Hyderabad: Cordon and searches create fear among Old City youth

Hyderabad: A cup of chai at a small-warm tea shop closest to home with a few friends is what a youngster or any local resident would crave at the end of a long day, with uninterrupted time for relaxation to rejuvenate for the next morning.

However, youngsters and teenagers from the Dabeerpura areas of the Old City were not prepared for their peaceful evening to be disrupted last week, after a group of policemen paid a visit to the locality between 8-9 p.m., last week. The experience in fact was something they never even imagined would happen.

A posse of policemen arrived in a vehicle, navigated to the closest chai shop, and asked customers to vacate it. Customers were asked to empty their pockets by the police, while the pan Dabba owner, adjacent to it, was asked to step out of his corner for a thorough check in case he was illegally selling Gutkha.

“It was just like any other day. There were a few customers at the shop here for chai when the policemen came and asked the customers to come out. Although the customers were a little perplexed, they stepped out. After that, customers were asked to empty their pockets,” said Rizwan, the pan Dabba owner.

“I was asked if I sold gutka at the shop, and then the police officers checked the Dabba to verify my statement,” he added. Others from the area who were present in the area got quite uncomfortable with the random checkings without any cause.

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“There was a boy who spoke to the officers and questioned them as to what is happening and what they were doing. The officers just said that they were conducting regular checks,” informed the owner of another establishment nearby, who did not want to be quoted.

According to other eyewitnesses, a few police officers walked further into the area and looked around before they started stopping vehicles passing by for verification of documents and seized vehicles of those who did not carry documents.

“I had gone out for groceries and to see a few friends. I was around the corner of my house when I saw police officers stopping vehicles to check their documents. I stood for a few minutes before I returned home, and turned away before the cops came towards me. I carried the documents of my vehicle with me, but I left out of fear as I didn’t want to be questioned,” said Tahir* a resident in the area.

Like him, other youngsters in the area also said they feel threatened with the presence of policemen for no reason, as it triggers their flight response even if they have not committed any offence.

“There was a little commotion outside my house and I stepped out to see what was happening. I saw that the policemen had stepped into the chai shop and were checking for drugs, gutka etc,” said Vijay (name changed), a 17-year-old college student, who stays in a lane diagonally opposite to the chai shop.

His friend Rao who was also present when the policemen came to the area said they returned immediately fearing that they would be falsely accused by the cops. “We immediately home fearing that if the police find something on people around, we might also be held assuming involvement,” he told Siasat.com.

The Hyderabad, Cyberabad and Rachakonda police in the city have been conducting cordon and search operations in urban and semi-urban areas, which began nearly half a decade ago. Added to this is the increased late-night patrolling under the “Mission Chabutra”, wherein youngsters sitting outside of their homes are detained and released in the morning after counselling.

The patrolling has been heightened off-late, with the police now looking to clamp down on drug-related offences. In fact, earlier this month, the Hyderabad police came under heavy criticism for invading the privacy of citizens by checking Whatsapp chats of random people during one such checking in the west zone area (near Mangalhat).

It may be noted that many, including activists, have come down heavily on the police for cordon and search operations, which in reality is an army tactic used as a counter-insurgency operation. Concerned citizens are generally of the opinion this tactic essentially targets marginalised communities living in slums and poorer localities, where such operations are mostly done.

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A similar operation was conducted in Narmetta village in the city of Warangal on Sunday, where the police clarified that cordon and search operations were only “public contact and community outreach programs.”

Independent researcher Srinivas Kodali, who is currently working on the right to privacy issues of the public, censuring the police said, “If it is an awareness program, it should be conducted by a ministry responsible for the said purpose. If it is a public outreach program why is it called a search? What are they searching for?”

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A fact-finding committee that carried out the extensive groundwork on this issue has found that vulnerable groups, especially women from lower caste and Muslim households, were most affected due to the city police’s controversial cordon and search operations.

Although the Telangana police have been criticised for their works time and time again, they have secured the second rank in the Smart Policing Index 2021.

Andhra Pradesh stood first and Telangana is ranked second with an overall SMART Index score of 8.11 and 8.10 respectively in the survey which covered 1,61,192 responses from across the country.

Although Telangana tops the list of police sensitive states and Union territories and holds the second spot under the accountability and public trust category, their recent activities reflect otherwise. When contacted, Ghajarao Bhupal, deputy commissioner of police (south zone), remained unavailable for comment in spite of repeated calls and texts. The story will be updated when he responds.