June 13, 2018
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"There is nothing fashionable about installing so many cameras in and outside one’s house," says a lawyer from a Muslim community. And yet, doing this has helped members of the community prove unfair police action against them.
MUMBAI — When sleuths of the National Investigating Agency suddenly descended on human rights defender and school teacher Abdul Wahid Shaikh’s house on October 11, he knew exactly what he needed to do next.
He had been monitoring the three CCTVs that are installed on the front and the rear of his house — a chawl in Vikhroli, a densely populated area in suburban Mumbai. The cameras told him that a group of men and women — some dressed in Mumbai police’s uniform and a few in civil clothes — had converged outside his house. Some of them were armed and few others with batons were aggressively banging at the door asking him to immediately let them in.
This was not the first time that the police had landed at his place at 5 am.
When the policemen discovered the CCTV cameras outside his house, they began hitting it with their batons, destroying one of them mounted right over the door. This action was captured by the adjacent CCTV camera. Shaikh, holed up in his house with his wife and two children, kept pleading with the police to stop destroying his property and simply show them an official notice.
Unlike the 20 other locations that the NIA team had reached the same day, to raid houses and also simultaneously arrest people in the ongoing probe against alleged Popular Front of India (PFI) members, and their alleged involvement in “unlawful and anti-national activities,” the raid at Shaikh’s received maximum traction on social media.
One reason is that Shaikh, who has already endured nine long years of incarceration (only to be later acquitted by the trial court), is a well known prisoners’ rights activist.
Another reason, and more plausible in this case, is that Shaikh was able to immediately substantiate his fear and accusations of police excess with ample video evidence.
Collection of evidence, and the need to satiate the state’s requirement of “proving one’s innocence” even when one is not implicated in any criminal case, however, has come at a huge cost, Shaikh says. The one that hurts him and his family the most is the absolute compromise of their personal space and privacy.
The Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA) court in 2015 acquitted him of all charges in the July 11, 2006 serial train blast case. Although his defence team was able to prove his innocence in the court, the police visits without any particular reason, summons to nearby police stations have continued over years. Shaikh knew if he had to ensure he does not end up in jail again, he had to put himself under constant watch. And not just him, but also his wife Sajida Tabassum and two children.
These cameras visibly infringe on his privacy. But they also help provide him with some sense of security.
Besides the two cameras outside his house, he was also compelled to install a camera in the living room of his modest flat. “That camera was installed to ensure that police follow the due process when they enter the house and do not harass my family,” he says. His wife, who practices purdah, was opposed to this initially. “She complained of not feeling at ease inside her own house,” he says.
Disturbing it may be, Shaikh’s is still not a one-of-a-kind case. Many individuals, predictably from the Muslim community, who have faced police atrocity and the brutalities of the state’s carceral system, have taken refuge in putting themselves under CCTV surveillance.
At a time when the discourse around the right to privacy in India is at a crucial point, here is a large community of people — facing both police excesses and fake criminal charges — forced to forsake one’s own privacy. While the state might not be explicitly seen indulging in surveillance in such cases, it still is a state-imposed surveillance, says 39-year-old Mohammad Bilal Gulam Rasul Kagazi from Surat district in Gujarat.
Kagazi, a lawyer, who focuses on cases of tribal rights, has long been a victim of police vendetta. As a part of his legal practice, Kagazi has been fighting cases for the Adivasi community of the region, raising issues of police atrocities and land encroachment, among others. And in the process, he says, the state began looking at him as an adverse party.
Over the years, Kagazi has had multiple cases filed against him, all directly relating to his lawyering and activism in the region. In 2019, The Wire had published a detailed report on Kagazi and the nature of the police harassment he had been facing.
Kagazi, too, has had to install cameras all around his house. These cameras, he says, visibly infringe on his privacy. But they also help provide him with some sense of security. “The police too are apprehensive of barging into my house now,” he says.
CCTV in Ahmedabad, India
As the unrest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), and two other imminent countrywide exercises, the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the National Population Register (NPR) grew in 2019, many Muslim families felt that they could no longer rely on the state for their security for it was the state machinery they feared the most. Incidents of houses being raided both by the police and local Hindu thugs were rampant during that period.
In Khalapar, a Muslim-dominated locality of Muzaffarnagar district in Uttar Pradesh, almost every house decided to install cameras in and around them. Khalapar, where relatively well off Muslim families reside, ended up spending on an average Rs 30-40,000 in getting the installations done. Today, activist Ravish Babu says, the entire region is under a “self- imposed surveillance.”
Privacy is a constitutional core of human dignity.
Babu — a law student and a young activist from Muzaffarnagar, who organized many anti-CAA protests in the district — too had to get multiple cameras installed around his two-storey house after the local police frequently visited his house and allegedly harassed both him and his family members. Along with deterring the police, Babu says, he is also able to “collect evidence” of his physical movement if that was to ever be necessary. “Under the current regime, the burden of proving one’s innocence is no more on the state but on one’s own self,” he says.
In August 2017, in a historical ruling, the Supreme Court held that the ‘right to privacy’ is protected as an intrinsic part of the right to life and personal liberty under Article 21 and is a part of the fundamental freedoms guaranteed by the constitution.
Privacy is a constitutional core of human dignity. At its core, right to privacy should ensure preservation of one’s personal space, along with the inviolability of marriage, procreation, the home and even sexual orientation. But by putting themselves under the constant watch of pervasive cameras, individuals are forced to surrender their privacy.
There is nothing fashionable about installing so many cameras in and outside one’s house, says a young lawyer from rural Maharashtra. A Muslim man, who was arrested a decade ago for his alleged involvement in a terror module, he studied law after his release. He too had had cameras installed everywhere around him. But as soon as he completed law and began practicing in a local court, he got rid of the cameras. “Now I can use my court appearance as evidence that I am not involved in any anti-national activities, that the police are ever willing to implicate me and many educated men like me,” he says.
No matter how “creepy” it may be, cameras have for long provided a sense of security to the Muslim community, says Zainab Siddiqui, a Lucknow-based activist. When her family was targeted in 2019 for actively participating in the anti-CAA and anti-NRC protests, Zainab had filmed the police atrocity on her phone. Her father was arrested and her then minor brother was illegally detained by the police. Zainab had made the videos public soon after. They garnered huge support for her family from across the country.
Zainab says she and her father have continued with their work. “But we have also lived under the constant fear of getting targeted any time,” she adds. Zainab’s family too is weighing on the pros and cons of installing cameras in their family house in Lucknow. “My father feels it is necessary. But we are wary of the many compromises that we will be making in the process,” she says.