When men in khaki and frontline warriors serve and suffer!

The police force has been deployed in large numbers all over the country to enforce the lockdown provisions. It is a tough duty — people tend to try their luck, and there are scuffles, even blows exchanged in the process. However, the attack by Nihangs on policemen posted at a barricade to the entrance of a vegetable market in Patiala — which resulted in injuries to many as well as the chopping of the hand of an Assistant Sub-Inspector has come as a big shock. A report by Mahendra Singh Rathore

It is a sad reality that along with the medical staff on the frontline in the fight against Covid-19, the men and women in khaki have a testing time during Covid-19. While in Punjab, the incident of chopping of a hand of a police official while performing his duty has shocked the nation, in the neighbouring state, Haryana, nearly 300 persons have been booked for attacking cops and healthcare professionals. The major Nihang organisations have disavowed the attackers and political leaders across party lines have condemned the attack. The injured, including an attacker, have been treated and quick action of doctors at the PGI has resulted in the reattachment of the police officer’s hand. This is something to be thankful for. The widespread condemnation of the incident too points towards a rare socio-political consensus that is necessary to tackle such problems.

How it happened

A policeman’s hand was severed and two of his colleagues were injured after a group of Nihangs (Sikhs armed with traditional weapons) attacked them at Sanaur vegetable market in Punjab’s Patiala district, the police said. Eight Nihangs were arrested after the Gurudwara Khichdi Sahab — where they had fled after the attack — was surrounded by the police. A Nihang was injured in the cross-firing at the Gurudwara has been shifted to hospital. The group was travelling in a vehicle when the police stopped them near a vegetable market by Mandi board officials. An argument erupted between them after the Nihangs failed to show them curfew passes.

SSP Patiala, Mandeep Singh Sidhu told, “They were asked to show (curfew) passes. But they crashed the vehicle against the gate and barricades put up there. An ASI’s (Assistant Sub Inspector) hand was chopped off by a sword. A Station House Officer of Sadar Patiala sustained an injury on his elbow and another official suffered an injury on his arm in the attack.” There are allegations that when police chased the attackers carrying wooden sticks with them, the attackers were almost made to attack the police. Had the police exercised restraint then perhaps the incident could have been avoided.

Police sources said that it had happened very swiftly. No one would have anticipated such an ugly situation. All this happened within minutes. The police would not have even imagined that they might have to run to save their lives. It was unheard of when policemen demanded a curfew pass from a pick-up driver to proceed to the blockade. When the attackers car broke, the police team ran towards the car to nab violators. One of the attackers who came from inside took a sword in his hand and attacked the uniformed men standing there. An assistant police inspector was amputated while three others were injured. The amputated hand lay on the road which was splattered with blood. The group fled after the attack and holed itself up in the Nihang Dera complex which also houses Gurdwara Khichdi Sahib at Balbera village, about 25 km from Patiala city. The stand-off at the gurdwara last hours, till police entered it and arrested 11 people, including the five involved in the mandi attack. A Nihang Dera member, Nirbhav Singh, suffered a gunshot wound and was admitted to Patiala hospital, police said.

DGP’s version

Eleven persons were arrested for an attack on a police party by a group of Nihangs, a Sikh warrior sect, at a vegetable market in Punjab’s Patiala. The hand of assistant sub-inspector Harjit Singh was severed with a sword in the attack that followed when the Nihangs were asked for curfew passes, the police said. The accused, including a woman, were later arrested in an operation led by Inspector General of Police (Patiala Range) Jatinder Aulakh and Patiala’s Senior Superintendent of Police Mandeep Sidhu after they escaped into the Nihang Dera complex in Balbera, which also houses Khichdi Sahib Gurdwara.

“The accused included the five persons involved in the attack on the police team posted at the vegetable market in Sanaur. They had crashed through a series of barricades and attacked the police personnel who inquired about their curfew passes,” Director General of Police Dinkar Gupta said.

Baba Balwinder Singh, the Nihang head, who had come to the market in a vehicle with four other persons, was the main perpetrator of the attack, Gupta said. “The operation followed a stand-off for several hours and many rounds of appeals and negotiations led by the Patiala SSP with Balwinder Singh to surrender with their weapons and swords. But the Nihangs refused to surrender,” he added.

Gupta said despite repeated announcements from the public address system, the accused refused to surrender. The police party heard loud shouts and noises from inside their hideout, suggesting that some innocent people and hostages within might have got caught in the trouble. The police team then moved into the premises, to flush out the criminals. A few shots were fired by the accused at the police personnel before they were nabbed,” said the DGP, adding that entire operation was handled delicately so that the maryada (honour) and sanctity of the gurdwara was not disturbed in any manner.

“One Nihang, Nirbhav Singh, who suffered an injury in the incident was immediately removed to Patiala Hospital,” Gupta said. A huge cache of weapons as well as handheld weapons were seized from the accused, in addition to two petrol bombs and LPG cylinders. Five bags of poppy husk (used for opium extraction), large quantities of other drugs in commercial quantity and Rs 39 lakhs in cash apart from bottles with chemical substances were also found inside the premises, police said.

