Surveil criminals or target govt critics? Why Kerala's Operation Kaval is dubious

Operation Kaval was launched on December 18, 2021 as a special drive to create a detailed list of ‘anti-social elements’ so that the police can keep them under surveillance.
Two Kerala policemen stopping a car on a road
Two Kerala policemen stopping a car on a road
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The Kerala police's ‘Operation Kaval’ to identify anti-social elements has come in for criticism and is being seen as a move by the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government to build a database of activists who oppose their developmental projects. This view has been further strengthened as people who have no criminal cases against them, but are known to speak out against the powers that be, have been asked by the police to submit their details as part of the operation.

On December 26, 2021, officers from Edassery police station in Kozhikode arrived at the house of Shimy Kunnath and Rejeesh Kollakandi. The latter had been slapped with charges under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Activities (UAPA) Act in 2016. But soon, Shimy learnt that the police came to enquire about her. “When the police officers came to the house, we thought that it was to give summons in Rejeesh’s case. But after speaking to him for a while, the police asked for my details and I had to share my phone number, e-mail id, Facebook ID and Aadhaar card number. When we enquired why my details were needed, we were told that both of us were on the Operation Kaval list,” Shimy told TNM.

While Shimy used to own an online bookstore, Rejeesh works for a human rights organisation called Manushyavakasha Prasthanam. Shimy alleged that that was the reason her husband was charged under UAPA. Rajeesh has also been protesting against the LDF government’s SilverLine project. The police officers also named a few people and asked Shimy if she knew anything about them. While she didn’t recognise any of the names, Rejeesh realised that the police were trying to ascertain details about other human rights activists. 

“I have never been a political activist,” Shimy said. The only public meeting she had attended was six years ago in Kozhikode, when a protest was held against the death of Rohith Vemula. The 32-year old woman is still unable to fathom how she made it onto a list that is meant for “anti-social elements.”

Operation Kaval was launched on December 18, 2021, as a special drive to create a detailed list of anti-social elements so that the Kerala police can keep them under surveillance. This came at a time when the police had been slammed with charges of excesses and lapses. Through this project, the police claim, they can curb drug trafficking, sand and contraband smuggling, and gang attacks, and punish the culprits. The police formed special teams in various districts to collect data on those who have such cases against them, and then keep an eye on their movements.

As per a report published on the website of Deshabhimani, the mouthpiece of the CPI(M), days after launching Operation Kaval, “A total of 15,431 anti-social elements and goons are being strictly surveilled by the police.” The report also said that 6,619 people have been placed under preventive detention.

The report further read: "The police had conducted a raid in 6,911 houses. Following this police action, 4,717 people, including notorious goons, were summoned to various police stations. A total of 525 people were taken into custody as a preventive measure against crimes. The police have seized 2,610 mobile phones from the culprits.”

Targeting voices of opposition

Shafeeq Thamarasser, a journalist with the Malayalam digital media platform Dool News, was summoned by the Thamarassery police in Kozhikode on December 28, to verify his details. He, too, had no idea why his information was needed for the Operation Kaval database. He has no criminal cases against him. 

However, in the past, the 28-year-old had been a part of various student movements – like Thrissur-based Youth Dialogue – and associated with environmental and human rights organisations. In 2016, he had attended a public protest when the residents of Plachimada, a village in Palakkad, were up in arms against the Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages, the Indian branch of Coca-Cola Company, claiming that the bottling plant caused severe water shortage and contamination. At the time, a First Information Report (FIR) was registered against Shafeeq and nearly 40 other protesters. Before that too, in 2014, an FIR was registered against him for taking part in a rally on Independence Day. 

“Both the times, only civil cases were registered against me for gathering without police permission and raising slogans, and both cases were not taken forward as they were not serious in nature,” said Shafeeq. 

Shafeeq believes that he is on the list because of the stories he has done for Dool News. “I have done a series of stories on police atrocities and on custodial deaths. I have written cover stories for the Chandrika and Madhyamam weeklies, critical of the performance of the home department of the first Pinarayi Vijayan government (2016 to 2021),” said Shafeeq. 

He alleged that many had warned him that the police would target him because of these stories. “I have been totally away from any kind of activism for the past five years and have been concentrating on journalism, so I can only assume my name is on the list because my stories are critical of the state home department,” he said.

If Shafeeq at least has some hint as to why the system was targeting him, Revathy (name changed) has zero idea why she has been included in the list. “I have not been part of any public protests; the only thing I did was register my opinion on certain issues on social media,” the 30-year-old, who did not want to be identified in any way, told TNM.

