area, they allegedly threw stones and bricks at the police when the latter tried to chase them. The police said one of them was shot in the leg when they tried to flee once caught.
In Yeshwanthpur, another man while being screened allegedly tried to create panic by saying he would touch all the police personnel and other people present there to spread the disease. The man was arrested after much resistance.
On 27 April, CRPF commando Sachin Savant was pulled up by the police in Belagavi for allegedly violating lockdown norms by not wearing a mask in a public space.
There was major outrage amid reports that Savant was thrashed, paraded in public and later chained at the local police station.
The Belagavi superintendent of police had, however, defended the arrest, saying Savant had kicked a constable in the stomach. This claim was later corroborated with video evidence shot by some local residents.
Sood acknowledged that the police did resort to force at times, but noted that people tried to violate the lockdown in many areas. Had the police not come down heavily on the violators, he said, it would have sped up the transmission of the virus in the state.
Many times, Sood added, people judge police too harshly. The DGP said the force had faced resistance at every step, from ensuring an absolutely stringent state lockdown, rounding up primary and secondary contacts of Covid-19 patients, and getting Tablighi Jamaat members to undergo tests and quarantine, to ensuring a smooth journey home for migrant labourers.
However, he added, “it was handled well and today the perception of people towards police has changed”.
“On 5 May, when we were comparing the way we enforced the lockdown compared to other states, the data on the number of positive cases as well as those in quarantine showed how our strict action helped bring the virus under control,” he said.
“Karnataka’s contact tracing has been given a lot of credit, police have a role to play in that as well. We faced resistance at every point, but finally people seem to be coming around to understanding why police had to come down heavily on them.”
The secret of Karnataka’s success
A five-T mantra — Tracing, Testing, Tracking, Treatment and Technology — has been credited with making Karnataka’s Covid battle a success, but Sood said there was a sixth ‘T’ as well, the Tablighi Jamaat.
An Islamic missionary organisation headquartered at the Nizamuddin Markaz in Delhi, the Tablighi Jamaat was linked to an early spurt in India’s Covid-19 case load after they went ahead with an annual congregation mid-March in violation of social-distancing guidelines issued by the Delhi government in the days before.
“The way we handled the Tablighi Jamaat issue has been different from other states,” Sood said.
Immediately after the Tablighi incident came to light, the DGP claimed, he received “classified information” regarding the identity of 1,300 people who had attended the congregation.
The strategy they adopted was simple, he said. They shared the entire list of names, phone numbers and addresses with district officials overnight, he said, adding that they had traced 807 members in Karnataka itself “within 24 hours”.
The rest were traced to other states by the next day and the police chiefs concerned were informed to move those individuals into quarantine, he added.
“Fifty-seven were foreigners, 750 were Kannadigas who had gone to the markaz and returned. The 500 who were missing, we used technology to trace them and establish their locations in other states and ensure they were quarantined there itself,” Sood added.
“I would say that, within 48 hours, 100 per cent of those members from Karnataka who were part of the Tablighi Jamaat congregation had reached quarantine centres.”
This report has been updated to correct the age threshold for policemen sent on leave and the compensation announced by the Karnataka government for police personnel who die of coronavirus.