Saturday, May 01, 2010

Tapping is serious, not gossip item (May 2, 2010)

By Swapan Dasgupta

t is a commentary on the state of public life that the revelations of widespread phone interception by federal agencies, which the Home Minister has tacitly acknowledged, has not created a political crisis of enormous magnitude. On the contrary, the exposes by The Pioneer and Outlook have drawn two strange responses.

First, there has been an outburst of cynicism. “What is new? We’ve all known that all Governments are guilty” is a fairly standard reaction of those who believe that arbitrary misuse of power is a natural part of Indian statecraft. The second response is even more bizarre. Those who otherwise deified the Bernstein-Woodward school of investigative journalism have gloated over unwarranted intrusions of privacy. The last week has seen MPs, Ministers and civil servants gloat over the purported summaries of phone conversations involving business leaders, journalists, politicians and those who can best be called fixers. Some of these reported conversations will dominate drawing room chatter and may even rival the salacious interest in the ‘real’ story of IPL.

It is well known that Lutyens’ Delhi has an insatiable appetite for gossip. This is understandable and there’s no point being judgemental about the prying instincts of humans. There is also a premium attached to individuals who are privy to confidences that never find their way into the public domain. As people whose business is to know about the affairs of other people, the media enjoys a privileged status in the soirees of the beautiful people. Journalists have a large repertoire of social and political tittle-tattle.

The problem arises when this tittle-tattle becomes the pillar of national security and intelligence-gathering. Curiously and inexplicably, the collation of political gossip became the priority of national security management over the past five years — with disastrous consequences.
There is bewilderment as to why an innocuous conversation of Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh with a party colleague, the exchange of gossip between the spouses of two Ministers and a tell-me-the-real-story inquiry from a lobbyist to a journalist should at all feature in unattributable intelligence briefs. In no way do such conversations compromise national security nor are the people involved even remotely suspected of either compromising national security or having links with people who threaten the nation. Yet, it has now been established, not least because of the open-ended statement by Chidambaram to Parliament, that Government agencies thought fit to include such conversations in their ‘deniable’ reports.

It obviously suggests two things. First, that a major thrust of the intelligence agencies was political intelligence — who met whom, who has links with whom, who is sleeping with whom, etc. Second, it would seem that there were influential people in Government, and not necessarily Ministers, who derived their power from acquiring a deep knowledge of the complete lives of political actors. In the process, the real task of monitoring national security was lost sight of. Indeed, there are very good reasons to believe that early warnings of the 26/11 attack were not acted upon because those entrusted with managing national security were preoccupied monitoring the politics of the State Assembly elections.

It’s a question of a mindset. If the energies of the NTRO were expended in unauthorised intercepts of mobile calls of politicians and unsuitable people were appointed to head intelligence wings, it suggests that the Government had warped priorities. It is understood that there are many disgruntled spooks willing to play whistle-blower and reveal some dirty secrets of their departments. I believe they should be given protection and immunity from prosecution under the Official Secrets Act. If certain people were subverting Government and conducting illegal operations, they should be exposed, stripped of their posts and even prosecuted.

Of course there is a compelling case for conducting a thorough review of the archaic Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, and defining the limits of electronic surveillance. There is a balance that has to drawn between civil liberties and national security. But most important, there has to be adequate safeguards to prevent misuse of the vast quantities of information that the state has at its disposal.

There is, for example, a strong case for the installation of CCTV cameras throughout major metros, as has been done in, say, London. However, it would be abhorrent if the footage was used to supply someone information about their spouse’s infidelity. This is not a far-fetched possibility. The Amar Singh case did provide some free entertainment to many but it also suggested the dangers of snooping technologies being used to settle private scores. There are enough cases of policemen linked to anti-terrorism squads using the technology at their disposal to assist the real estate mafia.

Chidambaram says it is legitimate to eavesdrop on calls involving tax frauds. This is a dangerous over-extension of the definition of economic offences and, in any case, would scarcely meet the criterion laid down by the Supreme Court. There has to be doctrine of legitimate suspicion of undermining the state’s economic security — money laundering and hawala linked to terror groups — to warrant the deadly toys being focussed on an individual.

Unfortunately, there have been no norms governing the activities of the agencies empowered to undertake surveillance. More important, there is no effective oversight body of the great and the good to ensure that unauthorised ventures don’t become the norm. Finally, the deviants have always hidden behind the veil of secrecy to get away with the most disgraceful misuse of power.

Some lucky revelations and plucky journalism have forced an underground practice overground. They have occasioned good parliamentary debates. But the matter should not be allowed to rest. India has to introduce institutional mechanisms to prevent whimsical misuse of power.

Sunday Pioneer, May 2, 2010

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