'Raided and Damned': The state’s tool to curb civil liberties

Oct 01, 2023
By Aishwarya Ravikumar

In a witch-hunt of human rights activists, academics and individuals who have spoken truth to power, the NIA has intimidated and targeted many people by conducting “raids” on their premises, detaining them for hours to interrogate them and even falsely charging them under draconian laws like 124A and the UAPA.

How are these raids, also called search and seizure operations, actually conducted? How do they undermine the rights of citizens?

“I received a strange phone call on October 28, 2020. It was at 7:15 AM, and the caller claimed that he was from the Income Tax Department. He said it was regarding an organization I had quit six months earlier. I simply said that I didn’t work there anymore and hung up. Within half an hour, the doorbell rang, and there they were. 3-4 officials from the NIA, and 4-5 police officials from the nearest police station.”

This was the beginning of a raid at the home of a Bangalore-based activist, Swathi Seshadri.

In light of the recent raids by NIA in Uttar Pradesh including one at the residence of PUCL National Secretary and State President of PUCL Uttar Pradesh Seema Azad, this article aims to highlight a few legal aspects of a raid, which protect the fundamental rights of every citizen, whether accused or not.

Ms Seshadri shared her experience with us, which detailed both the way in which a raid took place as well as the necessary measures that she was legally advised to take. She also shared with us the aftermath of a raid on her personal and professional life.

Before the raid began at Ms. Seshadri’s house, she had demanded a copy of the search warrant, or any document which authorized the officials to search her house. The officials refused, and did not even inform her any reference to a case, or the reason they are conducting the raid. “Upon realizing that I lived alone, they asked me to follow them to the police station. I refused to go anywhere until they told me why they were at my door. I also repeatedly asked them for a search warrant, which they refused to give. Then, the raid began.”

Mihir Desai, PUCL Vice President and a senior counsel practicing in the Bombay High Court and the Supreme Court, shared with us in detail about the rights of a person, which are protected by law, during the time of a raid.

Desai said that this is a common practice, although, it is not allowed. “Unfortunately, neither does a raid happen without a warning, nor do they follow such a protocol as to showing a search warrant or a document. In many cases, they also tend to bring many police personnel with multiple vans. Most times, this is to intimidate you. At that given moment, you are required to cooperate with them to avoid escalating the issue.”

Privacy denied

Ms. Seshadri recalled that ,during their search, the raiding party opened every drawer and every cupboard present in the house. “The process is the punishment – because they tried to break my spirit throughout the raid. They tried to humiliate me while opening the drawer in which I had kept my undergarments. They kept reminding me I am alone”, she said. “When my phone kept buzzing with calls from my ex-husband, they kept asking me personal questions about my relationship, and asked why he is so concerned when we are no longer married?”

As a part of the team of officials in a raid, the NIA is required to bring an ‘Independent Witness’ for an unbiased report of the investigation. “But the Independent Witness who accompanied the NIA was obviously known to the police”, said Ms. Seshadri. “He selectively leaked news of the raid to the media. Very soon, TV journalists had gathered in front of my gate and TV channels were broadcasting visuals of my house on loop. Journalists had shoved their cameras into the grill of my front door and were broadcasting visuals of the inside of my home too.” This was a flagrant violation of her right to privacy, and an extremely cruel tactic of the NIA to intimidate her.

Both Ms. Seshadri and Mr. Desai indicated that having friends and especially lawyers around is very important during such times. “That support system was what helped me stay calm and well-informed about my rights at that time”, said Ms. Seshadri. She shared, “During the raid, one of the things they did was to remove specific books my shelf which were about Kashmir and Urdu. That is when I knew that it was probably regarding the work I had done in Kashmir.”

Beware of “planted” evidence

“When the officials were searching, I made sure to follow them to every room and place they went. I kept a close watch to ensure that they leave no objects behind.” Mr. Desai agreed that this is very important, to ensure that the officials do not tamper with any of your belongings, or take unconstitutional steps of planting materials.

The seizure of personal devices and belongings!

With regards to materials that they seize, he said that while they are allowed to seize any object from your house, all the details of these seized objects must be declared in a document known as Panchnama, or the Seizure Mahzar. This document enlists every seized object, from books and papers to electronic devices. Ms. Seshadri said that her lawyers had emphasized that when they took her laptop, she should demand for the hash value. Hash value is a long numeric value which uniquely represents the data of a device.

Mr Desai explained  that this is very important to demand, because this number, when checked later, accurately represents whether the data in a given device has changed or not. “In fact, one should ask for the hash value to be written in the Panchnama. If not that, then the officials must write this in a separate letter and provide a copy to the individual”, he said.

This is a part of the process that is neither commonly known to people, nor complied with by investigating officials. “One of the officials wanted to connect the laptop  to an instrument and said that it is the quick way to scan my laptop. I had to refuse several times. They started threatening me, ‘If you don’t let us do this, then your case will be dragged for years! You will be called for interrogations repeatedly. If you are arrested, and even if you are innocent, you won’t get bail for 6 months. Do you want to waste 10 years of your life in jail?’ Since I was in touch with friends and lawyers who had informed me about my rights and precautionary measures, I calmly and firmly refused. I told them that they should first declare my laptop as a seized object on the panchnama, only after which they can take it. Until then, I did not allow them to do anything on my laptop”, Ms. Seshadri said.

In the last few years, such raids have been commonly used to target activists and stifle dissent. The PUCL has repeatedly condemned such attempts of the NIA and the government to criminalise activism and target individuals such as journalists, academics and activists, especially from marginalised communities. Such abuse of power through the raid  strategies of the NIA does grave damage to the free exercise of the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech, expression and association which is the essence of a democracy.