Military tactic on civilians: A deep dive into Hyderabad cops' cordon and search ops

How many Cordon and search ops have Hyderabad cops carried out? What have they found? The data is apparently 'secret' — we managed to find some bits.
A police vehicle parked in front of Charminar in Hyderabad
A police vehicle parked in front of Charminar in Hyderabad
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This story is a part of our series on policing and excesses in Hyderabad. Read all stories in the series here.

Around 7.30 pm on October 27, 40-year-old Aruna’s (name changed) makeshift hut located in Hyderabad’s Teegalguda was thrown into pitch darkness. The only lightbulb in the house had fused out. Just when she sent her son to buy a new bulb, around 10 police personnel descended at her doorstep. Initially, Aruna thought the police had come to share details about the houses that the residents were expecting from the government as part of the slum relocation project. It was only a little later that she realised the police had come as part of a cordon and search operation. “Who wouldn’t get scared when so many policemen land up at your house? Even if we haven’t done anything wrong, the sight of police itself causes anxiety,” Aruna said, recounting the incident. “Even the children in the locality were also worried.”

Over 75 police personnel had descended on the settlement to carry out a cordon and search operation — or CASO. “They asked me if we sold ganja, illicit liquor in bottles or gutka. I told them that I am a poor woman who goes to work as a domestic help in houses and works till late in the evening and that I don’t sell any of these things,” recounted Aruna, “I also told them that my husband is no more and that I live with my two children. They then asked for my Aadhaar card and vehicle details. I told them that I don’t own any vehicle. When I asked them angrily why they were asking so many details, they just told me that they were doing their duty and then walked off.” 

The huts situated in the area

Though they did not check inside Aruna’s house, the lady constables entered the house adjacent to Aruna’s. They ran their hands through the utensils, looked at the corners, between the clothes, apparently in search of anything suspicious. According to Aruna, around two years ago too, the Hyderabad police had carried out a similar search in the area. Teegalguda has three main clusters — Chandraiah huts, Hanumanthu huts, and Lakshmamma huts. Altogether there are around 250 huts in this area which is located on the banks of river Musi. The area which falls under the Malakpet police station jurisdiction has mostly people who work as daily wage labourers, garbage collectors, and auto rickshaw drivers. 

Cordon and search operation is a controversial military exercise which was first used by the Indian security forces in the early 1990s in the Kashmir Valley. After a pause, it was re-started in 2017. The military uses different kinds of cordon operations — like cordon and knock, or kick, or search. So why is this much criticised operation — which has been termed a human rights violation by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights — being used in a city like Hyderabad? That too by the local police who cannot even claim they are dealing with terrorists on a daily basis? 

Embellished rhetoric vs reality

According to activists who have closely followed Hyderabad police’s cordon and search operations, Hyderabad police first introduced the search operation in 2012. However, from RTI replies received, it seems like the police have records of the operation only from 2015.  

TNM has accessed an internal email sent by Telangana DGP Mahender Reddy to other police officers explaining the purpose of CASO. “The primary purpose is to win the hearts and minds of local communities,” the note said, adding that the police should “keep the local communities on their side by taking them into confidence by explaining the purpose of this exercise — Enhancing Sense of Safety and Security in the Local Communities by preventing outsiders/unsocial elements disturbing peace and safety in the local communities, in addition to explaining all our Technology, Process, People related Initiatives.”

The stated aim looks well-intentioned at first glance, but dig a little deeper and the words mean nothing. The actual operation meanwhile has inspired fear and distrust among the people who are targeted — largely low income and minority communities. 

Targeting marginalised and minority communities?

In the first week of November, the Jubilee Hills police carried out a CASO in Filmnagar — which is outwardly affluent, and home to several celebrities and film personalities. But inside Filmnagar is Deen Dayal Nagar, a small slum settlement with around 150 houses, which was the actual target of the police operation. (It is to be noted here that many from the film industry are mired in high profile drug cases, but a raid or CASO in these localities of Filmnagar has never happened.)

Sixty-five-year-old M Bheemaiah, who is the oldest in the slum, was at home when the police personnel turned up in large numbers around 7:30 pm. He was surprised when they landed at his door. “In the last 35 years, this is the first time that the police have come for a search operation in this area. We showed them the documents they asked for. They did not enter any of the houses in our slum as part of their checks. Only vehicle documents and Aadhaar cards were checked,” recounted Bheemaiah.

M Bheemaiah standing in front of his house

There is no stated policy which spells out how the police choose areas in which they conduct CASO. According to a senior police officer TNM spoke to, local police stations identify “crime pockets” based on pending warrants, presence of rowdy sheeters, criminal history, etc. Based on this, the Station House Officers decide locations.

