State-owned banks in the country have barred employees from posting pictures, video clips or messages on social media on issues such as overcrowding at bank branches during the coronavirus crisis, according to multiple sources and documents seen by Reuters.
Banks have seen a surge in traffic after Prime Minister Narendra Modi outlined a package of anti-crisis measures including direct cash payments to millions, who have been queuing at branches to access the funds.
Some branch staff have complained on social media of the difficulty in imposing social distancing in such conditions, earning a rebuke from employers and even from the police.
State Bank of India, the country's largest lender, said in a notice sent to its employees that disciplinary action would be taken for violating the code of conduct if they spoke on social media about the functioning of its branches.
"On scrutiny of these posts it is observed that many of these social media users are our employees," said the letter, adding that some posts had made disparaging comments about the bank, its management and policies.
A similar memo warning employees against social media posts has also been issued by other state-owned banks including Punjab National Bank, a communication seen by Reuters said.
Emails sent to both banks seeking comment remained unanswered.
Asked about the memos, a spokesman for the Finance Ministry said the Department of Financial Services, which oversees state-owned banks, had not issued any gag orders and was "always looking for honest feedback to improve the customer services".
Threat Of Arrest
Bankers say they are now also being harassed by police for failing to ensure the social distancing required to help curb the spread of coronavirus.
"Instead of helping us the police are threatening to arrest us," said one bank official, who asked not to be named due to the restrictions imposed by the state-owned bank where he works.
The All India Bank Officers' confederation, a union of bank employees, has raised the matter with federal and state authorities, requesting them not to penalize bank employees.
"So far we're neither getting help to manage the crowds, nor are we being allowed to voice complaints... about the critical lapses and failures of social distancing at banks," said another bank employee who also requested anonymity.
The Finance Ministry spokesman said the government had ordered state authorities "to render all possible help to the bankers in implementing social distancing".
Bank unions said they had also asked for protective gear for branch officials but this had not yet been provided.
Government extended a lockdown on its 130 crore people until at least May 3 to combat the spread of coronavirus. India has so far reported more than 10,000 cases of the COVID-19 disease caused by the virus, including 358 deaths.