Hyderabad cops are stopping people on the road, checking WhatsApp chats for 'drugs'

A video of one such raid is now viral in which the cops can be seen asking for the phones of people.
A cop checking the phone of a citizen in Hyderabad
A cop checking the phone of a citizen in Hyderabad
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“Hyderabad city police will not take rest until Ganja is completely eliminated from Hyderabad” reads a message sent by the cops to media after details about all the ganja cases booked in the city. For the last few days, on the instructions of the Commissioner of Police, every police station has been instructed to carry out raids and searches to find people peddling or consuming ganja in Hyderabad. A video of one such raid is now viral in which the cops can be seen asking for the phones of people. It has been alleged that the police are then keying in words like ganja in the search box to look for any related chats.

Confirming to TNM that the cops are checking phones, Deputy Commissioner of Police, South Zone, Gajarao Bhupal said, “Yes, I am aware that phones are being checked. However, we are not forcing anybody nor are we snatching away their phones to check. People are cooperating and no one is complaining, so I don’t think there is anything illegal.”

When asked if the public have an option to deny giving their phones when asked by cops, the DCP said, “The public can deny giving their phone. However, we will then have to see what legal provisions apply. So far, we have not faced any such issue. There are no specific instructions as there has not been any issue so far.”

Activists have slammed the move, stating that it is not only illegal, but also unconstitutional. In 2017, the Supreme Court declared that privacy is a fundamental right. This verdict had far-reaching implications for the rights of Indian citizens. A nine-judge bench of the apex court delivered a unanimous verdict about the issue. The court said that privacy is intrinsic under Article 21 and other freedoms guaranteed under Part III of the Constitution.

Speaking to TNM, Karam Komireddy, a Telangana High Court advocate said that any move by the police to check phones was an infringement of privacy. “Right to privacy is part of the constitutional framework and the Supreme Court has held that right to privacy is a fundamental right and is part of Article 21 that deals with right to life and liberty. The cops have no right to randomly check phones of people. If they wish to do so, they have to do it by following a procedure established by law. What they are doing is an infringement on the right to privacy and is unwarranted, illegal and unlawful.”

Earlier too, the Hyderabad cops had stoked controversy for collecting fingerprints and photographs as part of Operation Chabutra. Even back then, Hyderabad cops had told TNM that they don’t insist if the public refuse to share their fingerprint and consent to take their photograph. However, many alleged that the cops gave no option to those they decided to zero down upon.

Other experts TNM spoke said it is completely illegal to search a person’s mobile phone without cause and without a validly procured warrant. A person’s mobile phone is essentially what the law would describe as a private place and to encroach on it without reasonable cause and without adhering to the law makes the search illegal.

While addressing a press conference, Hyderabad city Police Commissioner Anjani Kumar said that it is imperative to check for digital evidence at the scene of crime. The commissioner said, “Several journalists have been calling up regarding a viral video in which cell phones are being checked. In few cases of grave and sensational crime when the accused is likely to run away, police are bound to check all the items found at the scene of crime or those that are available with one of the offenders who has been caught. At that time, we do not know who the gang members are and hence all items in the scene of crime are checked. The items can be a phone, a camera, a laptop, an Ipad etc. It is all part of digital evidence. Examination of witnesses and items is the responsibility of the policemen.”

The video however showed police doing random checks on the road, therefore it is unclear what the Commissioner means by calling it a scene of crime.

The commissioner refused to deny or divulge more details about the video. At one point, the Commissioner hinted that the video was fake, and claimed that India had the highest number of students who are from WhatsApp university.

Contradictory to the Commissioner's position, another video of a Sub-Inspector from the Excise Department, has also surfaced. This inspector who was part of the raid is heard saying, “We are checking phones, bikes and also frisking people. If we find anything suspicious in chats, we then send them to the police station. We look for words like ‘ganja’, ‘weed’ etc. We have been carrying out the checks as three teams for the last one month.”

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