Defence Colony is one of Delhi’s affluent, leafy neighbourhoods, centrally located, with wide roads, parks and many popular restaurants. Early into the lockdown, tragedy hit one of its plush apartment blocks. A couple in their 80s and their son tested positive for COVID-19.
The elderly man tragically died in hospital, his wife was discharged, and his son fought for his life for a long time on a ventilator. Fortunately, he survived. At one point during this time of trial, a person from the family thought it fit to call the local police to complain about their security guard. Their security guard was Muslim. That was reason enough for them to surmise that he had secretly participated in the Tablighi Jamaat congregation in Nizamuddin. They were certain that it was he who had brought the infection into their home.
The Delhi Police acted promptly on their complaint, registering a criminal case under Sections 188, 269 and 270 of the Indian Penal Code against the guard, charging him with committing a ‘negligent malignant act likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life’. They also issued an advisory to the residents of Defence Colony to be careful of their domestic helpers who might bring the infection into their homes. The matter was widely reported in the press, and there was widespread rage among readers and television viewers over the criminal irresponsibility of the security guard. The guard was initially reported by the police to be missing. They however quickly caught the ‘fugitive’ and sent him to be tested for COVID-19. He turned out to be negative.
It was later revealed that the grandson of the Defence Colony household studied abroad and had returned before the lockdown by an international flight. From details that emerged later, it appeared that it was not the guard who had irresponsibly endangered the family but members of the family who had probably put him in danger by asking him to run errands for them in violation of the strict lockdown of the early weeks.
The police never satisfactorily explained why they filed a criminal case against the hapless guard. No one thought it fit to apologize to him. No one thought it fit to charge the family for violating curfew rules because, after all, middle-class families in India find it difficult to manage their lives without domestic help. No one thought it fit to charge them with endangering the life of the security guard.
The story did not end there. Some weeks later, the same family employed an 18-year-old domestic helper. They arranged to get her tested for COVID-19. Three days later, the report came in. She had tested positive. It was 10 at night. The family turned her out of the apartment. She was distraught and began to wail in the dark and empty streets, not knowing where she should go, and how, at this hour in the curfew of the lockdown. Some other residents came out of their homes to enquire when they heard her crying. The security guards also gathered around her. Among them was a doctor, who gave her a PPE kit. Someone called for an ambulance, others called up her male relative. One ambulance arrived, but refused to carry a person who was COVID-positive. Three hours later, a second ambulance finally took the frightened girl to hospital.
Excerpted with permission from Locking Down The Poor: The Pandemic and India’s Moral Centre by Harsh Mander, published by Speaking Tiger.