Activists slam India’s first ever GPS tracker for Kashmiri suspect

Since he got bail more than a week ago, Ghulam Muhammad Bhat, 65, has had the electronic device placed around his ankle.

Kashmir police
India's security personnel stand guard on the banks of Dal Lake, a famous tourist attraction, in Srinagar [File: Danish Ismail/Reuters]

Indian activists have slammed the authorities in Indian-administered Kashmir for putting a Global Positioning System (GPS) tracker on the body of a man facing “terrorism” charges – the first such use of electronic monitoring reported in the South Asian country.

For more than a week now, Ghulam Muhammad Bhat, a 65-year-old resident of the region’s main city of Srinagar, has been walking with the tracker around his ankle, which officials said has been introduced for prisoners out on bail.

The officials said the device will allow security agencies to maintain round-the-clock surveillance on defendants.

Bhat, a lawyer, was a close associate of Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Kashmir’s top separatist leader, who, until a year before his death in 2021, presided over the Hurriyat Conference, the leading separatist group in Indian-administered Kashmir, a region also claimed by neighbouring Pakistan.

Bhat was arrested at his Srinagar home in 2011 under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) for allegedly financing the activities of the Hurriyat Conference. He was held in a jail in New Delhi and denied bail several times until last week when it was finally approved.

‘Imprisonment by other means’

As part of Bhat’s bail conditions, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) court in the southern city of Jammu ordered authorities to track his activities 24 hours a day. The court also asked him not to change his residence while he is released on bail.

“The Superintendent of Police, Srinagar shall keep the mobility of the applicant on track so as to notice the activities of the applicant time and again,” the court order said.

A police officer in Indian-administered Kashmir told Al Jazeera the GPS device will help authorities track real-time locations of defendants to ensure they comply with their bail conditions.

“It is GPS- and SIM-based, and it alerts the control room if a person tries to remove it,” the official said on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorised to speak to the media.

But rights activists said the black, square-shaped, water-resistant gadget is a form of “virtual imprisonment” and compromises the privacy of an individual who is facing trial but not convicted.

“We know from other contexts where this technology is used that GPS tracker is imprisonment by other means. Given that it is used against undertrial accused, it relies on the logic that one is guilty until proven innocent. That is injustice,” Mohamad Junaid, a Kashmiri and assistant professor of anthropology at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in the United States, told Al Jazeera.

Junaid said the worst part is that any form of political dissent can now be seen as a violation of bail conditions. “That makes this new process mind and mobility control, a true techno dystopia,” he said.

Officials defend move

In September, a parliamentary panel recommended the use of GPS trackers on inmates to reduce the stress on India’s notoriously overcrowded jails.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau, there are 554,034 prisoners in Indian jails and 427,165 of them – 76 percent – are awaiting trial. In Indian-administered Kashmir, where a crackdown on pro-freedom groups has seen thousands of arrests, that number is 91 percent.

Earlier this month, RR Swain, the director general of police in the region, told reporters there was no mechanism to ensure the bail conditions of a suspect freed on bail are being followed. He said real-time monitoring of the accused is necessary.

“So we had to think of something that would address it. We came up with a tracker that is widely used in Western countries. We are happy that we have fixed the first tracker on an accused person,” Swain said.

“I have been told that this person [Bhat] was carrying 5 million Indian rupees [$60,000] in a gas cylinder for terrorists and separatist financing when he was arrested. With the help of the tracker, we can monitor his movements as directed by the court. We are the extended arms of the court,” he said.

Ajai Sahni, a security analyst at the Institute for Conflict Management, a New Delhi-based think tank, told Al Jazeera the GPS tracker is a condition for defendants to get bail.

“Otherwise, for most of these people, it would be difficult to get bail. … It makes things much easier for both the undertrials, so that they can be given bail under greater confidence and for the police so that these people do not get into mischief,” he said.

Sahni said the device is used across the world, especially when an accused faces serious charges.

“In that case, some restrictions can be expected. Invasion of privacy is there till the moment you are arrested. The moment you are accused of a crime, most of your rights are diluted unless they are proven innocent. They [the accused] will go through one restriction or the other, and this [tracker] is better than being in jail,” he added.

However, Ravi Nair, executive director of the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre, argued that electronic tagging fitted to the body of a person may raise issues of fundamental liberties, such as freedom of movement or a person’s right to privacy.

“The state through tagging seeks to maintain public security, but on the other hand, those subjected to it must be accorded their fundamental rights,” he told Al Jazeera.

He said the use of electronic monitoring raises a number of ethical, legal and practical issues.

“The surveillance potential creates concerns of overregulation and infringement of human rights. The necessity for ensuring informed consent of those chosen to be subject to monitoring should be guaranteed and effective procedures established to deal with unethical or illegal practices,” he said.

The fact that a private firm manufactures the GPS trackers is also a major concern, Nair said.

“It is also important to ask whether the security establishment has developed any standards and ethics in electronic monitoring, or are we creating a new security creep?”

Source: Al Jazeera