The hunt for mobile phones of Bandi Sanjay and other Telangana BJP leaders

I am not suggesting that you be sympathetic to the BJP or its leaders. But it is important to understand the evolution of policing practices and the lack of checks and balances — even for the most powerful in our society. These new policing practices are going to harm all individuals with legal precedents that can’t be undone.

BySrinivas Kodali

Published Apr 10, 2023 | 5:28 PM Updated Apr 10, 2023 | 5:28 PM

Bandi Sanjay was asked by the Telangana Police to produce his mobile phone as part of the investigation in the SSC exam leak case

The Telangana SSC exam paper leaks have taken an ugly political turn with political party leaders being accused as the primary culprits. BJP Lok Sabha MP from Karimnagar and state head Bandi Sanjay has been named as the main accused behind the leak of an SSC exam paper, and the Telangana Police had asked him to produce his mobile phone as part of the investigation.

This demand for phones has been extended to other BJP leaders such as Eatala Rajender, who has also been served a notice to produce his mobile phone.

Bandi Sanjay’s refusal to share his mobile

Bandi Sanjay has refused to share his mobile phone with the police and other leaders of the BJP are expected to do the same. A day earlier, he had written to the police stating that he had lost his mobile.

Leaders of the BRS have made this act of Bandi Sanjay not sharing his mobile phone political and termed his refusal as a crime in itself. In their defence, they are citing how BRS leader K Kavitha was also asked by the ED to produce her mobiles as part of the Delhi liquor scam investigation.

Also read: ED examines Kavitha’s mobile phones in presence of her representative

The danger of data raids

Kavitha phones ED

Images of BRS MLC K Kavitha flashing her phones to the media before appearing for ED questioning (Twitter)

In the age of spyware, where most politicians and human rights activists are already being spied on by intelligence agencies, the demand for mobile phones for investigations is taking it to the next level.

National agencies such as the ED, I-T department, and CBI, and police departments have been conducting data raids on media houses and human rights activists to clone their mobile phones. There has been long opposition to this practice of weaponising state institutions for political purposes.

The dangers of these data raids can be witnessed in our political system with no space for opposition. Beyond the information threats these agencies can use to blackmail critical thinkers in our society, seizure of mobile phones creates new challenges.

Any electronic device that is being seized, at the time of seizure, needs to be cloned and only a copy of this device should be ideally taken as per the Evidence Act.

Instead, our policing agencies seize the entire device and don’t even provide a copy of the seized device. This is important due to the ability of these agencies to plant evidence against people and use this planted evidence to arrest them.

Also read: How Hyderabad Police justified facial recognition surveillance, even as top cop denied using it

Information leak to media outlets

Beyond the issue of planting evidence, Indian agencies have had a long history of leaking this information to friendly media organisations. WhatsApp chats have been shared and televised with flashing slogans in the case of Sushant Singh Rajput’s death investigation and Aryan Khan’s arrest, not to forget the arrest of Arnab Goswami and the leak of his WhatsApp chats.

Beyond the arrests and detention of famous personalities, the WhatsApp chats of victims of crime can be weaponised by opposing counsel — as was seen in Tarun Tejpal’s trial in a Goa court.

The fundamental right to privacy grants individuals the right to keep their information private and not be subjected to undue surveillance by various arms of the nation-state.

A mobile phone in the digital age represents all the private information of an individual and can’t be demanded to be produced for every basic crime they are being accused of. Under Article 20(3) of the Constitution, every accused has a right against self-incrimination, where he can’t be compelled to be a witness against himself.

There is at least one ongoing case in the Supreme Court where a few academics have petitioned for creation of rules for device seizures. In Rama Ramaswamy & Others Vs Union of India, the Supreme Court has issued notice to determine the contours of device seizures in the case of academics who have been subjected to this treatment by the government.

Also read: Facial recognition tech at airports is just the start

Dangerous precedents

I am not suggesting that you be sympathetic to the BJP or its leaders with the ongoing political oppression across the country.

But it is important to understand the evolution of policing practices and the lack of checks and balances — even for the most powerful in our society. These new policing practices are going to harm individuals with legal precedents that can’t be undone.

The ruling BRS in Telangana has made it clear enough that it is retaliating over the BJP’s actions against BRS leaders, making this a tit-for-tat response.

Investigations of corruption and scams in India have always been political, with retribution towards political leaders instead of actually addressing the issue at hand. Even in this case, neither political party is interested in advancing the wheels of justice and they are both finding excuses to retaliate.

The common people in India are used to this game of politicians targeting each other and the media continues to fuel this hype.

But it is not just opposition leaders who are now afraid of using their mobile phones; even the common people do not want to share any critical news about the government as they are worried about punitive actions by the police. It is in no one’s benefit to go down a path of a surveillance-heavy police state that harms people for standing up for what they believe in.

Also read: How professors catch students using ChatGPT to cheat in exams

(Srinivas Kodali is a researcher with interests in cities, data and the internet. These are the personal views of the author.

This article is shared under Creative Commons Attribution – No Derivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-ND 4.0). It was originally published in Siasat. Only the headline, strap, paragraphing, and subheads have been changed/added. A few words inside the copy have also been modified in accordance with the organisation’s style guide)