In Teegalguda for example, the police claimed that they carried out CASO as the Telangana government has given them instructions that ganja and other contraband substances should be eliminated. The police found no ganja here, instead they seized 18 two wheelers, five autos and one trolley for not having valid documents or having pending challans. In a few days, all these vehicles were released after challans were paid.

Over the years, activists in Hyderabad and other districts have pointed out that CASOs are carried out in places where low income groups live or to target minorities like Muslims.

SQ Masood, a Hyderabad-based social activist is of the opinion that CASO has become a class issue. “These CASOs are happening in slums where poor and illiterate people reside. These are people who can’t really question the police. This is an issue about class. The raids that are carried out across the state are only in slums and neighbourhoods where the poor reside,” said Masood.

The police however insist that CASO is legal and an important exercise to monitor law and order in the city.

Using Section 93 of the Criminal Procedure Code

Cordon and search operations are carried out in localities by cordoning off all exit points and entry points into the locality. While one team guards the outer boundary, another massive team is deployed to knock on every door and to check the identity of the people residing in the colony. The police pre-plan the entire operation and use maps of the locality to decide how to deploy the personnel, and also to ensure no one enters or leaves the locality during the search. 

Rachakonda Commissioner Mahesh Bhagwat told TNM that a CASO is carried out only after a search warrant is issued. “As per section 20 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPc) of 1973, the Police Commissioner is also the district additional magistrate. According to 93 CrPc, the Commissioner can issue a warrant for a cordon and search operation. Usually, a prior written permission is submitted by the concerned Station House Officer, mentioning clearly why a CASO needs to be carried out and in which area. Based on the request, a warrant is issued by the Commissioner.”

During a CASO, additional staff are allocated for the operation. Along with the local police station staff, there are additional women personnel, officers from the excise department, traffic department and other relevant departments. Until a few years ago, CASOs used to be carried out late in the night or early in the morning. The reason, according to the police: ‘so that criminals are at home during the operation.’

However, now the timings of the operation have changed, apparently in an effort to become more humane. It is either carried out early in the evening and completed by night, or is carried out in the morning. 

Speaking to TNM, LB Nagar inspector Ashok Reddy explained in detail the procedure of a CASO. He said, “We have details about how many houses are there in a locality. Based on the maps, we divide the area and send out multiple teams. We knock on the doors of people and ask for ID proofs and vehicle documents. We also collect details like house number, number of residents, phone number, occupation, vehicle details, etc. We check their Aadhaar card or any ID proof and vehicle documents.”

A senior officer in the system revealed to TNM that the Telangana DGP is very particular about CASOs. “There are 12 functional verticals based on which a police station is graded. Crime is one of the twelve verticals. Under crime, one of the factors considered is the number of cordon and search operations carried out. Each police station is given a target. This is not just in Hyderabad but in the districts too. We take a warrant before each CASO. Big districts are expected to carry out around 10 CASOs in a month, while smaller districts organise around five,” explained the senior official. 

The police personnel have been issued clear directives about what can be done and what shouldn’t be done by the personnel during a CASO. “In houses with women, we ensure the presence of women constables. We have also been directed to avoid loose talk and just carry out the search and proceed,” said Ashok Reddy.

Lawyers and other experts TNM spoke to say that the use of CrPC 93 itself is questionable. Public interest judicial activist T Dhangopal Rao said, “That section is exclusively used when someone has been served a summons under section 91 of CrPc and there is disobedience. If there is disobedience then enforcement can be done.”

“I don’t think any magistrate will issue a warrant to cordon off an entire colony and search overnight. Moreover, there is a specific provision in law which states that they cannot be disturbed from evening 6 to morning 6. These CASOs are carried out in the middle of the night. I don’t have an idea if a warrant can be issued to search an entire colony,” he said. “When my PIL was being heard too, the Additional Advocate General who deposed could not elaborate about this.”

In 2014, Dhangopal had filed a Public Interest Litigation in the Hyderabad High Court against the CASOs. The High Court directed Dhangopal to approach the Cyberabad and Hyderabad police commissioners with his grievance. Within a month of the HC order, Dhangopal wrote to both the commissioners regarding his grievance but did not hear back from them. 

A senior police officer who has served in Hyderabad and other districts showed TNM a warrant issued under Section 93 of CrPC to conduct CASO in an area. It is however not clear if warrants are issued each time. SQ Masood said that the police version that warrants are taken each time is hard to believe. Both he and Dhangopal say that even if warrants are issued, CASO is illegal. 

“Warrants are issued to search a specific place under specific circumstances. The police cannot issue a warrant for a blanket search. In specific cases wherein a terror suspect is holed up somewhere and they have credible inputs, then the police can exercise their powers to carry out a CASO even without a warrant being issued,” Masood said.

There is reason for Masood’s skepticism. In 2020, he filed an RTI to find out how many CASOs the Hyderabad police had carried out since 2012. He asked for details of the number of police deployed in each CASO and the details of the cases booked in each CASO. But he was stonewalled. 

