Democratic Transparency Versus Bigotry of Patriotism

Gouri Sankar Nag, Manas Mukul Bandyopadhyay

A fear psychosis more lethal than any intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) hits hard when the anxiety turned into resentment ran high that perhaps everyone was entrapped, starting from ministers to the opposition parties. The point at issue is secret surveillance that was leaked out in the public domain recently creating great stir in the Indian polity.

It is found that there are several persons under such surveillance—two ministers of Modi government, three important leaders of the opposition camp, a person holding a constitutional position, more than forty journalists, a group of businessmen and industrialists, current and former heads of security agencies. There are also social workers, government bureaucrats, lawyers etc. 

Those who are not suffering from amnesia are reminded of the Snowden event or the recurrent revelations by the Wikileaks which smashed American credibility in a number of occasions including its actions in Afghanistan that unleashed similar adverse reaction in the past in the international circle.

Although in India the Pegasus controversy is taking place at a time when it seems that the Opposition under the peripatetic leadership of Mamata Bandyopadhyay is getting stronger with its wings collecting stormy wind from many issues from the charges of selective use of sedition proceedings.

Against many eminent human rights activists to unprecedented hike in the price of petroleum, farmers’ protests over new farm laws, loopholes in the management of the Covid menace, demand for GST free vaccine that the centre has rejected and importantly government’s new social media policy declared in February 2021—all of which combine to evoke an impression that it is high time to strike while the iron is hot. 

The ruling party at the centre is indeed in deep crisis despite its recent maneuvers in terms of reshuffle of the ministry apparently to make up the talent deficit including the shock-wave that it sought to display through sacking of such prominent figures like Ravi Shankar Prasad, creation of a separate Union Ministry of Cooperation, convening of all party meetings with J&K leaders and initiating of Bharat Net programme etc.

It sends the signal across the political spectrum that Modi-fied BJP would not have a field day, rather despite its every effort to recentralize the governance through PMO in which all important decisions are mostly taken to squeeze the space to criticize the government, the media being the fourth pillar of democracy blasted when the news of such unauthorized surveillance was leaked. 

Prima facie it is unnerving for the civil society although politics as it becomes more virulent, skeptical, and pugnacious, stands for more and more control through surveillance and construction of enemy that justifies repression of all vestiges of resistance. And that’s what government is up to by trying to gag and enforcing its new IT policies on social media platforms on one hand and by illicitly spying on the mobile phones through spyware on the other.

We won’t, however, enter the Foucauldian Panoptican here but can we avoid the forces of centralization that implicitly operates as if presumptuously suggesting that there is nothing wrong in it because seeking security is the highest will of the state.           

By utilizing the surveillance weapon ‘Pegasus’ spyware (acts through android phone) which was made in Israel’s NSO, there have been allegations of surveillance attempts on more than 300 smart-phones in India. It is alleged that this attempt was made mainly before the 2019 Lok Sabha election. Of Course, attempts at surveillance have not yet been made public.

It may come to light in the next few days. However, the names of most of the journalists, whose phones were hacked through this attempt to monitor, have been made public. The list includes journalists from Delhi, and other journalists working in different states too.

At the beginning of the monsoon session (19th July, 2021) of the Union Parliament, the politics of the country’s capital was quite simmering with rabble-rousing speeches of the opposition on this issue. Not just on the parliamentary platform, political analysts believe that this Pegasus issue has almost taken a stormy turn even in the inner circle of the ruling BJP, since there are allegations of surveillance on the phones of the ministers themselves of the ruling party. It shows that once such vengeance is in vogue, it becomes a double-edged sword.

 Now the million dollar question is: who ordered for this snooping? The direction of the question is towards the Modi government, since NSO has already informed that they were only selling their ‘Pegasus’ spyware to the governments of different countries. In the interest of the national security, the security and intelligence agencies of different countries used to monitor the phone by utilizing this ‘Pegasus’ spyware. 

Here it must be kept in mind that in the case of central agencies, no one’s phone can be monitored without the permission of the Home Secretary. The relevant question naturally arises whether the Modi-government has instructed this surveillance on the phone of his ministers.

Now the next question is: how did the whole thing come to light? A list of about fifty thousand phone numbers has been leaked from the database of the Israeli agency to which countries ‘Pegasus’ spyware was sold. Of these, there are more than three hundred numbers in this country. ‘Forbidden Stories’ and ‘Amnesty International’ – these two non-profitable news agencies of Paris handed it over to 16 media outlets in different countries after receiving this information.

