ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Communication: Intrigue and Infringement

Intrigue and Infringement Within days of Samajwadi Party leader Amar Singh


Intrigue and Infringement

ithin days of Samajwadi Party leader Amar Singh’s revelation that his phone line was being tapped, the controversy drew in several leaders across the political spectrum. Amar Singh alleges that the tapping was done at the government’s behest; he has moved the Supreme Court seeking a judicial probe, naming the centre, the home ministry, the Delhi police, Sonia Gandhi (as the Congress Party president) and Reliance Infocomm as respondents. Considering the spate of “sting operations” that have caught members of Parliament on the wrong foot, politicians from parties opposed to the United Progressive Alliance have reacted on expected lines. The Tamil Nadu chief minister, J Jayalalithaa has been vocal in her criticism, while other political leaders, who now find themselves sidelined in the political arena, claim to have been victims of similar operations – the complainants include former BJP president L K Advani, former Andhra Pradesh chief minister, Chandrababu Naidu as well as former Assam chief minister, Profulla Mahanta.

Phone tapping and surveillance have long formed the staple of political intrigue. It is no secret that parties in power have connived with and/or encouraged various intelligence wings and police agencies for their own ends. Chandrashekhar’s governmentfell in March 1991, as the party supporting it from outside, the Congress, suspected that the house of its then leader, Rajiv Gandhi, was under surveillance. Former president Zail Singh hinted that the Congress government of the 1980s tapped his phones; in 1988, the then Karnataka chief minister, Ramakrishna Hegde resigned following the uproar raised by opposition politicians in the state over the tapping of their phones.

The phone tapping controversy coincides with moves afoot in other countries to increase state surveillance in all aspects of communication, ostensibly as part of their strategy to fight terrorism. Early in December, the French parliament passed a law that authorised the “necessary” surveillance by state agencies of private telephonic and electronic communication. At the same time, the US president, George Bush, as well as his deputy, vice-president Dick Cheney admitted that following the 2001 terror attacks, federal investigative agencies had spied on and intercepted such communication. This was done without securing the necessary judicial authorisation and the move was defended on the ground that it had helped stave off potential terrorist threats to the country. More recently, British MPs have been up in arms after prime minister Tony Blair announced that the government was contemplating lifting a five-decade ban on tapping MPs’ phone lines. In more historical times, governments, especially absolutist monarchies, had been able to infringe on citizens’ privacy with impunity; with time and with greater democratisation, these practices have been curbed to a great extent. Despite the fact that Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights emphasises that “no one should be subjected to arbitrary interference with his correspondence”, spying formed the bedrock of much cold war intrigue. Now it is terrorism that provides many governments the excuse to curb civil liberties in the name of safeguarding national liberty.

Much speculation surrounds the recent phone tapping controversy in the capital. Apart from the expected denials on the part of the government, the Delhi police, following the arrest of key members of a private detective agency and an employee of the telecom service provider, has been quick to label it a “sting operation” by private operators for money. Besides the need for a transparent probe, operations such as these which constitute an infringement of citizens’ privacy call for an urgent revamping of the Indian Telegraph Act 1885. Notwithstanding the amendments made to the act following the 1996 Supreme Court ruling that had specified such surveillance only in an instance of “public emergency” or in the interests of “public safety”, there remain loopholes that are effectively exploited, notably the 15-day period within which concerned agencies have to file for authorisation to the competent authority.

Despite the furore generated by Amar Singh’s allegation, the motives for tapping the politician’s phone remain in the realm of speculation. With a plethora of television channels and the proliferation of broadcast as well as print media, “sting operations” today make up an essential tool in the battle to win readership/viewership rates. One recently launched television channel even invites viewers to become reporters. In a communication-rich age, where every citizen is both voyeur and victim, it is privacy that becomes less and less assured. EPW

Economic and Political Weekly January 28, 2006

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