Back to square one
The all-pervading surveillance justified in the interest of national security neutralises the Aadhaar-verdict yields altogether
Authoritarian regimes tend to think they are going to be there forever. And they create draconian rules to drive their agendas, but without realising that they could someday be at the receiving end of their own evil when they change places, which is unavoidable in any democratic set-up.
The government's latest snooping order, which has caused a nation-wide alarm, precisely falls into this category. It would go down in history as the most brazen attack on individual freedom and liberty, introduced through the back door, after several attempts through other means failed to bring success. It draws strength from the thought that it will help the saffron party trample down on dissent, enabling it to manipulate things to ensure its continued rule or that it will be around for beyond its current tenure naturally to reap the benefits. Either way, it seems to be a pipe dream that has little likelihood of coming true. People have fought a number of similar sinister designs and this one will also pass.
The government has sought to justify the all-pervading surveillance in the interest of national security, the interpretation of which has seen much abuse under the Modi dispensation, which equates patriotism with love for the ruling party and the Prime Minister. It is as dangerous as the 'India is Indira and Indira is India' slogan coined by the then Congress president Dev Kant Barooah, which Indira Gandhi started believing herself, emboldening her to embark on her dark Emergency designs, bringing discredit to Congress, a stigma that will remain with the party as long as it is in existence.
Law and IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad has justified the new order on the ground that it is based on an order issued by the UPA government in 2008. While it is true that the origin is the old order, the sweep of the new order is much wider and is open to more abuse as the 10 authorised agencies include the Delhi Police, which makes the citizen much more vulnerable. The tone and tenor of the minister's assertion are enough to send a chill down the spine of any potential victim. Some countries following new governance standards have instituted the ministry of happiness; likewise, if ever a ministry of arrogance is instituted, Ravi Shankar Prasad would be the ideal man to head it.
Compared to the old order, the new one provides for data interception and decryption, the scope of which is much wider and the worst part is that it is not subject to judicial review. By implication, a computer or device owner will lose the right to even delete data. This is a serious threat to privacy concerns and negates all that the citizens achieved by way of the Supreme Court striking down Aadhaar's encroachment into the privacy of individual citizens.
The courts have ruled that a reasonable expectation of privacy requires that data collection does not violate the autonomy of an individual. The judgments noted the centrality of consent in a data protection regime, declaring that consent, transparency and control over information are crucial to informational privacy.
The judgment in the all-important Puttaswamy case had recognised the right to privacy as a Constitutional guarantee protected as intrinsic to the freedoms guaranteed by Part III of the Constitution. "Privacy is integral to the realisation of human dignity and liberty. A society which protects privacy values the worth of individual self-realisation. For it is in the abyss of solitude that the innermost recesses of the mind find solace to explore within and beyond," the judgment said.
The new order is certain to be challenged in the courts again as it involves fundamental issues of personal liberty. As Justice Chandrachud in his dissenting note in the Aadhaar verdict observed, "Constitutional guarantees cannot be compromised by vicissitudes of technology."
With the new snooping order, the fears of India becoming a surveillance state have been rekindled. The nation had heaved a sigh of relief when an outcry against monitoring of social media forced the government to drop the move after the Supreme Court questioned the government's plan, saying that this would pose a danger in a country where privacy was a fundamental right. It was alleged that the proposed social media communication hub, for which the government had even floated tenders, sought to create a technology architecture that merged mass surveillance with a capacity for disinformation. By way of the new order and its extended provisions, the government seems to have achieved exactly the same kind of objectives, necessitating a new struggle against the autocratic tendencies of the government.
(The views expressed are strictly personal)