Police constable Abasaheb Sawant is not trained in stunts, and he’s definitely not used to hurling himself in front of speeding cars. As a part of the Indian police force that is deployed on the streets to keep traffic violators in check, the 39-year-old only knows how to size up errant drivers and anticipate their excuses before rewarding them with penalties.
But on Nov. 5, the father of two found himself in the middle of a Hollywood-style stunt he had never experienced before.
At his usual spot in the western Indian city of Pune, Sawant apprehended a man in a car who wasn’t wearing a face mask. India has over 8 million confirmed cases of COVID-19—the second highest in the world—and not wearing a mask can invite heavy penalties.
The constable signalled the violator to park on the roadside while standing right in front of him. Suddenly, the car came straight towards him, forcing him to jump on the vehicle’s hood. He clung on to it for dear life. “Since we had stopped him, there was a traffic jam behind him. But in front, it was an empty road,” Sawant told VICE World News. “He just went for it, and kept driving really fast, even though I clung on to his bonnet for nearly a kilometre.”
“It was terrifying,” he added.
When the driver finally stopped, he was arrested on charges of attempt to murder, assault on public servant while on duty, and others. Sawant suffered a ligament injury in the right knee, and is currently on bed rest. Last week, he was recognised for risking his life, and rewarded a cash prize of INR10,000 ($135).
“Call it bravery, or anything else. Our job comes with such risks,” said Sawant. “But this is the first time I’ve encountered something like this. It’s the rarest of the rare case to me.”
Over the last month, Indian media has reported at least four incidents of traffic cops finding themselves on car hoods in a dramatic—and very high-risk—manner.
Indian roads are considered the deadliest in the world, having witnessed the highest fatalities globally since 2009. India is also among the top five countries in the world with fastest-growing new car registrations.
Early this week, a constable threw himself on a pick-up van’s bonnet when the driver refused to stop at a checkpoint, in the western Indian city of Surat. The errant driver drove for 25 kms, with the constable, Ganesh Chaudhary, clinging on to the bonnet for the entire duration. Once he jumped off, the van driver tried to crush him and speed away. The driver was booked for kidnapping and assaulting a government employee, among others.
Chaudhary is not authorised to talk to VICE World News. HR Waghela, the police inspector of the Navsari town police station, where Chaudhary is stationed, told VICE World News that the van driver drove over Chaudhary. “Ganesh was in the middle of the wheels, so he survived this,” he said. “He suffered some minor injuries, but nothing serious.”
Another incident took place in the Indian capital city of New Delhi, where a traffic policeman was dragged for nearly 400 metres on the hood of a car driven by a college student. A CCTV footage of the case did the rounds on social media. The college student, who was booked for assault and use of criminal force, did not have a driver’s licence.
Traffic officials don’t always leave unscathed. The last few years have seen constables falling victim to road rage or rash driving. Last month, a 35-year-old police constable died after being hit by a speeding trailer. Early this year, a man in Mumbai was rewarded a life sentence for attacking and killing a police constable with a wooden plank in 2016.
“We are always mentally prepared for such risks. Although, sometimes, incidents like being flung on car bonnets can be unexpected too,” said Waghela. “Casualties happen and are always possible. In the case of Ganesh, had he let go of the bonnet, it would definitely have been a casualty.”
Shashidhar Venugopal, a police reforms activist told VICE World News that conflict between traffic violators and the police is an everyday reality, but many police stations are not equipped to deal with it.
“Low-rung constables are especially the main targets of attack because they’re the ones who have to apprehend these criminals,” he said. “It’s common for cops to be given absolutely no protection. They work 13-14 hours a day, and most of them have to take care of their own commute home once done with duty.”
Recent data on police force shows that there are over 2.5 million total state police personnel in India. While a lot has been reported about police excesses and apathy, activists have also raised the issues of problems within the system. This includes deplorable work hours, denial of leaves, high levels of stress and lack of infrastructure.
One data from 2017 showed that almost 300 police stations across India had no telephones. For every 100 cops responding to distress calls, patrolling and maintaining law and order, there were only eight vehicles. A pattern of cop suicides has also emerged amid the problems—estimated to be over 900 deaths over the last five years.
During the pandemic, the situation has worsened. Data by the Indian Police Foundation (IPF), a Delhi-based think tank, found that over 150,000 cops across India got infected with COVID-19, and 913 of them died from the virus.
Those on the ground, and their loved ones, have to contend with daily realities. It’s part of their job, and life. “I didn’t even tell my family when the incident happened,” laughed Sawant. “I just limped into the house and when they asked me what happened, I said it’s a normal injury. They found out through TV news!” Sawant added that his family cried when they found out.
Waghela added that constable Ganesh Chaudhary, who is in his 30s, has a wife who is expecting their first child. “We are so proud of him. He should definitely get a reward,” he said. “As for this job, we have to go despite the risks.”
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