The harsh reality to eliminate the dissent from the winning way – the modus operandi of Jagan administration in Andhra Pradesh. This is causing the down popularity syndrome which is passing wrong signals to citizens. Based on allegations, #KhabarLive delves to get the reality.

Recently, #KhabarLive travelled to Andhra Pradesh and met four people who were detained by the CID over social media posts in response to the opposition TDP’s accusations that the CID is acting under the YSRCP’s direction.

More than seven years have passed since the Supreme Court ruled that Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, which rendered making “offensive” comments online a criminal subject to jail time, was unconstitutional because it infringed on the right to free speech. However, in Andhra Pradesh, the Crime Investigation Department (CID) of the Andhra police, according to charges made by activists and supporters of the opposition Telugu Desam Party (TDP), has replaced the draconian Act. Chief Minister Jagan Mohan Reddy has reportedly booked and detained a number of individuals over the previous three months, leading to widespread speculation that the department has been used as a tool to quell dissent.

According to data retrieved from the department, the CID has made a total of 146 arrests in three years: 50 so far this year, 52 in 2021, and 44 in 2020. The department refused to disclose how many social media cases it has registered during this time despite a #KhabarLive request. It should be emphasised that, in addition to cases referred by the state government or the High Court, the CID typically handles significant offences including riots, forgeries, and counterfeiting. However, a number of recent CID cases in Andhra Pradesh involved misinformation on social media, supporting the TDP’s claims that the government is cracking down on opposition.

So then, what is the fact of the matter? Is the Andhra CID really clamping down on dissenting voices and targeting those who oppose the YSRCP government? To understand the ground reality, #KhabarLive met with four people who were arrested by the CID in different cases — ranging from forwarding misinformation on WhatsApp to sharing one’s opinion on governance-related issues — over the past three years.

Case 1: Ankababu Kollu, senior journalist

Senior journalist Ankababu Kollu, a 73-year-old resident of Vijayawada, was booked by the CID just last month, apparently for forwarding a WhatsApp news alert to a group. It is a habit for Ankababu, sending out news alerts throughout the day to WhatsApp groups to alert fellow journalists of important breaking stories.

On September 9, like any other day, Ankababu had forwarded a message he had received. The translated version of the Telugu message read, “Wife of CMO official caught smuggling gold. DRI officials from Hyderabad seized the gold and detained the woman at Gannavaram airport.” Nearly two weeks later, around 7.30 pm on September 22, eight CID officials turned up at his home, seized his and his wife’s phones, and asked him to go along with them to the local police station.

Ankababu, who is also a lawyer, had asked the officials to issue him a notice under Section 41A of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC). The CrPC Section requires the police to issue a notice to an accused person prior to the arrest, which will in turn make the latter obliged to show up at the place and time specified on the notice. The officials, however, refused to give him a notice, claiming that they were only taking him to record his statement, said Ankababu. “I had protested this. I am a diabetic, have high blood pressure and heart issues. I had even showed them my medical records, requesting if I could come the next morning instead. But despite all of this, they insisted that I should accompany them. When I resisted, they pulled me by my lungi and threatened to forcibly take me away. One of them was recording all of this on their phone,” he recalled.

Ankababu was soon taken to the CID regional office in Guntur. He said he was treated well by the CID officials, and that they did not physically or verbally harass him. His vitals were also checked every few hours to ensure he was keeping well. “I explained to them what had happened. I hadn’t forwarded that message with any particular intention. It was just a news alert, and I had forwarded it as received. They, however, insisted that it was done to tarnish the reputation of the Chief Minister’s Office,” he said.

Ankababu was booked under various sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) including 153-A (Promoting enmity between two groups), 505(2) (Making statements leading to public mischief), and 201 r/w 120-B (Criminal Conspiracy). “When I asked them why I was being targeted despite me not being the source of the message, they said it was because I was of the Kamma caste. They also said they had no choice but to follow orders from their seniors,” he said.

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The Kammas are a dominant caste widely considered to be politically associated with the TDP, with most of the party’s prominent leaders including Chandrababu Naidu belonging to this caste group. On the contrary, the YSRCP is mostly populated by another dominant caste group, the Reddys. The political tussle between the two parties have often been framed by critics as a caste war between the Kammas and Reddys.

“[The CID] was trying to portray me as a TDP supporter. In their records too, they had mentioned beside my name that I was a TDP supporter. I had protested and made sure that they removed the claim. But the remand report too referred to me as a TDP supporter. Chandrababu Naidu himself had clarified in a meeting that I am not the party’s supporter,” said Ankababu. “Besides, after my arrest, CID officials searched my house to find any link to TDP, but they were unable to establish that claim,” he added.

According to Ankababu, he had forwarded the message in question after receiving it on another WhatsApp group. The complainant in this case, Tirupati Ramesh who works as manager at the CMO, wasn’t even part of the group that he had forwarded the message to, he said. “It is not difficult for the CID to investigate and find out the source of the message. The same news had been broadcast on TV channels. It even appeared in some newspapers on the same day. But only I was targeted,” he said. He was released from arrest on September 23. But the case against him, meanwhile, is yet to reach its logical conclusion.

