How India’s Police Used a Pandemic to Boost Its Image

In India’s capital, New Delhi, a sprawling city of more than 20 million people, coronavirus cases continue to rise. And the police are seemingly everywhere. They’re manning hundreds of checkpoints, and running patrols all across the city. I’m Jeffrey Gettleman, the South Asia bureau chief for The New York Times, based in Delhi. We’re riding with a team rushing to a Covid distress call. Now when someone gets sick, police are often the first to respond. We arrive at this densely populated neighborhood. People have gathered to watch. This kind of call is completely new for the police. They’re now coordinating medical transport, preparing and serving meals to lockdown communities, sewing and distributing masks, and whatever else is deemed necessary to respond to a city in the throes of a major crisis. I’ve been covering India for three years, and I have to say, I was surprised to see the police in this completely different role. Just a few months ago, members of the same police force were caught on camera, beating students at a mostly Muslim university. Those big sticks are called lathis, and the Delhi police have a reputation for using them. This incident sparked nationwide protests, and religious violence between Hindus and Muslims. “Police in the Indian capital, Delhi, acted alongside Hindu rioters.” “This Muslim man was beaten to death by the police.” The police were roundly vilified for siding with Hindu mobs. Many Indians see the force as an agent of what they consider the government’s anti-Muslim agenda. So I wasn’t sure what to think when all of a sudden I started seeing signs all over the city that said “Delhi Police, Dil Ki Police,” or the “police of heart.” It’s a whole new campaign to rehabilitate the reputation of what’s probably the most powerful police force in the entire country. They’ve put up billboards along major highways, and they’ve been making slick social media videos. It’s like they’re saying the Delhi police aren’t the enemy here. The virus is, and we’re here to help. The police are responding to a staggering need. One of the hardest edges of India’s virus crisis has been the poverty. You see hungry people everywhere, lining up for food in the sweltering heat. Reporter: “Are you feeling hungry right now?” Interpreter: “Yes.” Reporter: “When was the last time you ate?” Interpreter: “I ate last night.” For millions of Indians, the lockdown has left them jobless. But there are some signs that the new campaign is working. Reporter: “When you get older, what kind of work would you like to do?” But still, there is a lot of fear. And I wanted to see how people were feeling in the parts of the city that had been hit by the riots where many Muslims were killed. This whole part of the city still feels wounded. You see the scars of the violence almost everywhere you look. Shahjad is a Muslim shopkeeper who still remembers the evening when a Hindu mob burned down his shop. He says the police did nothing. Reporter: “I’m sorry.” He had lost everything. His entire shop was burned. Shahjad says that it’s impossible for him to forget how the police abandoned him, and many others here, at their time of need. We talked to the chief of the Delhi police, who continues to insist his officers did nothing wrong during the unrest. “You see, the officers, then, with all the good intentions, with all the information, intelligence that they had, they acted as per the situation.” But off camera, police commanders told us that the criticism of the police’s role and the religious violence lowered morale among the rank and file. Some told us that this was one of the main reasons why the new police-of-heart campaign was started. Still, it’s unclear if the rebranding effort will work. I met N.K. Singh. He’s a former police chief himself and an ex-politician. He was skeptical. As the strict lockdown orders begin to ease, Delhi’s police will have a new challenge: enforcing social distancing in one of the world’s most crowded cities. And that might make their new campaign harder to maintain. As we stopped by this neighborhood where a liquor store had reopened for the first time in weeks, we saw a long line of people, and with lathis in hand, the police, back to business as usual.

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