“Assistant Sub-Inspector Harjit Singh, whose hand was reportedly cut off with a sword during the attack at the vegetable market successfully underwent plastic surgery at the PGI Chandigarh for suturing back his hand, where he was rushed after the incident,” Gupta said. Three other police personnel were also injured in the incident. The accused had fled the scene after the attack and had taken refuge in Nihang Dera complex in Balbera. Gupta said two separate cases have been registered against the accused. The first has been registered for the incident at Sabzi Mandi and the second case has been registered at Passiana against the accused for attempt to murder and other charges.

Police image

This was probably the first incident of a fatal attack on the police during the period of lockdown which changed the perception of the general public towards the police. Before that at some places, feelings of resentment towards the police had arisen from reading, listening to or watching videos of the people being beaten by the police. There were allegations that people who got out of work or on the streets on the streets were brutally beaten. They could have been given a warning and let off.

Due to such beating incidents, the same image of police was engraved in the minds of people. But this incident in Punjab changed the perception of the people towards the police. People saw that men in the khaki could be at the receiving end while performing their duty. The feeling of anger towards the attackers changed the whole scenario.

Furthermore, the death of another senior police officer while performing duty also changed public perception about Punjab Police. The 52-year-old Ludhiana assistant commissioner of police (ACP), who was undergoing treatment for Covid-19 at a private hospital, died last week. He was a dedicated officer and had been regularly managing operations in Ludhiana during the lockdown. ACP (North) Anil Kohli breathed his last at the SPS hospital, Ludhiana, civil surgeon Rajesh Bagga said. It was only a day before his death that the Punjab government had given its go-ahead to the hospital to conduct plasma therapy on the police officer.

DGP said in a tweet, “Our brother officer Anil Kohli, ACP Ludhiana, lost his battle against #COVID-19. Anil served Punjab Police and the people of Punjab for over 30 years.”

Also the news about men in khadi providing ration to the needy from door to door and the videos going viral on social media completely changed the earlier image.

No religious or political colour

Fortunately, there was no religious or political colour to the incident. The Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), the largest religious organization of Sikhs and Akal Takht strongly condemned the attack and demanded strong action against the attackers. The Nihang chief Baba Balbir Singh also condemned the acts of the attackers and termed them as anti-social elements. There is also criticism of the incident being linked to the Nihangas. Nihang chief Balbir Singh has denied the accused being members of his organization. However, Baba Balwinder Singh, the prime accused in the incident has himself allegedly been involved in controversies. Enquiries reveal that he came here from Ahmedgarh about twenty years ago. It was mainly with his efforts that the Gurdwara Khichdi Sahib was built at a place called Balbeda. However, this land is recorded in the revenue record as a village pond. He is accused of occupying the adjacent one and a half acres land too. One Bhupendra Singh had filed a complaint in this regard but withdrew it subsequently.

How PGI reconnected hand

After the incident, Punjab Police Chief Dinkar Gupta gave a message to Dr. Jagat Ram, Director of PGI Chandigarh informing about the incident and to prepare for the operation. Seeing the seriousness of the incident, he immediately asked Dr. Ramesh Sharma, Head of Plastic Surgery, to have his team ready. It took about an hour to reach Chandigarh from Patiala. The operation was successful. Dr. Sunil Gaba in Sharma’s team, Dr. Jerry R. Zone, Dr. Suraj Nayyar, Dr. Mayank, Dr. Chandra and Dr. Shubhendu. The operation lasted for about two and a half hours.

The 50-year-old patient had an amputation through the proximal wrist of left hand, said the PGI. The re-implantation was started around 10 am after initial preparation of the amputated part. Both radial and ulnar arteries, the vena comitantes and an extra dorsal vein were anastomosed (reconnection of blood vessels). All the flexors and extensor tendons were repaired, it said in a statement. All the nerves at the wrist required bony fixation done using three K-wires. The approximate time taken was about 7.5 hours.

The PGI said this was technically very complex and challenging surgery, which was successfully done. It was evaluated at the end of surgery that hand is viable, warm with good circulation, it added. Harjeet Singh’s second operation has also been done after April 12. Doctors have described the operation as completely successful. Physiotherapy of the hands will have to be done for a few months. Harjit Singh himself believes that he will recover completely because he has started feeling a lot of hand movements.

Safety of frontline warriors

Physical attacks on frontline workers have now been made a non-bailable offence punishable by up to seven years in prison, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledging “no compromise” on ensuring the safety of a sector that is leading the fight against covid-19. The Epidemic Diseases (Amendment) ordinance, 2020, which carries a minimum jail term of three months, “manifests our commitment to protect each and every healthcare worker who is bravely battling covid-19 on the frontline,” said Modi. “It will ensure safety of our professionals. There can be no compromise on their safety.”