Case 2: Darapaneni Narendra, TDP Media Coordinator

The same message that had landed Ankababu in trouble had got 50-year-old Darapaneni Narendra into trouble too. Narendra, who works as the Media Coordinator at TDP’s head office in Mangalagiri, also has the habit of sharing news alerts on WhatsApp groups. This time, he had forwarded the message to a WhatsApp group called ‘Amaravati Group’, which consists of journalists, doctors and people from various other professions as members. Narendra, has been a dedicated worker of the TDP for nearly three decades now, and had to suffer much more humiliation and abuse when compared to Ankababu.

Seven CID officials landed at Narendra’s residence in Guntur around 7.15 pm on October 12. They seized his phone before questioning him about the WhatsApp message he had forwarded. “I am part of nearly 50 WhatsApp groups. The settings on my app are such that all messages from all of these groups are automatically erased by the end of the day. Hence, the officials were unable to find the said message on my phone. But they were claiming that I had deleted the messages to destroy the evidence. No notice was served to me under 41-A CrPC. I was taken to the CID office where I was interrogated in a room which had three cameras,” Narendra told #KhabarLive, sitting in his residence at Arundalpet in Guntur.

In between the interrogation, around 12.15 am, Narendra alleges he was taken to the ADSP’s room where there were no cameras. “I was made to take off my clothes. They then forcibly spread my legs until it hurt me. They also made me do sit-ups,” he recalled. They, however, did not use any unparliamentary language against him, he said, adding that the officials also periodically checked his vitals to make sure he was in good health while in their custody.

A case has been booked against Narendra under IPC sections 153-A (Promoting enmity between two groups), 505(2) (Making statements leading to public mischief), and 201 r/w 120-B (Criminal Conspiracy) IPC, based on a complaint filed, once again, by Tirupati Ramesh. The complainant had alleged that the accused circulated the post on WhatsApp groups to incite hatred between two groups in society, hurt the reputation of the CMO and disrupt law and order. Narendra was released on bail at 2 am on Friday, October 14, after the judge refused the CID officials’ request to send him to remand. This is the first case for which Narendra has been booked in his life. 

Though they have cited the forwarded message as the reason for arrest, their agenda is clearly something else, alleged Narendra. “In the last three years, I have filed nearly 2,000 RTI (Right to Information) applications. While speaking at the Assembly, Chandrababu Naidu has referred to some of the RTI responses I received. [The government] is doing this now to demoralise the cadre and instil fear among them. They think that booking me will help silence others who speak up against the government,” he said.

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“I will not blame the CID. They are only following instructions. What is really there in this case for the CID to take it up anyway? It was, after all, just about a WhatsApp forward. The same news was broadcast on news channels and reported in some newspapers as well,” he added.

Case 3: Sambasiva Rao, Freelance Video Editor with TDP

Mokarla Sambasiva Rao (29), a freelance video editor with the TDP, found himself in trouble with the CID on July 1, when the officials suddenly arrived at his house in Amaravati. They had accused him of circulating a fake letter claimed to have been written by YS Vijayamma, the Chief Minister’s mother.

Recounting to #KhabarLive what had transpired on that day, Siva said, “My wife was feeding our kid when the CID officials barged into our house, claiming I had circulated a fake letter. They seized my new phone and laptop and then took me to the CID office in Guntur, where I was shown a screenshot of the letter they alleged I had circulated. That was the first time I ever saw the letter.”

At the CID office, Siva said, his clothes were removed and he was made to kneel down. “I was beaten below my knees. They stretched both my legs and pulled it until it hurt real bad. Two officials stood on each of my legs. They also hit me on my chest and made me act like I was sitting on a chair without offering me one. After the physical torture was over, they also threatened me not to tell anyone about it,” Siva said. Like the others, he too wasn’t issued a notice under 41-A CrPC before he was taken away by the CID.  

“They also asked me why I was working with the Kammas despite being from the Kapu community. They said I should be ashamed about it,” he added.

According to Siva, YouTuber Garlapati Venkateswara Rao was also interrogated by the CID just a day before they picked Siva up. Venkateswara Rao and Siva were roommates earlier. After the CID left, Venkateswara rang up Siva to tell him about what had happened. “After seeing my name in the call list, the CID must have assumed that I was involved,” he said.

During the interrogation, he was even warned that he was dealing with “big people”, and that he should be careful about what was in store for him, Siva said. “When I asked the CID for any evidence to prove my involvement, they had no answer. Finally, before I was allowed to leave, I was forced to sign a document saying I was involved in the fake letter case,” he said.

Three months since the alleged torture and detention by the CID, no further interrogation has taken place. “Ironically, I am still paying the EMI for my new phone, which the CID had taken away,” a smiling Siva told #KhabarLive.

