Interview | Anil Deshmukh Mumbai

‘We are fighting not only epidemic but also infodemic’

File photo of Home Minister Anil Deshmukh (left) in a meeting with officials.

File photo of Home Minister Anil Deshmukh (left) in a meeting with officials.   | Photo Credit: The Hindu

Home Minister says the circulation of fake news has increased after cases spawned by the Tablighi Jamaat congregants

State Home Minister Anil Deshmukh in an exclusive interview with The Hindu explains the State’s preparedness to deal with the coronavirus outbreak and support for the police over the use of force. He agrees that fake news has increased after the Tablighi Jamaat meeting in Delhi and questions why the Delhi Police did not cancel the event.

Maharashtra was one of the first States to take the coronavirus outbreak seriously and start preparations. How did you anticipate the risk and what measures were taken initially?

The State had moved towards the lockdown much before the Centre. We went through every aspect of it. After our decision, the Union government, too, pressed ahead. We started with implementing Section 144. The Health and Home Departments, municipal corporations and sanitation workers were all on the same page, right from the start. Shopkeepers were told about the need for physical distancing. Every senior leader pleaded with citizens to follow the lockdown. A majority followed, but a few didn’t and the police had to act at some places. Because of the police action, people realised the seriousness. Today 95% of the population is following the lockdown. The rest are either careless, or have genuine problems. We are talking to them, making them understand, solving their problems.

Was the administration, especially the Home Department, ready when the Prime Minister announced a 21-day lockdown all of sudden?

Interestingly, I had spoken to a few channels in the afternoon that day and appealed to the Prime Minister to speak to all Chief Ministers and take a nationwide decision. Maharashtra was prepared. But when the Prime Minister announced the lockdown, people did panic. They thought that the 21-day lockdown meant everything would be closed. They rushed to purchase essentials. We decided to keep shops open for 24 hours to make people understand that there would be no scarcity of essentials and no one should panic.

The police, especially you, faced criticism over using force against citizens. Do you still support the decision?

Everyone must understand the seriousness of the situation. People do not realise that if they do not cooperate today, what would be the condition tomorrow. Look at the developed countries. Here, people are not taking it seriously. We are just one-step away from an exponential multiplication of this virus, and it may endanger our existence.

You still believe a bit of strict police action is necessary?

Not a bit. A lot. The police don’t enjoy beating people on the road. They are working 24 hours, they have families who are scared. The police were attacked at Dharavi. A health worker was attacked at Solapur. Everyone is working day and night. We had given instructions that whoever attacks the police and doctors should be punished. We have registered 13,690 cases of lockdown violations, including 42 cases of attack on the police, and 159 people have been arrested. When the police came under criticism, we toned down the action. But we started getting calls telling us about increased violations. Even Opposition BJP leaders told us not to go soft. Our direction is not to tolerate any violation. But I must say that we are facing problems in implementing the lockdown in slum areas.

What has been the government’s plan after news about the Tablighi Jamaat gathering broke?

Around 1,400 individuals who had attended that programme in Delhi returned to Maharashtra. We have traced 1,325. They are being quarantined. The rest have switched off their mobile phones and are not ready to cooperate. Our officers faced attacks when they went to bring them back.

Tablighi was to organise a programme in the State too around the same time as it did in Delhi. How was it cancelled?

Their Ijtema was planned at Vasai [near Mumbai] on March 14 and 15. They had taken permission for it in the first week of February. As the coronavirus scare was visible in India by February-end, we called them on March 6 and cancelled the permission. Had we not done that, can you imagine what would have happened? If the Maharashtra police could do it, why couldn’t the Delhi police? The organisers were not ready initially. We negotiated with them and warned them that if they did not listen, we would do it our way. I told them that we would take action if our orders were not followed. I am thankful that the police were alert.

The spread of coronavirus is seeing a parallel growth in the number of fake and communal social media posts. What action the government has planned?

The anti-cyber crime cell has registered 65 cases of fake, communal and divisive messages on social media since March this year. It is the largest in the country. We have arrested three individuals. Many of them are freelancers, some even highly educated. They enjoy spreading hate and fake messages. That’s why I even issued a strict warning not to spread April Fool’s Day messages.

Are you keeping a watch on fake news?

We are keeping a close watch on communal messages being circulated after the Delhi incident. Fake news spreads faster than virus. We are not only fighting an epidemic but also an infodemic. This infodemic has grown, especially after Delhi incident.

Is it difficult to work in a crisis like this when you are running a three-party government?

Not a single problem yet. We are as united as any other government. We are working as a team and will continue to do so.

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Printable version | May 27, 2020 12:10:25 AM |

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