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Crossed Wires: Phone Tapping Probe Raises Political Temperature in Telangana

The probe into phone tapping took a curious turn on Wednesday, with the police reopening a case related to the poaching of four MLAs of the BRS by alleged middlemen of the BJP in 2022.
Photo: Quino Al/Unsplash

Hyderabad: Like the proverbial skeletons falling out of the cupboard, the controversy over phone tapping by police officers allegedly at the instance of their political bosses during the previous Bharat Rashtra Samiti (BRS) government in Telangana is escalating with every passing day.

Ever since the clandestine operations to snoop on the political rivals of the BRS leadership came to light on March 10, the controversy has taken new twists and turns and revealed the modus operandi adopted by officials to try and keep the BRS in power. The phones were tapped not only to hear the private conversations of opposition leaders, but also allegedly to dig into their finances.

This was disclosed in the remand report of one of the arrested officers, P. Radhakishan Rao, submitted to the court after his arrest on March 29. It said Rao confessed to seizing Rs 3.5 crore from associates of Bharatiya Janata Party candidate Komatireddy Rajagopal Reddy in a by-election to the Munugode assembly constituency in October 2022. Another Rs 1 crore was seized from a chit fund company owned by a relative of BJP candidate in the Dubbak assemby by-election Raghunandan Rao two years earlier. The Telugu Desam Party candidate Anand Prasad forfeited Rs 70 lakh during a seizure when he contested the 2018 assembly elections from the Serilingampally constituency. Separately, Union Minister and BJP state president G. Kishan Reddy alleged that the police accosted BJP office staff on the road after they had withdrawn money from a bank before the 2019 parliamentary elections, based on information gathered through phone tapping.

The investigation so far has seen four senior police officers arrested, and on the radar next seems to be the former chief of the police’s intelligence wing, T. Prabhakar Rao, who also headed a sub-unit called the Special Intelligence Bureau (SIB) where these questionable operations were reportedly centred. The SIB was specially formed over four decades ago to track extremism but gained notoriety for straying into political activity to protect the BRS from losing power in the 2018 and 2023 assembly elections. The party was voted to power in 2014.

It was reported that war rooms were set up near the house of chief minister A. Revanth Reddy at Jubilee Hills in Hyderabad during the 2023 elections with sophisticated electronic surveillance equipment reportedly procured from Israel in the name of shell companies, to listen in on his telephonic calls. The equipment was said to cover a radius of only 200 metres to connect with the targeted phones. Similar war rooms were also allegedly established near the houses of other politicians, businessmen, real estate dealers, jewellers, hawala operators and even the Director General of Police.

The tapping was detected after the destruction and dismantling of illegally collected data contained in 42 hard disks of computer systems installed at the SIB office in Begumpet. The destroyed hard disks were later replaced with new ones by a Deputy Superintendent of Police at SIB, D. Praneeth Rao, who allegedly switching off CCTV cameras at the office premises while destroying the evidence. He was accused of burning the equipment in an interior forest near Vikarabad on December 4 last year, a day after election results were declared. Other remnants were also recovered from the bed of the Musi river.

Following a complaint at the Panjagutta police station by D. Ramesh, Additional Superintendent of Police at the SIB, a special investigation team carried out a probe and says it has unearthed startling details.

Another case in the mix?

The probe into phone tapping took a curious turn on Wednesday, with the police reopening a case related to the poaching of four MLAs of the BRS by alleged middlemen of the BJP in 2022. The investigation team also summoned a retired officer on special duty at the SIB Venugopal Rao to face interrogation like his colleagues. He is likely to be arrested this evening even as the court is scheduled to deliver its judgement on the custody petition of police for Radhakishan Rao.
The DCP (West Zone) Vijay Kumar reached Banjara Hills police station to launch a probe into fresh charges against Venugopal Rao and other accused in the case.

Sources said the phone tapping case was investigated in the background of a complaint by Nanda Kumar, an accused in the MLAs poaching case, to DGP Ravi Gupta five days ago that his phone was tapped by the SIB and Task Force. That was how his conversation with MLAs was leaked

Nanda Kumar and two others, Ramachandra Bharat and Simhaji Swany, were arrested by the police from a farmhouse at Moinabad on Hyderabad outskirts on October 26, 2022. They were accused of allegedly attempting to poach four BRS MLAs – Pilot Rohit Reddy, Guvvala Balaraju, Rega Kantha Rao and B. Harshvardhan Reddy – to te BJP by offering Rs 100 crore to Rohit Reddy and Rs 50 crore each to the three others.

