Salma (name changed), 45, had a perfectly normal afternoon. She cooked for herself and her son, had lunch and offered prayers. At 4 pm, she went to a nearby store to pick up groceries. By the time Salma returned, there were around 100 members of police personnel in her area. Residents of the locality recalled that there were at least five police vehicles stationed in the area, every approach road had at least two police personnel manning it and a couple of roads had barricades placed to restrict movement.
The police had split into smaller teams and were demanding to see Aadhaar cards, vehicle registration documents and asking other questions such as whether it was an owned house or rented. At Salma's doorstep were seven cops " four men and three women.
Listen: Residents talk about information that the police demanded
This was not in a village rife with frequent unrest along India's International Border. Nor was there a terror attack or a spike in crime. This was in Hyderabad, voted the top Indian city on Mercer's Quality of Living rankings for the fifth consecutive year in March 2019. This incident from 6 January was part of a "cordon and search operation" by the Telangana Police that was conducting a search in Salma's locality, Shakkar Gunj, a 15-minute drive from the Charminar.
The incident was met with outcry on social media as a video went viral. However, this is not a one-off instance of such an operation.
"It's a military tactic that has been in use by the state police," Lateef Mohammed Khan, general secretary of city-based Civil Liberties Monitoring Committee, said. Indeed, cordon and search operations are a known military tactic, employed by the Indian Army in Jammu and Kashmir as part of counter-terror operations. A cursory scan of news reports from Jammu and Kashmir reveals that such operations were suspended in the erstwhile state for around 15 years due to opposition from the public, only to be reinstated in 2017.
A version of this tactic " albeit scaled-down " became a 'routine' operation in Telangana from back in 2015. Back when the Telangana Police adopted cordon and search operations, such methods were primarily employed in the Hyderabad and Secunderabad region. Eventually, this was expanded to include other districts too. The modus operandi is just as the name suggests: An entire locality is closed down " often without prior intimation to the public, police personnel " 50 to 200, based on multiple news reports " visit the houses, citizens living there are asked to present identity proof and registration papers of vehicles are checked. Next, illicit money or valuables are seized and cases filed if needed.
Listen: A resident describes a typical police operation
Since 2015, officials from the state police department have claimed that cordon and search operations helped keep tabs on suspicious persons, illegal activities, rowdy-sheeters, property offenders and those involved in other offences. News reports since 2015 also reveal that during some cordon and search operations, repeat offenders or 'suspicious' people were detained and counselled or had cases filed against them. However, in several of these cordons and search operations, the primary outcome has been vehicles being seized, and identity cards verified.
One of the alleys in Hyderabad's Shakkar Gunj. Firstpost/Ayesha Minhaz
On 9 January, the LB Nagar Police conducted a cordon and search with 200 cops in the Vikar Sector Nagar and consumables that violated food safety standards such as spices " chilli and turmeric " and pickles were seized; those selling these food items were taken into custody. As per the news report, gutka packets and bikes were also seized. In the 2019 Hyderabad City Police annual report, such cordon and search operations are listed as one of the reasons for the "decrease in crime rate".
In the same report, the impact of the 192 cordon and search operations conducted within the Hyderabad Police Commissionerate limits that year is summed up as six cases filed (the nature of which is not in the public domain) and 2,464 'unauthorised' vehicles seized. These could be vehicles that are stolen or those that lack proper papers.
Since 2015, the police officials have cited a Standard Operating Procedure for how they conduct the cordon and search operations (not available in the public domain), and powers bestowed by Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) and Hyderabad City Police Act.
While policemen speak about such operations as an innocuous and routine practice to maintain law and order, the measure has been termed "disproportionate" and "illegal" by civil liberties activists and some lawyers ever since it began. "These searches are illegal acts and a blatant violation of human rights and civil liberties of the people. They are anti-poor and disproportionately anti-Muslim," said Lateef. He is not alone in harbouring these views. The public in Hyderabad has also been expressing discontent alleging that more often than not, the cordon and search operations are conducted in Muslim-majority areas.
"In addition to amounting to harassment of innocents, this will also leave an impact on the mental health of children, women and old people," Lateef added.
"Under the CrPc, to my knowledge, there is no such provision," said senior advocate at the Telangana High Court, L Ravichander, when asked about cordon and search operations. "There is a dangerous indirect threat of profiling by this approach," he added. Ravichander was appointed on a one-man fact-finding commission by the Minorities Commission of undivided Andhra Pradesh to look into arrests of Muslim youth following the 2007 Mecca Masjid blasts.
"You are pushing the margins slowly but steadily at the cost of their liberty," he said, adding that this was highly unacceptable, socially and constitutionally.
