The effortlessness with which politicians indulge in hypocrisy is as astonishing as is their proficiency in speaking non-facts. And we can never be sure which of the two national parties excels in such matters, for both the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress seem equally adept. The Ministry of Home Affairs’ authorisation to 10 Central agencies to snoop on online information, and the grand old party’s reaction to it, is a case in point.
On 21 December, the government allowed 10 Central agencies to intercept, monitor and decrypt “any information generated, transmitted, received or stored in any computer” in the country. The Central agencies are: the Intelligence Bureau, Narcotics Control Bureau, Enforcement Directorate, Central Board of Direct Taxes, Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, Central Bureau of Investigation, National Investigation Agency, Cabinet Secretariat (R&AW), Directorate of Signal Intelligence (for service areas of Jammu & Kashmir, Northeast and Assam only), and Commissioner of Police, Delhi.
Responding to Congress’ charge about surveillance state, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said in Rajya Sabha, “On 20 December, the same order of authorisation was repeated that was existing since 2009. You are making a mountain where a molehill does not exist.”
The rationale offered by the government is predicated upon the fact that there is nothing new in the recent authorisation. “As per rule 22 of the IT (Procedure and Safeguards for Interception, Monitoring and Decryption of Information) Rules 2009, all such cases of interception or monitoring or decryption are to be placed before the review committee headed by Cabinet Secretary, which shall meet at least once in two months to review such cases. In case of State governments, such cases are reviewed by a committee headed by the Chief Secretary concerned,” said a press release by the Ministry of Home Affairs on 21 December. The recent statutory order, the Ministry claims, provides adequate safeguards: “The above notification will ensure that provisions of law relating to lawful interception or monitoring of computer resource are followed and if any interception, monitoring or decryption is required for purposes specified in Section 69 of the IT Act, the same is done as per due process of law and approval of competent authority, i.e. Union Home Secretary.”
The news agency ANI, quoting an RTI reply from the Ministry of Home Affairs, has reported that at least 9,000 telephones and 500 emails per month were intercepted in 2013, that is, when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance was in office. Is it humanly possible for a committee to diligently examine the genuineness of 18,000 phone tapping cases and 1,000 online snooping instances?
But the MHA is stubborn: the new “notification does not confer any new powers”. The fact, however, is that the UPA provisions are an affront to individual liberty and civil rights. Just because some bad law has existed for a long time doesn’t reduce its badness. The BJP government was expected to usher in achhe din, not perpetuate past practices. But, unfortunately, it has been doing just that. It supported Section 66A of the Information Technology Act; the section was introduced by the Congress-led government in 2009. In a blow to the Narendra Modi government’s moral authority, which upheld the section’s legitimacy, the Supreme Court invalidated it in 2015.
The Modi government again showed its proclivities when it wanted to thrust Aadhaar down the throats of citizens. Again, the Apex Court came to the rescue of people.
Illiberality persists despite the verdict of 2014. Now, the government wants explicitly to transform India into a surveillance state. But ministers believe that the new powers bestowed upon the 10 Central agencies—many of which are notoriously used for political purposes—are just “elementary things”. According to Arun Jaitley, “It is an authorisation order. The provisions of national security are written in Article 69….You [the Opposition] are playing with the security of the country.”
This goes further than “you are either with us or against us”; this is “either you are with us or against the nation,” for we are the nation
Why are tax departments being empowered to snoop on citizens, Chidambaram-style? What national security repercussions can tax evasion by a businessman have? As it is, these departments have been given draconian powers which they are using with impunity; there is already a perception of considerable tax terrorism; more powers to taxmen will make matters worse.
The government’s embrace of UPA practices is matched only by the grand old party’s duplicity. Senior Congress leader and former Home Minister P. Chidambaram has criticised the Modi regime for authorising 10 Central agencies, claiming that an “Orwellian state is round the corner”. Look who is talking. The very politician under whose watch tax terrorism and Section 66A were born is warning us of the dangers Leviathan poses. Seldom was hypocrisy so transparent or egregious. Meanwhile, the charge-sheeted Chidambaram continues to lead a charmed life, courtesy serial court decisions to extend his immunity from arrest.