Nanda Kumar had also met the DGP three months ago and complained to him against Radhakishan Rao and Prabhakar Rao about how his phone was tapped. He is the owner of a popular eatery – Deccan Kitchen – at Jubilee Hills which was partially demolished by the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation. The police have reportedly been trying to make him turn approver in the poaching case.

The police subsequently added BJP national general secretary (organisations) B.L. Santhosh and three others as accused in the case. A special investigation team served notices on Santhosh to appear for questioning but he never showed up.

The case was contested by the BJP, which demanded a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe. A single judge bench of the Telangana high court transferred the case to the CBI, and this decision was confirmed by a division bench of the court. However, the state government challenged the direction of the high court in the Supreme Court on the ground that a probe by the CBI would prove ineffective as the central agency was controlled by the BJP-led Union government.

The apex court stopped the investigation last year, but a final verdict is still awaited.

Phone tapping: the background

The police initially filed a case against Praneeth Rao under provisions of the Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act, Information Technology Act and Indian Penal Code. As the probe expanded, two Additional Superintendents of Police of Intelligence N. Bhujanga Rao and M. Tirupatanna and retired Deputy Commissioner of Police of Task Force wing of Hyderabad police Radhakishan Rao were picked up. All four were arrested and interrogated in custody with the permission of the court before being sent to jail.

A look out notice was issued for Prabhakar Rao at airports and sea ports as he was absconding. He was identified as the prime accused in the case. However, he reportedly called up the head of the investigation team from the US and offered to cooperate in the probe. He reportedly said that his team acted on instructions from the then government – just as the probe was ordered by the present regime.

The police complaint by Ramesh said Praneeth Rao was allotted two rooms and 17 computers, and assisted by two inspectors, two sub-inspectors and ten constables. The team would take instructions from Prabhakar Rao.

The custodial interrogation of Praneeth Rao, according to his remand report, revealed that he operated the 17 computers with dedicated leased lines and internet connections.

The investigation team noticed the disappearance of records, both physical and electronic, from the SIB upon his arrest. He allegedly copied intelligence information into his pen drives and erased the information by removing the relevant hard disks and replacing them with new ones. The questioning of Praneeth Rao revealed that he took instructions from Prabhakar Rao and shared the results of phone tapping with Radhakishan Rao who led the ground work of threatening and extortions. Bhujanga Rao and Tirupatanna allegedly threw their weight behind the operations in their respective territorial areas as Additional Superintendents of Police (Intelligence). An Inspector from Nalgonda Gattu Mallu was specially inducted into Task Force to aid Radhakishan Rao.

Political mayhem

The arrest of police officers was discussed across the political spectrum as several leaders of the Congress and BJP protested against their phones being tapped before the assembly elections.

The Congress MLA of Mahbubnagar lodged a complaint with Director General of Police Ravi Gupta that his phone was tapped Another Congress leader, K.K. Mahender Reddy who lost to former chief minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao’s son K. T. Rama Rao in Sircilla constituency, complained to Hyderabad Police Commissioner K. Srinivas Reddy that Rama Rao had a hand in tapping his phone.

At the same time, forest minister Konda Surekha accused Rama Rao of resorting to phone tapping to threaten film actresses. Former minister and BJP leader Eatala Rajender alleged that the phones of his family members were tapped.
Rama Rao immediately took to Twitter saying “both these Congress fellows (including the Minister) will be served legal notices for defamation and slander. Either apologise for this shameful, baseless and nonsensical allegations or face
legal consequences. Also, will be serving legal notices to news outlets who are dishing out this garbage without verifying facts”.

Meanwhile, a stray comment by Rama Rao at a BRS workers’ meeting seeking to know what was wrong if the phones of one or two persons were tapped received strong reaction from chief minister A. Revanth Reddy. He said political leaders found guilty of abuse of power in the controversy will be put in in jail.

Rama Rao retaliated by saying the government brought the phone tapping allegations to the fore to divert public attention from its failures.

Meanwhile, the phone tapping episode against politicians caused dismay among retired police top brass.

Former Intelligence Chief C. Anjaneya Reddy said it was a very serious matter. “We never did it,” he remarked. Expressing ignorance about the legal position, he said whenever a need arose for phone tapping, they used to get permission from a competent authority and produce it to BSNL which facilitated the service. He also said the facility was used only to track terrorists and members of banned groups.

Former DGP H.J. Dora, who was also Intelligence Chief during their reign of N.T. Rama Rao, said it was not unethical to use phone tapping to check anti-national activities or maintenance of internal security. But misusing it for political purpose was unethical.

Former Hyderabad Police Commissioner M.V. Krishna Rao said phone tapping in the instant case amounted to theft because the officers involved did not take any permission. It was for the prosecution to prove beyond doubt that legal sanction was not required.

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