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Home / Columns / Shashi Tharoor’s word of the week: Curfew

Shashi Tharoor’s word of the week: Curfew

From denoting an evening signal when lights would go off to a clampdown when people must stay indoors at certain times, this word has a fascinating journey

columns Updated: Dec 21, 2019 14:39 IST
Shashi Tharoor
Shashi Tharoor

Curfew (noun), an order specifying a time during which certain regulations apply, especially the time when individuals are required to return to and stay in their homes.

Usage: During the first few days of curfew, the city looked like a ghost town after 7 pm.

The word curfew has an interesting history. Literally, the word means to ‘cover fire’. In the early 14th century, spelt curfeu, it meant an evening signal, involving the ringing of a bell at a fixed hour, usually 8 pm, as a signal to extinguish fires and lights. The word curfew also denoted a cover for a fire, made of metal and designed to enclose the embers at the end of the day so that the fire could be re-lit easily the following morning. The curfew bell was a bell rung in the evening in Medieval England as the signal for everyone to go to bed.

It was William the Conqueror in England who decreed after 1068 that all lights and fires should be covered at the ringing of an eight o’clock bell to prevent the risk of fire within the wooden timber buildings of that era. His intention may not have been purely innocent, however: the curfew was also initially used as a repressive measure to prevent rebellious meetings of the conquered Anglo-Saxons. Historians speculate that William prohibited the use of live fires after the curfew bell was rung to prevent associations and conspiracies against Norman rule by the English. But the practice long outlived that purpose. In Macaulay’s History of Claybrook, Claybrooke Magna (1791), he says, “The custom of ringing curfew, which is still kept up in Claybrook, has probably obtained without intermission since the days of the Norman Conqueror.”

Today a curfew is an order issued by the public authorities or military forces requiring everyone or certain people to be indoors at certain times, usually at night. It can be imposed to maintain public order, or suppress restive populations: a dusk-to-dawn curfew is a typical imposition by military rulers, with a shoot-at-sight order for violators. Curfews have also been imposed by the head of a household on those living in the household, as most teenagers know, since they are often required to return home by a specific time of the evening or night. College authorities rarely use the word curfew for their regulations, but most college hostels impose a daily requirement for guests to return to their hostel by a certain hour. In the UK, those who frequent pubs have their own curfew, after which patrons of licensed premises may not enter; thus “last orders” have to be taken by a specified curfew time, usually midnight. In American League baseball, there was a “curfew rule” under which play could not continue past 1 am.

In India, Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) empowers an executive magistrate to prohibit an assembly of more than four persons in an area. In about 1861, Officer Raj-Ratna EF Deboo used the curfew along with Section 144 to reduce overall crime in that time in the state of Baroda, an achievement for which he was awarded a gold medal by the Maharaja Gaekwad of Baroda. Curfews are frequently imposed in riot-stricken areas but are usually a temporary measure and lifted when calm and public order are restored. Curfews have, however, been resorted to more often in Kashmir, often confining the population to a form of collective house arrest for days together in periods of heightened militancy.

Terrorists, in turn, have imposed their own curfews, forcing shopkeepers to down their shutters and traffic to stay off the streets as a form of enforced non-cooperation with the authorities. In this instance a curfew becomes a form of coerced protest, and the authorities, who usually enforce curfews, have to resort to inducements to keep normal activities going. Wonder what William the Conqueror would have done if the English had tried to turn the tables on him that way!