Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon, PVSM, AVSM, VSM (Retd) Writes :
It has been three months since COVID-19 reached the Indian shores. Unlike many countries across the globe it has not so far overwhelmed India’s public health infrastructure though the possibility still exists. India’s law and order machinery has also been stretched and even when COVID-19 recedes, its after-effects could continue to challenge India’s internal security institutions, especially the police. It is not inconceivable that India could experience, widespread social unrest due to the economic downturn that could also, in some places, tango with an underlying communal and class divide.
The life of COVID-19 in India is unknown. But during and after the pandemic, major segments of India’s population and especially the poor would be angry, deprived, unemployed and displaced; some will even be hungry and homeless, and all will be staring at a bleak future. Life could appear intolerable. COVID-19’s journey has touched most of India, though unevenly in physical terms. But psychologically, it has impacted the entire population who have been subjected to a national level lockdown that has been stringently imposed but has contained and slowed down the spread and allowed for some preparation time for improving the public health infrastructure. But the psychological impact on individuals and communities has escaped the lockdown and could fertilise the soil of discontent in the days to come.
For sure, more could yet come, and considering the uncertainty attached to the threat posed, scaling up preparations for internal disturbances is prudence. The disturbances could be expected to be sporadic and distributed unevenly across the country with the danger that they could feed into each other, if not effectively managed. The police are already embattled, trying to keep the citizens to adhere to legal provisions of the lockdown that in essence deprives the citizens of the freedom of movement. Cases of police high-handedness have not been uncommon. The situation is unprecedented, and the undermanned, ill-equipped and untrained police have borne the brunt. The higher police authorities have an unenviable responsibility.
In many places, the police have been involved in the contact tracing operations, which have sometimes faced resistance and violence from people who are unwilling to be confined in government-managed community centres where conditions could be much below optimum. The problem for the police is further compounded by exposure to infected people with only masks for protection.
Preventing the eruption of social unrest during and the post COVID-19 periods is nested in the national ability to provide succour to citizens who are in a state of anguish, bewilderment, and are deeply anxious. However, the law and order machinery must proceed on the basis that despite all efforts made at all levels of government and society, things may go haywire in many places and could persist for long.
Intelligence at the grassroots level will be the key to prevention and control. The major intelligence challenge will be to deal with the speed at which disgruntled citizens could congregate and indulge in violence. The responsibility for effective intelligence gathering squarely rests at the state and district level. While COVID-19 hotspots are mapped at all levels of government, a similar exercise for internal disorder must also be carried out with the sensitivity criteria evolved at the state level to cater for the diversity of political and socio-economic conditions. The mapping should be dynamic, depending on the flow of intelligence. Even when the situation seems normal, mobilising community and local leaders by the state and district level functionaries could act as the bulwark for preventing trouble. However, both intelligence and efforts of local leaders can fail, and the situation may call for the primary internal coercive instrument of the State – the police.
Local police at the Thana-level is the first line for prevention and control. Their local knowledge and effectiveness as sources of intelligence, is their major strength. But their numbers are small and can easily be outstripped by mobs of angry and desperate youth. With more than 40 days of lockdown enforcement, the police could be at their wit’s end, tired and desperately in need of rest. Reinforcing local Thana strength should be undertaken swiftly but the question is how is this to be achieved? At the state level, the immediate resource available is the State Armed Police which could provide manpower to beef up the Thanas in the hot spots. The Thanas will continue to function under normal leadership with the beefing up providing some relief physically and mentally. The availability and effectiveness of such a measure would vary between states but would also depend on the numbers and spread of the colour of the trouble spots. The State Armed Police should be inducted by replacing them with the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF). There could be other resources available at the state level like the Home Guards, which should also be mobilised and if feasible replaced by resources from the Centre. In addition, relocation of CAPFs to potential trouble spots should also be implemented, if necessary.
It is heartening to note that despite 40 days of lockdown, not one bullet has been fired though teargas and lathi charge have had to be resorted to in some places. Considering the size and population of the country, this is commendable. It is also the case, that the people have shown forbearance and tolerance with the hardships they have had to suffer. The problem is that India is a young country and the young are not prone to show too much patience. The fear of COVID-19 that has kept them mellow might get overtaken by despair and hopelessness, in attempts to protest against their dismal circumstances.
The use of force by the police may become inevitable and may warrant other means other than the lathi. While the principle of minimum force should be the guide, the police force must also be sensitised to the nature of the mobs and deal with them as citizens and not as subjects. Technology provides a range of non-lethal weapons that can be useful, if we have them. One would reckon that we do not, at least not in the required quantities. The first move is to redistribute the existing holdings at the national and state levels, according to the trouble spots on the map. The second possibility is to import as we are doing for public health equipment. For the long term, we should lean on India’s scientific community to develop the weapons, have a quick decentralized approval system in place and allow production in both the public and private sectors.
In the war on COVD-19, there are many fronts. The focus on public health must not blind us to the multiple threats to law and order that the pathogen can beget. Till now, in terms of public health, India has been relatively successful because of the manageable numbers. But lockdown will have to be relaxed and the freedom of movement may provide the many sources of friction that would require police intervention. The economy will take time to restart and the people who prayed desperately to their gods for relief may succumb to their gloom and look for targets to vent their anger on. The frontline may shift from health workers to the men in Khaki. They must be prepared, for if they are not, the army will be called and that must be avoided.
Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon, PVSM, AVSM, VSM (Retd) is the Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution, Bangalore and former Military Adviser, National Security Council Secretariat.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation that he belongs to or of the USI of India.