In India, a portal called ‘The Wire’ got the database. These 16 news outlets started the investigation under the name ‘Pegasus Project’. The forensic examination of the phone inserted in the list was done in that investigation. There is clear evidence of hiding ‘Pegasus’ spyware’ in 37 phones and out of these 37 phones 10 are from this country.

This time during the elections surveillance allegations and tapping the phones of the opposition leaders like Rahul Gandhi, Abhishek Bandyopadhyay etc. arose against the present BJP-led government. It should be remembered here that the government has the power to monitor someone’s phone for the sake of investigation or in the interest of the security of the country. But the question here is whether that power is honestly being used by the ruling party at the centre or is it to steal the tactics of the opposition to win the votes. 

The investigation-report on the ‘Pegasus’ spyware says that surveillance was attempted over the phones of Rahul Gandhi during the Lok Sabha elections (2019), Abhishek Bandyopadhyay and the election-strategist Prashant Kishore during the West Bengal Assembly polls 2021.

As a result of the new information coming out publicly, the Congress party demanded an investigation into the role of the PM and the Home Minister. The Congress has also demanded without delay the resignation of the Home Minister. Parliament is currently in turmoil over the issue of ‘Pegasus’ spyware. 

Various questions and counter-questions are being raised every day in the monsoon session in the national Parliament. In a bid to inject unity among the opposition parties, the issue has transformed into a veritable cementing force for the whole opposition camp to target the Modi government in the Parliament.

The opposition parties, including the Congress and Shiv Sena, have demanded a JPC (i.e. Joint Parliamentary Committee) probe into the controversial matter. It may be remembered that at the fag-end of 2018 the opposition also exerted pressure on the central government on the Rafale deal in the aftermath of the order of enquiry by the French government. 

This time it is also being considered whether the Supreme Court can be asked to intervene in this matter. West Bengal Chief Minister has termed the ‘Pegasus issue’ worse than the ‘Watergate’ scandal of America that led to the resignation of President Nixon in 1974. Banerjee depicted the situation as a ‘super-emergency’ which is more stringent from the constitutional emergency.

She slammed the Modi government on this issue for its attempt to suppress the voice of the opposition and the voice of the news media. Thus the pressure on the government led by Modi is increasing day by day.  Meanwhile it is alleged that Shantanu Sen, TMC MP of Rajya Sabha, snatched the statement from the Minister Aswini Baishnab (BJP Minister of Information & Technology) while the latter was reading it out in the Parliamentary session and tore the paper.

The counter-point fended off by AITC was that the central minister Mr Hardeep Puri also harassed and misbehaved with him. Ultimately Shantanu Sen was suspended from the ongoing monsoon session of the Parliament by the Rajya Sabha Chairman. Needless to say that the decision not only infuriated AITC but it caused to plummet the government-opposition ties as a whole and consequently Rajya Sabha was converted into a pandemonium on this issue of ‘Pegasus’, which is very unhealthy syndrome for the legislative process of the country.

Therefore, it may be observed that ‘among other things, the increasing politicking in Parliament led to the conversion of the august body into a ring for the politicians to fight with each other not only with words but sometimes with postures most unbecoming of parliamentary decorum. Consequently, the basic purpose of the existence of Parliament as the examiner of the executive policy formulations and budgetary allocations started suffering…’

However, despite all this, the ruling party does not seem to be holding back. According to the version of the BJP-led Government or for that matter Modi, if someone’s phone is monitored, it is in compliance with the law of the land. In the interest of the security of the country or for the sake of investigation, with the proper permission of security, intelligence and investigative agencies; the government has every legal right to monitor someone’s phone. So, there is no substance to such allegations lodged by the opposition.

For the sake of argument, it was thought that all the allegations of infamy caused by ‘Pegasus’ were untrue. But when the significance of the complaint that certain red lines of established codes have been intentionally breached that amounts to grave and serious implication of profound nature and its perimeter extends far, at that time, it was the duty of the prime-movers of the state apparatus to use all their might to reveal the truth.

According to one commentator, “What made things even worse is that India was bracketed with countries like Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, where most of the telephone numbers held by 1,000 people spanning over 50 countries were clustered.

