Millennium Post

Why is big brother watching us?

Mamata Bannerjee, of the Trinamool Congress, has recently said that at the height of her movement at Nandigram nearly five years ago her phone was tapped. She has said that she had been in the central government and knew that anybody’s phone could be tapped with the help of the home ministry. In fact, other leaders have also alleged phone tapping. It does not have to be a political opponent or an ally of the ruling political party. Pranab Mukherjee, a person who occupies the highest office in the land, that of the president, when he was a cabinet minister, had alleged the tapping of his office premises in a letter written to the prime minister. Senior BJP leader and former cabinet minister, Yashwant Sinha, has alleged that his telephones and those of his family were tapped after he raised the Aircel-Maxis issue against former finance minister P Chidambaram. Allegations such as these, when it comes from responsible people such as the president of India, the chief minister of an important and populous state or a former cabinet minister, should not be taken lightly.

In April 2010 an entire session of the Parliament was lost when opposition parties protested the tapping of mobile phones. It was alleged that the phones of politicians such as Sharad Pawar and other senior leaders were tapped. Even officials have felt the heat of tapping, with a senior officer of the central board of excise and customs having claimed so last year. The Outlook magazine, in its report on phone tapping, quoted a senior intelligence official as saying that the NTRO did not need to show any authorisation since it was not tapping a phone number at the telephone exchange but intercepting signals between the phone and the cell phone tower and recording them on a hard disk. He went on to say that if inconvenient questions were asked, the recording could be erased from the hard disk. This is an erroneous view.

This, and any other kind of phone tapping, if it goes on, is completely illegal. Phone tapping in any democratic country can only be initiated in exceptional circumstances. The only possible exceptions, which, too, should be rare, are in cases of grave offences, such as relating to national security, where it becomes difficult to gather evidence in other ways. Even in such cases, in democratic countries, it is usual to obtain an order from a court before such tapping can be initiated.

There is a proper procedure which is meant to protect the rights of the innocent and to prevent their harassment by a tyrannical government. It is also because the citizens’ right to privacy is considered sacred. To tap phones of senior political leaders and journalists is an act of political mischief. It is the misuse of police powers to harass political opponents by a government in power. The gathering of such information is not benign. It is put to use in various ways. One of these is to perpetuate the political rule of those in power. The other, even more sinister objective is to use the personal information so gathered to hurt or harm the person whose phone is tapped. It is easy enough to comprehend how personal information in the hands of an unscrupulous and immoral government can be misused. Such phone tapping is reminiscent of the dark days of the Emergency when political opponents were routinely harassed and jailed.  

In the recent past, in the Nira Radia episode, the income-tax department tapped the phones of this lady for over 300 days. Her conversations with many of the country’s leading journalists were recorded. Though most of these conversations were innocuous, and possibly part of routine journalism, the government made some wild and frivolous allegations against the journalists, including that of influence peddling.

These charges, not likely to stick, can be seen as an attempt to subdue and control the Press. The government would clearly like a pliable and subservient media to toe its line. It is a fact that the Congress-led UPA government is covered head to toe in the slime of extreme corruption and has made several serious policy errors, the consequences of which may haunt the Indian people for decades. Doubtless, it would like to perpetuate itself in power to cover its tracks. It may well be presumed that the government uses other means of surveillance to keep track of political activists, journalists and other it considers a threat to itself.

It is a slippery slope when a government begins to misuse police powers. When moral judgment slips, it is but a small step from illegal phone-tapping to the assassination of political rivals. Let it not be forgotten that the fascist regimes in Italy and Germany, in the early 20th century, clung to power by misusing the police. Interestingly enough, this government does have an Italian connection. The government has used the excuse of terrorism to arm the police with powers which have nothing to do with criminality but everything to do with politics.

The creation of the National Investigative Agency has been an attempt at the centralisation of police powers, to extend the reach of the central government and to control state governments. Keeping tabs on citizens is reprehensible. When carried to an extreme, it unleashes a reign of terror. It is time that there was more transparency, clear-cut rules as well as public accountability of this hidden and illegal use of police. India is not a banana republic.  This kind of misuse of intelligence agencies is inexcusable.
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