>Viral video and the link to CAA-NRC fears
Residents describe Shakkar Gunj, where the 6 January cordon and search was taken up, as a "low- to middle-class income locality". A Muslim-majority locality, its residents range from daily wage workers and autorickshaw drivers to people with small-scale businesses and government employees. There is a bike parked outside most homes. Some have autorickshaws. A few homes have cars with covers caked with dust. As one enters the interior lanes, the roads get narrower and the homes smaller.
Mumtaz Ahmed Khan, the member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) from Charminar constituency and a member of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), heard that the police was demanding to see Aadhaar cards during this operation and rushed to Shakkar Gunj. "In the prevalent circumstances of protests against the NPR, NRC, and CAA, it was unfair and irresponsible of the police department to demand that Aadhaar cards be shown during the cordon and search," said Mumtaz.
Following the altercation with the MLA " a video of which has gone viral on social media " that brought the spotlight back onto the cordon and search operations in Telangana, the team of over-70 members of Hyderabad Police personnel withdrew from the area.
Residents " especially women " are scared. The police had checked Aadhaar cards of some residents in the locality. This has added to the confusion among people on whether this is part of the groundwork for the NPR, the first step towards the proposed nationwide implementation of the NRC " dubbed a citizenship test designed to identify illegal immigrants in the country.
Such was the worry stoked by these videos, followed by no official assurance from state departments allaying the fears, that on Friday, speaking at the Tiranga Rally in Hyderabad against the NPR, NRC and CAA, Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi addressed the controversy and told people to not show their Aadhaar card even if it is the police demanding it.
>Residents unsettled, scared, angry
Fatima (name changed), a resident of Shakkar Gunj, did not want to answer this reporter's questions about the 6 January incident. After an initial refusal to comment, she gave a terse response: "The police asked for my Aadhaar card. I showed it." To a follow-up question, her two sons " aged around three and five " climbed the windowsill and said, "Ammi (mother) is requesting that you go away."
Fatima's neighbour echoed her concerns. "What if our response to you brings us more trouble?" On the assurance of anonymity, she said, "The police came here at an hour when several men in the locality were away at work. It was intimidating even in the presence of policewomen."
Salma said, "They didn't misbehave with us, but it was still unsettling." There is palpable anger too. Some residents feel they were "being treated as seasoned criminals" and a kind of "collective punishment" was being meted out due to some stray elements. The day before this incident, another police team had conducted a similar drive in a section of the MD Lines area of Hyderabad. MD Lines is a 15-minute drive away from Golconda Fort " the seat of the Qutb Shahi dynasty of the 16th and 17th centuries.
Similar to Shakkar Gunj, this too is low-to-middle-income area. The roads and the houses get smaller as you enter the interiors.
A team of over 100 police officials had cordoned the area. They knocked on the doors of each of the 250 houses in the area and noted the door number, Aadhaar details and the phone numbers of at least one resident in each house. They also verified vehicle registration documents and checked pending traffic dues. The team seized around 50 two-wheelers and a few autorickshaws.
Here too, the operation began in the evening and lasted for around two-and-a-half hours at least, as per the residents. Although still perturbed and unsure why this exercise was carried out, most residents said, "If the police demands, how can one say no?"
Apart from causing anxiety among the public, demanding Aadhaar cards during such searches is being flagged as illegal by researchers.
"The collection of Aadhaar data by the Hyderabad Police to create 360° profiles of residents amounts to surveillance," Srinivas Kodali, a Hyderabad-based independent researcher working on intersections of data, privacy, and surveillance-led governance, said. "The judgment by the Supreme Court on Aadhaar specifically restricts such usage. The UIDAI, being the regulator for Aadhaar, needs to urgently act on this."
The police officials this correspondent spoke to firmly maintained that the recent cordon and search operations are being "misinterpreted" and that they did not deviate from their "routine" methods.
While there was outrage on social media about the gathering of Aadhaar data, a police officer who supervised this drive said, "Aadhaar is an identity card like others: pan card, ration card etc. And, this is not the first time it was asked for." The cop further claimed that people are in fact 'content' with such operations.
When asked if they take warrants to conduct the cordon and search, the inspector said: "That would be the case if we enter the houses."
"If cordon and search were indeed illegal, would we be able to conduct these for four years?" asked an assistant commissioner of police in response to a question about legalities and whether a warrant was sought before conducting the recent operations. There are two opposite positions about the cordon and search operations in Telangana: The police officials who assert that this is a "completely legal" operation carried out to reduce the crime rate and establish "law and order". On the other end are rights activists, researchers and lawyers who have been calling this a patently illegal, unnecessary, anti-poor and a disproportionately anti-Muslim practice.
The author is a graduate student at SOAS, University of London and a freelance journalist