Human rights bodies, digital rights activists and other freedom advocates across the world have expressed outrage that products sold by NSO, the Israeli surveillance technology company, were so brazenly used to hack and invade the private communications of thousands of people across the globe.

In a statement, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, found the apparent widespread use of Pegasus spy software to illegally undermine the rights of those under surveillance, including journalists and politicians, ‘extremely alarming’ and confirming ‘some of the worst fears’ surrounding the potential misuse of such technology.”

Yet it is very unfortunate that the central government finds the fault in the conspiracy theory hatched by the Opposition. In this debate, the statement of Mr Aswini Baishnab, currently appointed Minister of Information and Technology, given in the Parliament as the ‘official statement’ is the foremost judgment.

According to him, the law and order system of the country is so strong that there is no possibility of illegal surveillance. Obviously, there is no good answer to the questions raised by the opposition; rather two serious questions have arisen: one, what happened to the legal surveillance? If so, how did it happen to anyone for any purpose? 

Surveillance is ‘unlikely’ and surveillance is ‘not done’ — who will take the responsibility for the huge distance between the two kinds of wordings? Whether the new Minister whose own name is promoted as a target of surveillance, will be taking the responsibility of such discrepancy? Is it because of the lack of proper answers in the hands of Mr. Baishnab? Is he singing that old song called ‘all are trying to tarnish the government and democracy of the country’ to the tune of holy wrath?

It is better to call it an old song. In response to the alarming allegations of surveillance of opposition and defendant citizens, the political lords of Delhi have taken the song in the name of ‘patriotism’ from the beginning. But it is understood that this statement is not the reflection of true patriotism; it is just a hoax of patriotism. In fact, they use this trick whenever there is a protest against the prime movers of the state-machinery. 

They generally say that the country is being defamed. If the protest or complaint is organized at the international level, they have the special advantage of showing this patriotism in this situation. The same has happened in this case of ‘Pegasus’ spyware turmoil. Is the Indian government using ‘Pegasus’ or not, that is a million dollar question. 

But without giving any better clear-cut answer to the above question, the former information technology minister raised the opposite question: When more than 40 countries are using ‘Pegasus’ spyware, why is there a complaint only in the name of India?

In this case, the zeal to play the card of patriotism or for that matter nationalism is evident. The reaction of the Home Minister was a fierce reflection of that bigotry. Mr. Amit Shah sat down to give an old lesson on the meaning of ‘chronology’: Before the parliamentary session begins, the ‘creators of chaos’ are busy in ‘creating disruption’-what else could be a better song of witch-hunting.

In other words, those who are culpable behind the act of surveillance, now in a complete reversal, are raising concerns and demanding an investigation about the whistle-blowers who are creating chaos in the country. What magnificent diversionary tactics to focus away from politically purported espionage as if a new badge of ‘traitors’ or ‘urban Naxals’ are hidden in the row of enraged political opposition who need to be singled out urgently.

If the present rulers of the Indian State are so much concerned as to the dignity of the country and the status of democracy, where is the objection to a simple task of telling the truth? Therefore, it is in the interest of the country to immediately start discussions in Parliament on all the issues related to ‘Pegasus’ spyware. In fact, it is the best way to deal with such problems in favour of a democratic country like ours.

The government will make its statement in front of the people’s representatives and the opposition will present their reasonable arguments. Besides, if necessary, arrangements will be made for an all-party investigation into the whole matter and the truth will be revealed. 

Simultaneously, the world will be blessed to see the glory of Indian democracy. In this way the problem needs to be solved smoothly. But by not budging to this apparent push-back for the sake of fair play, accountability and commitment to Parliamentary oversight, their only goal is to use all their power to hide the real truth while hiding such misuse might devour the credibility of the government instead of affirming the trust in governance.

Maybe that’s why the Prime Minister – as usual- did not spend a single word on such a big allegation and that silence will deepen a profound doubt in the mind of any common sense citizen that allegations related to all ‘Pegasus’ caused scandals are perhaps true.

About the Author

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Dr. Gouri Sankar Nag, Professor in Political Science at Sidho-Kanho-Birsha University.

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Dr. Manas Mukul Bandyopadhyay, Associate Professor of Political Science at the PG Department of Political Science, Hooghly Mohsin College, West Bengal.