The police officers came to Revathy’s house in December to get her details. “My family members started panicking and they wondered why the police wanted my information as part of a project to surveil criminals,” said Revathy.

This has caused a lot of fear for activists and their families and has also been seen as a serious invasion of privacy. “Being on a list like this means we are under surveillance and our social media activities could be tracked,” said Shafeeq. He wondered if anything was private anymore, including his personal calls.

Shimy fears that being on the list would affect her future. “I am on a break from work now as I have to take care of my kid. But this could affect my chances if I look for a job in the future. What if an employer asks me why I am on the list?” she said. 

Many who are on the list, and have no idea why, were too afraid to speak to this reporter.

Even as this operation targets government critics, CPI(M) senior leader and former acting state secretary A Vijayaraghavan, told TNM he was not aware that human rights activists have been listed in Operation Kaval. Vijayaraghavan declined to comment on the CPI(M)’s stand on it. K Prakash Babu, assistant secretary of CPI, CPI(M)’s ally in the LDF, echoed the same. “I am not aware that human rights activists are listed under the Kaval project. The CPI has not discussed the project yet,” he said. 

Attempt to suppress SilverLine protests?

Some activists alleged that the government has come out with Operation Kaval to suppress the protest against the government’s SilverLine (K-Rail) project. It’s a proposed semi high-speed railway corridor connecting Thiruvananthapuram in the south to Kasaragod in the north. The project is estimated to cost Rs 63,941 crore and has been opposed by activists and environmentalists.

MK Dasan, the state secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist Leninist) Red Star, told TNM that party workers who have been part of the SilverLine protests were called by the police. “Five workers of Red Star got calls from different police stations in Kozhikode in December, asking them to come there with their Aadhaar as part of Operation Kaval,” he said. They are yet to go and submit their information.

“Under the cover of surveilling criminals, the police are suppressing human rights activists. The Kerala government had done the same even under the Epidemic Diseases Act, alleging that they (activists) had breached the law while protesting in support of farmers. The system even viewed containing the virus spread as a law and order problem not as a health issue. The target is not workers of mainstream political parties, but those who work in parallel outfits,” alleged Dasan.

Activist Reny Ayline concurred.“There are plenty of extant laws to keep tabs on anti-social elements in the country. A separate project is not needed. Operation Kaval is to frighten those who oppose the K-Rail,” alleged Reny. “Why else name the wife of a public activist as anti-social,” he said, referring to Shimy Kunnath. 

He further questioned whether the police were incapable of differentiating between an activist and a criminal. “Their target is all who speak against the system,” added Reny.

The police have been tough on Silver Line protesters. Around 90 people have been booked in cases relating to the protests in the state since December 2021.

The CPIM (Marxist Leninist) Red Star, who have been opposing the project, also issued a statement against the police on December 30. "The police in the last few days have come to the houses of Red Star workers and demanded that they come to the police station with their Aadhaar cards. It's illegal to summon people who don't have warrants or cases pending against them to police stations," the statement read.

What the police say

The state already has a Kerala Anti-Social Activities (Prevention) Act that was implemented in 2007. Known as KAAPA, the Act was implemented for the effective prevention and control of certain kinds of anti-social activities. But the Kerala police said that Operation Kaval has been launched to keep a better check on anti-social elements. “KAAPA is time consuming; a lot of procedures are involved. KAPPA has its own advantages but has got limitations too. Kaval project is about maintaining a proper system, it is a mechanism for overhauling the entire system in a short span of time,” Vaibhav Saxena, District Police Chief Kasaragod, told TNM.

On activists making it onto the list, he said, “There are registered and unregistered human rights groups. Not anyone can claim to be a human rights activist. Only those working under registered NGOs can be called human rights activists. If we take some preventive action against some people, it’s always based on criminal information. If anyone has any complaints, they can challenge it at higher forums like the courts. The police are careful to only act on credible information,” he said. Though he didn’t expand on what exactly constitutes ‘credible information’. 

Justifying why some names are put on the list, he said, “Some people put information on social media without verifying it, and it spreads like wildfire.”

Meanwhile, CP Rasheed, president of human rights organisation Janakeeya Manushyavakasa Prasthanam based out of Kozhikode, said that Operation Kaval shows how anti-democratic the system is.

“Mainstream political parties use goons for their own purposes and only rein them in when they cross certain lines. The system and the police hide this and go after human rights activists instead. Projects like Kaval pop up only when there are protests to deal with, like those against the SilverLine project. The prime duty of the police seems to be to protect developmental projects, especially when there is huge capital investments in play,” said Rasheed.

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