To a man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. To the Indian Police, every situation can be solved with a bit of violence. That seems to be the dictum of police authorities around the country, as India enters Day 2 of the three-week lockdown announced on Tuesday by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Pictures and videos have emerged from around the country of people being brutally hit by lathis, of doctors being assaulted and of vegetable vendors being slapped around and extorted for bribes.

As the country faces a potential rise in the number of coronavirus cases and as millions worry about how they will access basic needs like food and water during the shutdown, Indians have added an additional worry: the fear of arbitrary state violence, even for those who are out on the streets for a good reason.

This is no doubt a challenging moment for the police. Governments, central and state, seemed to change their approach to the national situation over the span of just one day, moving from a self-imposed “janata curfew” to a 21-day curfew in the much more traditional sense.

But this was done with seemingly little planning. The prime minister himself had to send out messages asking Indians not to panic after he failed to explain how residents can access essential services during a three-week stay-at-home period.

Moreover, getting the message across to people is hard. Those with some experience of curfews may think of the restrictions in the older sense of staying indoors for a fixed period and then being allowed out during a relaxation period in the evening.

Many others may not understand the reason for a lockdown to combat an infectious disease, the actions of a foolhardy individual or group could harm a much wider community.

But this is no cause for the state to pull out its lathis and start hitting everyone in sight. One police officer even posted a video online of him sanitising a lathi, only to delete it later.

Public health emergencies are complex situations, yet they are ultimately for our own good – they are not meant to be punishment. Police departments around the country have attempted innovative ways to shame people about their violations, from handing them a rose to making them pose with placards that say “I am endangering everyone.”

But persuading people rather than beating them into submission requires thoughtful, compassionate leadership that understands how to convey that they should be staying indoors is for their own good. And we are severely lacking for compassionate leadership right now.

The state violence is unacceptable.

  • It is simply wrong. The state cannot arbitrarily exercise violence on people. People all over the world are being asked to stay indoors. Yet, in just one day, India seems to experienced a great many instances of police brutality. What does that tell us?
  • It is counterproductive. Beating up delivery personnel and vegetable vendors endangers the supply of essential goods. Moreover, three weeks is a long time. People are going to need to make their way out of the house to buy food and medicines.
    But if stepping out could lead to violence from the state, people might stop listening to official directions and look at other means. Above everything, the state needs cooperation right now. Arbitrary assaults will not help make the case.
  • It tells us that authorities have not planned. This is yet another example of how little preparation went into India’s 21-day lockdown. The Centre could have worked with the states to discuss best practices when it comes to keeping people indoors, innovative police departments might have passed on methods to others, police officers everywhere should have been trained.
    Yet all this is happening after the announcement and in a haphazard manners.

The Indian authorities – politicians, bureaucrats and the heads of police departments – need to immediately move to make their staff aware of why violence is impermissible. India should be hoping to make it out of this three-week lockdown as unscathed by Covid-19 as possible – and without any bruises from police lathis.