Cops don’t want to share data

Stations in the North zone, East zone and West zone refused to reveal the details requested by Masood citing security concerns. They responded saying as per 8(1)(j)(g) of the RTI Act they are allowed to refuse details regarding issues of security. Masood requested details from 60 law and order police stations in Hyderabad, but only seven police stations in the South zone partially revealed details. 

From these limited details, it was found that between 2015 and 2019, around 5,000 police personnel were deployed for CASOs. Thirteen CASOs were organised by the Rein Bazar police station; nine by Moghalpura police station; seven by Mirchowk; two by Dabeerpura; two by Goshamahal; seven by Kalapathar; and one by Nampally police station respectively. Out of these 41 CASOs, only 25 cases were booked by the police, for offences like food adulteration, child labour, polluting the environment, theft, rash acts endangering life, and a case under 25(1A) of Arms Act for possession of prohibited arms and ammunition.

“After I received the replies, I appealed to the State Information Commission stating that I had requested details of cases booked, and the data requested is not related to security concerns and hence doesn’t fall under the 8(j)(g) of the RTI Act.  The appeal has been pending ever since with the commission,” Masood said. 

‘The people want it.’ But which people?

On October 31, the Uppal police tweeted claiming people in their station limits were requesting for cordon and search operations (CASO) to be carried out. The tweet said that the police were glad to receive such requests from the public. The tweet also assured that CASO would be carried out in colonies soon.

A lot of people found the tweet mysterious and wondered who really would request the police for a CASO in their locality and expressed their shock.

Hoping to find out who the people requesting for CASOs in their localities are, TNM contacted R Govinda Reddy, Inspector of Uppal police station. He had no clear answers.

This is what Masood faced too. Many police stations responded to him saying they carry out CASOs as part of community policing and to solve the issues of the locals. The Gandhi Nagar police station said CASOs were meant for preventing illegal transactions and for checking fake registration of vehicles. Faluknama police station stated that the information sought would cause invasion of privacy of the individuals. Masood said this is an irony as CASOs itself are an invasion of privacy. 

Fighting crime vs fighting for privacy

According to the police, CASOs help in identifying crimes and criminals. In previous CASOs, they have found people indulging in illegal LPG sales, illicit liquor business, selling gutka and other banned substances, stolen vehicles being used, child labour, forced sex work, houses used as commercial establishments, foreigners residing as tenants without necessary documents, and undocumented Bangladeshi nationals. However, during this exercise, the police collect a lot of personal information. 

“We check inside the houses if we find anything suspicious while interacting with the people staying in a house; we also check their phones or laptops, if necessary. By entering their vehicle number, we check for pending challans too. We cross verify fingerprints with those on the database on a software called Papillon. The fingerprints of those convicted earlier can be found on the database. We also check previous criminal records by entering their Aadhaar number and phone number. The database has all details of those with a criminal history,” one inspector told TNM.

However, due to contrary statements from officers, it is not clear whether fingerprints are collected from all citizens in all areas and whether they are stored. In Malakpet and Deen Dayal Nagar, people told TNM that their fingerprints had not been collected. 

Many legal experts TNM spoke to have mentioned the Kharak Singh case, which dates back to 1962, and highlights the issue of state surveillance versus the right to privacy. Kharak Singh, who lived in Uttar Pradesh, was let off in a dacoity case due to lack of evidence. However, when police authorities continued their regular surveillance, he challenged it on the grounds of infringement of his constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights. Kharak Singh filed a writ petition before the Supreme Court challenging the Uttar Pradesh police’s secret picketing of his house, domiciliary visits at night, periodic inquiries by officers and tracking of his movements. 

In a majority judgment, the apex court struck down domiciliary visits as unconstitutional. Justice Subbarao held that all surveillance measures were unconstitutional, but ruled that “privacy was not a guaranteed constitutional right.”

This judgment came up again in 2017, during the landmark case of Justice KS Puttaswamy vs Union of India. A nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court delivered a unanimous verdict and said that the Constitution of India guarantees to each individual a fundamental right to privacy. This judgment overruled the privacy part of the Kharak Singh judgment and declared that privacy is a fundamental right. 

If one goes by the two judgments, the Hyderabad police’s CASO is not only unconstitutional as mentioned in the Kharak Singh case, it is also a blatant violation of the right to privacy which is now a fundamental right.

MA Shakeel, a lawyer who works closely with human rights violation cases, asserted that CASOs have to stop. “Not only do they intrude into one’s privacy, it’s also humiliating in the community when one’s house is searched by police in the middle of the night. Most times, it is Muslim communities and the marginalised that are the target. CASOs are not really a consequence of a failed law and order situation. CASOs are to intimidate people and to keep them under control. What the police call visible policing is also the same — a process to keep people living under fear. The intimidation helps the police keep a check on the people,” he said.

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