Filming couples, sharing photos with media: Hyderabad police SHE Teams’ actions raise questions

As police deny indulging in “moral policing“, several citizens ask if public display of affection can be called “indecent“ or “nuisance“.

ByAjay Tomar | Deepika Pasham

Published Feb 26, 2024 | 11:00 AMUpdatedFeb 26, 2024 | 11:05 AM

SHE teams logo

A total of 14 individuals were fined by the Hyderabad police’s Safety, Health and Environment (SHE) Teams on Friday, 23 February.

The move was ostensibly aimed at curbing “indecent behaviour” by these couples in public places.

The officials of the SHE Teams, which is a division of the Women Safety wing of Telangana police, claimed that the couples had been exhibiting acts of nuisance in public spaces and degrading the “decency” in society.

As a result, 12 individuals were fined ₹50 each under Section 70 (B) of the City Police Act — a petty offence amounting to anyone behaving indecently on any street, public place or a place of public resort, or using any insulting or obscene words or gestures that are likely to disturb public peace and cause a public nuisance.

Apart from that, two individuals were fined ₹1,250 each under IPC Section 290 for their “aggravated offence”, which amounts to punishment for disturbing public peace.

To tighten the grip of offenders, the cops also video-recorded the operation, which they said was instrumental in the identification and prosecution of offenders. They later released pictures of the couples.

However, the move of the SHE Teams — formed to ensure women’s security — led to a controversy, with questions being raised over whether the action was a legal measure to curtail public nuisance or an act of moral-policing leading to the infringement of the privacy of couples.

Also Read: Over 22,000 cases of crime against women reported in Telangana in 2022

‘Not moral policing’ 

SHE Teams Assistant Commissioner of Police (ACP) Prasanna Lakshmi said the “proactive move” happened in the area surrounding the Ameerpet metro station based on several complaints from passers-by. The all-woman squads entertain such complaints on social media apps.

“We had received complaints through WhatsApp from people passing by the metro station that couples were indulging in obscene behaviour. They also mentioned that this behaviour disturbed the public spaces,” she told South First, adding that upon reaching the spot the cops came across the indecent behaviour.

Maintaining that the individuals were only fined and none of them was convicted, she said, “Section 70 (B) of the CP Act, under which indecent behaviour comes, has been implemented as per the Magistrate court’s order.” The Magistrate further counselled the individuals about indecent behaviour, the police said.

Defending the police’s act, Additional Director General of Police (ADGP) Shikha Goel maintained that the Telangana police never indulged in moral-policing.

She said: “Such actions are taken only when an individual or a couple is involved in displaying any kind of obscene act or making lewd gestures. We never do moral policing at all.”

Goel also underlined the general principle on which the SHE Teams operated. “The main job of the squad is to prevent street harassment of women. Whenever such indecent incidents come to our notice or brought to our notice, we take cognizance of them also,” she added.

Upon the future course of action, the ACP said the SHE Teams were going to act on more complaints in the coming days. “There are parks and some other areas where we will act in the coming days,” she said.

Also Read: Moral policing in Karnataka again as Muslim men assault colleagues

‘Police should be prosecuted’

Questioning the police’s action, senior Supreme Court advocate Colin Gonsalves asked whether showing affection in a public space was an offence.

“The Hyderabad City Police’s SHE Teams have not defined what is indecent behaviour in public spaces. Thus, they have no right to encroach upon the privacy of an individual or unmarried couple,” he said.

Gonsalves, who is also the founder of the Delhi-based Human Rights Law Network, noted that unmarried couples holding hands, kissing, and cuddling were not crimes.

“It is showing affection towards each other,” he told South First.

Citing Article 21 (Right to Life) of the Constitution, the noted lawyer remarked, “The right to love also falls under the Right to Life. How can police disobey a fundamental right?”

He stated that the SHE Teams personnel should be dragged to the Telangana High Court for prosecution.