Giving details of the ordinance, Union minister Prakash Javadekar said investigations into such cases are to be completed within 30 days of reporting and a decision on culpability taken within a year. Ordinarily, the guilty can be sent to jail for three months to five years, with a fine of Rs 50,000 to Rs 2 lakh.

However, if there is grievous injury then the guilty could be sent to jail for six months to seven years and fined Rs 1 lakh toRs 5 lakh. The ordinance protects all health workers, including doctors, nurses, paramedics and ASHA workers, across the country.

“We have seen that our health workers, who are doing the most crucial duty for the country, are being attacked at some places, their property is being damaged and are facing harassment as they are suspected to be carriers of the novel coronavirus. This is a zero-tolerance area for the government and we will not let this happen in a civilized society,” said Javadekar after a cabinet meeting.

Under the directions of Union Minister for Home Affairs, Amit Shah, Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has again directed all States/UTs to ensure adequate security to frontline warriors. The MHA had issued advisories to all States/UTs on 24.03.2020, 04.04.2020 and 11.04.2020, requesting them to ensure adequate protection to healthcare professionals, medical staff and frontline workers by augmenting their safety and security cover.

In spite of the said communications, some incidents of violence have been reported from different parts of the country against healthcare professionals/frontline workers. It is evident that at this time, any single incident of violence against healthcare professionals is likely to create a sense of insecurity amongst the entire healthcare community.

The Supreme Court of India, in its direction on 08.04.2020, had observed that the Government of India, respective States/Union Territories and respective Police authorities should provide necessary police security to doctors and medical staff in hospitals and places where patients who have been diagnosed COVID-19 or patients suspected of COVID-19 or those quarantined are housed. Further, the Court directed to provide necessary police security to doctors and other medical staff who visit places to conduct screening of people to find out symptoms of disease.

In line with the Supreme Court directions and provisions of the Disaster Management Act, 2005, MHA has urged upon all State/UT and District authorities to invoke the provisions of the Act, or any other law in force, to take strict penal action against the offenders, who obstruct Government health officials, or other health professionals and/ or related persons, who are authorized under the Disaster Management Act, 2005, in the discharge of their lawful services.

The MHA has further requested State Governments/UT Administrations to appoint Nodal Officers at State/UT level and at District level, who would be available 24×7 to redress any safety issue on the functioning of medical professionals.

ASI promotedThe ASI Harjeet Singh, who lost his hand while bravely fighting off an attack while enforcing curfew at the Patiala sabzi mandi, has been promoted to the rank of Sub Inspector in recognition of his exemplary courage, while three other police personnel involved in the incident have been awarded Director General’s Commendation Disc.

It is learnt that the decision was taken by Punjab DGP Dinkar Gupta after consulting Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh. Inspector Bikkar Singh, SHO of Patiala Sadar police station, ASI Raghbir Singh and ASI Raj Singh, are the three police officials awarded for display of exemplary courage and devotion to duty during the enforcement of curfew, access control and social distancing measures at sabzi mandi, Patiala around 5:30 am on April 12.

Making an exception from the laid down norms, Gupta has also conferred the DGP’s Commendation Disc on Yadwinder Singh AR, a non-uniformed official of the Mandi Board, who is posted as AR in Market Committee, Patiala, recognising that he was part of the joint party of the police and the Mandi Board. The DGP said the promotion/awards were in recognition of the display of outstanding devotion to duty, patience in the face of provocation, courage and presence of mind of all these men, and to motivate other police officers to continue performing their duties without any fear.

DGP Honour for PGI Team

The 15-member team of the PGIMER that performed the plastic surgery on ASI Harjeet Singh, who lost his hand in the Patiala attack on April 12, has been chosen for the “DGP Honour for Exemplary Sewa to Society”. A medical officer in Mansa and 70 police personnel on Covid frontline duty will also be awarded.

Direction General of Police (DGP) Dinkar Gupta said that in a departure from norms, it had been decided to honour the entire team of doctors, technicians and nursing staff of the plastic surgery department in the PGI for performing prompt and successful reimplantation surgery on the ASI on April 12.

The team comprises Dr Ramesh Sharma, head of the plastic surgery department, PGI; plastic surgery team consultants Dr Sunil Gauba and Dr Jerry R John; senior residents Dr Suraj Nair, Dr Mayank, Dr Chandra and Dr Shubendu; anaesthesia team consultant and members Dr Ankur, Dr Abhishek and Dr Purnima; operation theatre technicians Chanderkanta Saini
and Naresh Gautam; and nursing staff Arvind, Sneha and Arsh.

Besides, Dr Ranjeet Rai, a medical officer posted at a police hospital in Mansa, has been chosen for the coveted “Honour and Disc” for his significant role in tracing of contacts of Covid-19 patients as well as quick sampling of suspected cases in Budhlada, the DGP said. He added 70 officers deployed across 27 police districts working on the frontline would be awarded. These include two ASPs, 22 DSPs, seven Inspectors, 13 Sub-Inspectors, nine ASIs and 17 head constables and constables.