Case 4: Poonthata Ranganayaki, a 67-year-old from Guntur

When Poonthata Ranganayaki put up a status on Facebook following the LG Polymer gas leak incident in Visakhapatnam, which occurred on May 7, 2020, little did she expect that the CID would come after her for that. Ranganayaki was 67 years old when she was booked by the CID for her post.

In her Facebook post, Ranganayaki had raised around 20 issues regarding the Visakhapatnam gas leak tragedy, besides blaming the police for allowing the plant officials to go scot-free. She had also questioned the delay in handing over the probe to the Central Bureau of Investigation.

Following the post, a notice was served to Ranganayaki under Section 41-A of the CrPC, and a case was registered under IPC sections 505(2) (Making statements leading to public mischief), 153(A) (Promoting enmity between two groups), 188 (Disobedience to order promulgated by a public servant) and 120-B (Criminal Conspiracy), in addition to Section 67 of the IT Act. Ranganayaki who was arrested on May 18, 2020, was soon released on bail.

The gas leak at the LG Polymers Private Ltd had taken 12 lives, besides affecting hundreds of people living in the area around the plant. Genotoxic styrene of an estimated 800 tonnes was exposed to the people. A High Power Committee (HPC) setup by the Andhra Pradesh government following the accident found that there was negligence on the part of the company, besides the lack of a preventive mechanism in place.

Nearly two and a half years after she was booked, #KhabarLive met Ranganayaki at her residence in Andhra Pradesh’s Guntur. She was unaware of the current status of her case, because she hasn’t heard back from the CID. Speaking to #KhabarLive, she said that she was an ordinary woman with no political affiliations. “My post was meant to question the government and the situation, keeping in mind the well-being of the people and the children who were affected in the gas leak,” she said, adding that she did not regret what she had posted.

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Though the CID is yet to file a chargesheet in the case, Ranganayiki’s life has changed a lot since the incident. She has been pushed into financial struggles, after local politicians allegedly made use of her vulnerable situation to take away a 45-year-old hotel her family had been running. “It seems that even sharing one’s thoughts has become a sin. It was an unnecessary overreaction to a simple post,” she said.

Refuting the allegation that the department was being used as a tool by the government to curb dissent by filing petty social media cases, the CID chief said the department is the nodal agency in the state for all social media operations, besides the Interpol-related cases and around 50 other issues. “Social media cases are technical in nature. Many of the fake profiles on social media use tools such as the VPM to cover their tracks. The CID has the technical expertise to investigate such cases. The police often reach out to us for help in such cases. So, it makes it easier for the CID to take them up,” he said.

According to Sunil Kumar, people who spread misinformation on social media can be broadly categorised into three sections. “Firstly, there are ignorant people. They have no agenda and are merely ignorant about the consequences of their actions on social media. The second type are hardcore party workers, while the third are paid campaigners. Those in the third category are loose cannons and will go to any extent to make money,” he said. Though most of these cases come under the social media umbrella, each case is different and the investigation depends on the section of law applicable, he added.

The ADG further stated that the CID was making arrests in cases involving repeat offenders, and those who are engaging in a conspiracy to tarnish the reputation of the government. “People who try to destroy evidence, falsify facts, and indulge in rumour mongering are dealt with an iron fist. It is only when an individual commits an offence under sections of the IPC or the IT Act that we step in,” he said.

However, it is to be noted that many of the social media cases booked by the CID in the past three years have neither been taken to a logical conclusion, nor ended up in conviction. When asked about the delay in filing the chargesheet in Ranganayiki’s case, the ADG said that the charge sheet was ready and would be filed soon. “The judicial process in this country takes time. But rest assured, all these cases will be taken to a logical conclusion,” he said. The query about the number of cases out of the 146 arrests that were chargesheeted, however, went unanswered.

Meanwhile, TDP chief and former Chief Minister Chandrababu Nadu wrote a letter to the Andhra Pradesh Director General of Police on October 12, stating that the police in general, and the CID police in particular, seemed to be more busy harassing dissenting voices and targeting the leaders and cadre of opposition TDP. “The manner in which CID is functioning as an extended arm of the ruling YSRCP is appalling, as it is not only destroying the sanctity of decade old traditions, but is also giving rise to revenge politics. It is sad to note that the CID is stooping to such standards to serve the ruling party’s interests,” Chandrababu said in the letter.

The goal of the CID, according to TDP spokesman Pattabhi Ram, is to spread terror among the populace and quell dissent. False cases are brought against TDP activists and regular citizens in order to accomplish this. The CID has never brought a case to a logical conclusion. In fact, they frequently received harsh defeats from the High Court. Every time the government is cornered, the CID makes an arrest since doing so will draw attention away from the current problem, the official added.

Further, Pattabhi said that the CID was using the 24-hour window before an arrested suspect is required to appear before a court as a tool to torture detainees. The CID even fails to provide notices as required under 41-A CrPc. All arrests are made in the evening or in the late hours of the night. It is not even surprising that it is the Kammas who are continuously targeted by them. This has to stop,” he added. #KhabarLive #hydnews #hydlive