“They should be questioned for their act, because a criminal who committed a crime also has a right to privacy. So, why not individuals? What have they even done?” asked Gonsalves.

He added that sharing the couples’ pictures with reporters or posting them on social media only exacerbated the situation, and that the police should be prosecuted for this.

Telangana High Court advocate Vijay Gopal asked whether the SHE Teams have a copy of such orders.

“Are the police becoming judicial officers, passing orders, deciding who will sit where, and in what manner? They must clarify what indecency is,” Gopal, who is also an RTI activist, told South First.

Hyderabad-based independent data and privacy researcher Srinivas Kodali told South First, “I don’t know if public spaces will have the right-to-privacy arguments per se. But the scope of indecency arguments — on what is indecent — is never limited.”

He added: “The police can do better policing than do moral-policing of consenting adults who at best could be kissing each other.”

Also Read; Twist in Hangal moral policing case as woman alleges gang rape

On police’s discretion

Senior Supreme Court lawyer Kaleeswaram Raj noted that it was not up to the police’s discretion to interfere in intimate personal relations unless and until it was an offence.

“If somebody is involved in an intimate relationship, they are entitled to have it irrespective of formal relation. The state cannot have any legitimate reason to interfere in that,” Raj told South First.

“This was also directed by the Supreme Court when it decriminalised adultery by striking down Section 497 of the Indian Penal Code. There, the court said relations could not be interfered with by the state,” he explained.

The lawyer added that the apex court later went on to decriminalise same-sex relationships.

In 2018, while hearing Joseph Shine vs Union of India, the Supreme Court struck down Section 497 of the IPC because it held that the section violated Articles 14 (Right to Equality), 15 (prohibition of discrimination), and 21 of the Constitution.

“So, in all these cases, the court took a view against social morality as it applied the principles of constitutional morality against the conventional orthodoxy of social morality. Therefore, applying these principles and also applying the principle of privacy [from Justice KS Puttaswamy(retd) vs Union Of India] there cannot be any inference in the relations unless they are harmful to society,” he said.

Emphasising the harm, Raj said, “What might be seen as harmful to the values and views of the society coming from the majoritarian opinions might not be seen as a harm in the legal sense. So, even if the harm stems from public opinions and complaints, the police are bound to abide by the law.”

He continued: “Therefore, I am repeating that there cannot be any interference in such cases by the police that directly goes against individual liberty and personal dignity, which has time and again been reiterated by the Supreme Court.”

Also Read: Fresh case of moral policing in Karnataka as interfaith couple assaulted

Citizens react

A couple at one of the parks on the Srinagar Colony Main Road in Hyderabad were of divided opinions.

While the two noted that it was the responsibility of the individuals to limit their actions, they also pointed fingers at the police for threatening the couples as sometimes people are not aware of their rights.

“If people feel that they are doing something wrong, then they will also be afraid, and that may be a deterrent. Many times, couples think opposing the police’s action might lead to the disclosure of their identities to their families. So as a result, they don’t voice out their point of view. On the other hand, couples should also maintain decency. Sitting, talking, and holding hands in public places is okay but more than that is seen as unacceptable. So, if they want privacy, they should go to a private place,” the couple told South First.

Some citizens on X questioned the SHE Team’s move. “Public display of affection (PDA) is not a nuisance or crime. Showing affection should not be criminalised. There are more horrible things that are happening on our streets like public urination, tobacco spitting, and littering. Several people even roam in an intoxicated state (punishable under IPC Section 290). Do the police dare take action on that?” one of them wrote.

Another individual — from the Banjara Hills area of Hyderabad — asked what the police were achieving by imposing a fine.

“Will it actually help root out public nuisance? Instead, they should register such couples and subject them to some immediate counselling to make them reflect on the consequences of their actions. This is because public spaces are also family spaces, where children also come. And Indian culture is majorly conservative. Keeping that in mind, the approach should be more towards reform than charging a fine,” the individual told South First.