At 2 am on February 25, Nikhil*, 22, hailed an auto at Bengaluru’s HSR Layout. The IT employee had been drinking with friends and was on his way home when two patrol police personnel stopped his auto at Somasundarapalya.
“After noticing that I was inebriated, they checked my bag and took me away from the auto before asking for my phone,” Nikhil said, adding that he felt helpless as he doesn’t speak Kannada and the patrol police were conversing only in Kannada.
“Even though I was committing no offence, the cops asked to hand over my phone,” he said. “They were persistent even when I resisted. They opened my WhatsApp and searched for the words ‘weed’ and ‘pot’. They handed over the phone when nothing came up.”
Nikhil was shocked. “I know it’s not constitutional,” he said. “I wanted to ask for a warrant but it happened so fast I couldn’t gather my thoughts.” He was then allowed to leave and he did.
“It has become so common these days. There are so many accounts on social media. It has happened to my friends and acquaintances too,” he said. “But it was strange that the cops stopped a commuter in an auto.”
But this isn’t a stray case. Between December 2019 and February 2022, at least 21 Bengaluru residents claim they were similarly harassed by the police, as detailed in and compiled by an anonymous Reddit user. The “harassment” often involved the police taking their mobile phones and searching for conversations on “drugs”. While a received widespread coverage, most of the cases in Bengaluru were unreported.
In one case, a policeman allegedly threatened to inform a youth’s parents about “questionable” photos on his phone; in another, a policeman advised a youth not to “chat” with his girlfriend for long hours. A third user claimed two cops stopped his Ola cab, asked him his salary details, and then insisted on checking his mobile phone to know if he had “bad habits.”
Newslaundry spoke to some of the people who had posted on Reddit to ask them what had happened.
In November, for instance, Gourav Sharma, 25, was riding a bike with a friend in Kasturba Nagar when two policemen approached them on a motorcycle. Sharma claimed the cops “threatened” them and tried to “snatch” their phones when he and his friend refused to hand them over.
“We obliged to avoid unnecessary trouble,” he told Newslaundry. “They made me unlock my phone and snooped through my personal chats on WhatsApp.”
The police also “grilled” him, he alleged, about how much he earned and asked “personal questions” about his job profile and drinking and smoking habits, before letting them go.
Sharma said he did not file a complaint. “Complaining to the cops about cops? No, thank you,” he said. “It was enough trauma for one day.”
In October, Niranjan K, 20, was driving his sister and mother to a shop when he had a “disturbing” experience at ESI Hospital main road. He told Newslaundry he was waiting in his car parked outside the shop, when two cops on a bike bumped into his vehicle.
“They demanded my mobile, stating there was massive drug usage in this neighbourhood and that they were cracking down on it,” Niranjan said. He claimed the police “checked his phone for 10 minutes” before returning it.
“I felt violated,” he said. “I had read so many such incidents on social media platforms and yet couldn’t avoid giving my mobile.”
Did he file a complaint? “I was offended,” he said, “but it didn’t feel like a wise thing to complain about it.”
In December 2021, Muhammed Athif, 23, was walking on a road in Bellandur when four cops in a patrol car allegedly stopped him. It was 8.30 pm and Athif, who visited Bengaluru frequently on work, told Newslaundry he was on his way to an Oyo hotel from his office.
“They asked me to show the available balance in my GPay or PhonePe accounts. I refused,” he said. “They kept asking me for money the whole time, stating that I cannot walk at late hours. I opened my wallet to show my Aadhaar card and that’s when they saw a Rs 500 note in it. They then said, ‘Give us something and we will let you go.’”
Meanwhile, one of the policemen “forcefully” snatched his mobile phone, he said, opened the media gallery, and scrolled through his photos.
“That’s when I decided to pay Rs 500 so as not to escalate the situation,” Athif said. “They were wasting my time and I didn’t want to create a scene. Although I don’t want anyone to be in this situation, I am not comfortable complaining about it.”
He added, “I felt like I was being robbed by a group of bandits.”
Importantly, there have been sporadic reports of this nature for the past two years. For instance, Munna*, 29, told Newslaundry he had been targeted by patrol police personnel in Bellandur in August 2020. He had been smoking outside a tea shop at around 7 pm when two cops approached him, he said.
“They asked me to hand over my phone,” said Munna. “I was in the city after a year and assumed it was part of a crackdown. But the cops didn’t let me go even after finding nothing on my phone.”
He alleged he was interrogated about his salary, his personal life, and his habits with respect to smoking and drinking. “I knew they were expecting a bribe, so when I told them I had no liquid cash, they asked me to GPay Rs 500 to the tea shop...and returned my phone,” he said, adding that the tea shop owner then handed over Rs 500 to the cops.
Munna, like the others, did not file a complaint with the police. “They would definitely harass me if I lodge a complaint,” he said. “I hoped the higher authorities would have taken action as a lot of cases are coming out. But it is alarming how the rowdyism of the police has been continuing for two years now.”
Nikshay Reddy, who works at Bengaluru’s Banjara Layout, told Newslaundry he’s witnessed “six cases” of patrol police “forcefully searching mobile phones of youngsters” outside his place of work. In two of the cases, the police “grabbed” phones while in the other four, Reddy claimed the police “intimidated” people into handing over their phones.
“They target youngsters, search their mobile phones in the name of drug control and even take bribes from them,” he alleged.
Newslaundry contacted Praveen Sood, DGP of the Karnataka police, to ask about these cases. Sood said he was not aware of such incidents.
“We have never received such complaints in police stations,” he said. “A lot of garbage is pumped into social media everyday; we cannot take it seriously...Citizens are no longer afraid to complain about the police. If we receive a complaint, we will take action.”
Despite numerous calls and messages, Bengaluru police commissioner Kamal Pant did not respond to Newslaundry’s requests for comment.
In some cases, though, users had tagged the Bengaluru police on hoping for a quick resolution to their problems. Kanya Babu, a social activist, pointed out that other city police forces are in reaching out to citizens on social media.
“Reporting about the harassment of police is not easy for a common man,” Babu said. “Bengaluru police should be proactive in calling out complaints, even anonymous, on their Twitter channel and ensuring a proper enquiry.”
Lawyer Sanketh Yenagi also said it’s important to remember that it’s illegal for the police to seize and check phones.
“Article 21 of the Indian constitution provides for the right to privacy; it is the government’s duty to protect it,” he said. “Even if the person is accused of a crime, the police, under Article 20(3), cannot compel them to give the evidence. The police cannot do it even to prove the offence, they should collect the evidence independently.”
*Names changed to protect their identities.
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