Epidemic Act 1897

While we are bracing for a life in masks it seems unlikely that the restrictions in place will be revoked fully in the near future. It may be the only way around to prevent further damage, but like everything else the police excesses have dominated the headlines for several times during the lockdown period. Though a section of the people can argue that this was done in good faith but for a democracy it is not a good indication to have so many reports of atrocities in the hand of the forces responsible for maintaining law and order. In the early days of lockdown, we saw a report about a youth getting killed, allegedly by police while he was out to by provisions for his infant. This kind of pictures repeated itself several times through the phases of restrictions, in UP, Delhi, MP or Tamil Nadu (and other states). A father son duo of Jayaraj and Bennix were brutally tortured and killed in the police custody for violating lockdown restrictions. Many times we saw that the police forced the migrant workers, returning to home by foot, to squat, and was lathicharged or sprayed disinfectant on their bodies. Though it could be considered as fringe incidents, but if we look deeper it can be inferred otherwise.

At the time of any dangerous diseases outbreak, the Epidemic Act 1897 enables the government to take special measures. During the COVID-19 outbreak this act was invoked as the situation demanded special treatment. But the law has its innate problems, being colonial in origin. This act was legislated during the bubonic Plague pandemic in Bombay province in 1890s, which was considered as a repressive law against the Indian people at that time. Even the chairman of the Plague committee Rand was assassinated by Chapekar brothers in reaction to the police excess, at that time the law enabled the authorities to search, raid or detain people with impunity. Though some sections in the act was omitted through the years still there is a big room to cause police excesses. In the section 4 of this act with sub-heading “protection to persons acting under act” it is mentioned “No suit or other legal proceeding shall lie against any person for anything done or in good faith intended to be done under this act”. This may be just a single line but it can effectively enable the police forces to deal on their will with impunity to prevent restriction violations.

If we look into the history of our police forces, it really never came out of its colonial colors, and always known to be happy to cross the line at will. In several other situations we continue to see what excesses can happen if the law enforcement agencies are given a free hand. Due to the classist, casteist and misogynist character of the forces vulnerable sections of the populace becomes an easy target to prey on. It ranges from extortion to death by torture. Hence in the name of a pandemic, if the law enforcement agencies are given a free hand, results can be complicated. We can never forget that excessive power to the police haven’t fared well as per as the health of a democratic society is concerned.

As we are entering a new post-COVID world with restriction in our lives being a new normal, we must be cautious about the compromising state of democracy. Especially, under the current BJP regimes, where specific sections of the society is in target by the authorities and the dissenting voices are being choked every day, the Epidemic act can turn into another draconian act to reckon with. There must be demand to amend this act, and for a democratic method to wrestle with the pandemic.

Arka Deep is a student activist based in West Bengal.



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