Where the police act as judge, jury & executioner

The Telangana police, in particular, have evolved their own procedures with blessings from their political masters.
Where the police act as judge, jury & executioner
Photo | PTI

The Telangana police department is investigating its own intelligence officials for spying and destruction of evidence collected during unauthorised operations on political leaders. The change in administration resulted in a change in how the police function. But nobody knows what rules and procedures the police follow, as there has been no publicly available manual for Telangana since its formation. The department hasn’t shared it even under an RTI request.

The police across India need to follow rules framed by state laws and criminal procedure codes. But these very procedures have become invisible over time with unaccountable practices emerging with no oversight and accountability. The Telangana police, in particular, have evolved their own procedures with blessings from their political masters. During the term of Bharat Rashtra Samithi, the then Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao provided all the necessary resources to police in return for their allegiance. 

Over the last decade, the Telangana police have conducted large-scale preventive detention of anyone planning to protest under Section 151 of CrPC. No one could dream of protesting in a state that was carved out as a result of large-scale protests. Preventive detentions are quite common, including under the infamous Telangana Preventive Detention Act, which has been consistently criticised by the Supreme Court. The law is still being used to preventively detain people while the Model Code of Conduct is in place.

The Telangana police are one of the most advanced police departments in the world. The need to acquire this capacity came as a consequence of internal security threats posed by Naxalism and terrorism. The force’s modernisation is of particular interest to international investors, political leaders and the Union home ministry, which closely assisted and promoted policing experiments in Hyderabad.

The experiments created a host of new practices such as cordon-and-search operations, where the police go door-to-door to map the population living in Hyderabad’s slums. Under Mission Chabutra, the police detain teenagers for going out past midnight in the old city near Charminar, where chabutras or open terraces are part of the architecture. The police experimented with new gadgets of facial recognition and fingerprint recognition on teenagers and the poor in the slums. These are unlawful practices currently under litigation, as there were no rules, laws or procedures that authorised these practices until 2022.

Digitisation helped file petty cases against teenagers if they got into any minor argument with the police. Some of them have been sent to jail for 10 days for petty offences—something that will haunt them for life. Anyone who visits the Nampally Metropolitan Court will understand how the court police often force people to sign documents that accept they have committed a crime without advocates to represent them. The setup is eye-opening for anyone who blindly trusts the police and praises them for violent enforcement.

The state police have been allowed to act above the law to serve various interests. The intelligence setup wants to surveil the entire population, a need that arose after intelligence failures on the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, and several bomb blasts in Hyderabad in 2007 and 2013. The 2013 blasts made the police amend the Public Safety Act of 2013 to force CCTVs across the city, making Hyderabad one of the most surveilled cities in the world. A million CCTVs, facial recognition, unlimited access to call records make the cops see everything and track everyone, with no oversight.

Now it has come to light that these exemptions given to the police for national security were also used by the police personnel for their own benefit. The intelligence officials accused of unauthorised surveillance of politicians also used these shiny tools on businessmen to extort money. A report in The New Indian Express tracked how cops in plain clothes abducted a businessman and forced him to part with crores of shares at gunpoint.

The intelligence scandal in Telangana is not a mere local issue limited to the state, with the intelligence officials procuring eavesdropping IMSI-catchers from Israel through a private individual. These equipment act as telephone towers and help intercept calls within an area, raising questions on why the police rented a room near current Chief Minister Revanth Reddy’s house. How the customs department allowed the import of such equipment by a private company without any official permission is a mystery.

The Telangana police’s questionable and secretive methods that bypassed accountability and safeguards have impacted the local population, including the custodial death of Mohammad Khadeer Khan. He was picked up on suspicion of snatching a gold chain and subjected to custodial torture that led to his death—all because there was a criminal profile on him and his face matched a CCTV grab of the accused. No investigation was carried out on the officials responsible for his death.

These modern weapons of intelligence gathering were promised to bring down crime, but what has been quietly not mentioned is they also help produce extreme forms of control. These surveillance instruments are secretive, invisible and create new forms of violence that are hard to track. As if the criminal justice system has gone rogue with more concentration of power. Surveillance reforms need to be on the table for the new government.

(Views are personal)

Srinivas Kodali | Hacktivist and ORA India Fellow

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The New Indian Express