In Hyderabad, Policing of Teens Under ‘Operation Chabutra’ Is Turning Violent

The police have long seen the chabutras in Old City, a place for social gathering, as locations for youngsters to indulge in illegal activities late at night.

A term that gained notoriety in Hyderabad recently is “chabutra.” Contrary to the local population’s perception of a chabutra as a place of social gathering, it is perceived by the Hyderabad South Zone police as a place where youngsters indulge in illegal activities and criminal conspiracies late at night. This has led to a new form of policing: temporary detention of youngsters who step out after midnight in the city. 

In 2015, Sri Satyanarayan the deputy commissioner (DCP) of the South Zone police initiated Operation Romeo and Operation Chabutra to discourage young individuals from gathering at chabutras and engaging in allegedly harmful activities. This practice was primarily aimed at raising awareness about the dangers of underage reckless bike riding, encouraging youngsters to use their time wisely and discouraging unnecessary late-night roaming that the police believed could potentially contribute to criminal activities.

What is a chabutra?

Chabutra is a colloquial term used in Hyderabad that refers to a raised platform or a pavement area typically found outside houses in residential areas. These structures often serve as community spaces for neighbours and residents to congregate, relax, or engage in conversations.

Historically, chabutras have played an integral part in the city’s design, and cultural fabric and in fostering a sense of community and social interaction. The concept of a chabutra draws its inspiration from the traditional village settings in India where community members and elders would gather beneath a grand tree to engage in conversations and deliberate on matters concerning families and society. In many Indian villages, this platform also served as the assembly ground for the local panchayat to conduct their meetings. It’s a common practice in India to have small indoor and outdoor platforms within neighbourhoods where people sit and converse.

Over time this concept transformed. What was once a symbol of community bonding started to be associated with gatherings of youngsters, especially late in the night. These gatherings often involved socialising, chatting, and sometimes activities that raised concerns, including fights.

Why are chabutras targeted by the police?

The police have been focusing their attention on chabutras due to a series of incidents in which conflicts between two groups or even disputes among friends escalated to tragic outcomes, including loss of life. These unfortunate incidents have raised concerns within the police force about night-time gatherings in the old city areas. Information provided by local media and police informants suggests a correlation between these gatherings and the occurrence of violent incidents.

Therefore, the police say they are laying more emphasis on ensuring that young individuals do not congregate in localities post-midnight. This “proactive approach”, they say, aims to prevent confrontations and altercations, reduce the likelihood of violence and ultimately preserve public safety.

The police’s assumption that these gatherings could potentially lead to conflicts or illicit activities raises important questions. Indeed, there are instances of such gatherings causing disturbances to residents and also serving as locations for criminal activities. It’s crucial to recognise that within neighbourhoods, there are designated spots, often in alleyways or side streets, frequented by known troublemakers or individuals with criminal backgrounds. However, it’s important to distinguish between these specific individuals and the broader community.

Can young people be prohibited from gathering with friends? Is it justifiable to curtail their freedom of peaceful assembly based on a few reported instances of crime in the old city? Does the law permit the detention and harassment of youth, simply for sitting outside their residences? These are critical questions that warrant thoughtful examination and consideration.

There’s a positive aspect to chabutras that merits consideration. It has been observed that when residents, including youngsters, gather in their localities, it serves as a deterrent to crime and criminal activities. The presence of community members can discourage outsiders from attempting criminal acts, as they would be less likely to go unnoticed or unchallenged. This highlights the potential for chabutras to provide a space for social interaction and enhance security and cohesion in the neighbourhood.

Therefore a nuanced approach that addresses the concerns posed by gatherings that lead to disturbances and criminal behaviour while preserving the valuable role they can play in maintaining a safe and connected neighbourhood environment is necessary.

Police harassment

The underlying motivation behind police operations in specific localities is complex and often influenced by various societal factors, including caste, class, and religious biases. To comprehend this intention, one must acknowledge the existing societal biases which shape the attitudes of government agencies, particularly the police. 

Historically, there has been a tendency to stereotype certain communities and areas, which subsequently impacts the orientation of law enforcement personnel. In the case of Hyderabad’s old city, it has often been portrayed as an area with potential criminal elements, extremists, and terrorists. The Muslim community which resides there has frequently faced police harassment, before and after the formation of Telangana. Muslim youth have been disproportionately targeted and detained in alleged terrorism cases, subjecting them to years of harassment, particularly following the Babri Masjid demolition. This biased perception is not accidental; rather, it is a deliberate part of the training and conditioning of law enforcement agencies. Muslims are often unfairly portrayed as radicalised and potential extremists or terrorists, contributing to a global narrative that emerged post-9/11, when international agencies began associating terrorism with the Muslim community.

In addition to the biases against Muslims, caste and class factors also influence the mindset of bureaucrats and law enforcement officers. There is a perception that individuals from backward communities with lower socioeconomic backgrounds are more likely to engage in criminal activities. This perception leads to the targeting of poor and vulnerable localities through measures such as cordon and search operations and ‘Mission Chabutra’.

Conversely, affluent and educated neighbourhoods often escape similar scrutiny. This imbalance in police operations reflects a broader societal bias, where individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds are disproportionately targeted, while those from privileged backgrounds enjoy relative impunity.

Operation Chabutra has been portrayed in a positive light by the police with the help of local media. But of late, there has been a surge of videos showing police using violent force on youngsters, including instances of the police continuously hitting teenagers with lathis. This escalation of violence on a large scale across an entire community of people is a dangerous trend emerging out of Hyderabad. While the local population initially supported a non-violent way of policing youth, they are increasingly concerned about this escalation.

The tragedy of this exercise is that instead of following the rule of law, the police have become the lawmakers in Hyderabad. 

S.Q. Masood is a social activist from Hyderabad