Time for parliamentary oversight over intelligence agencies

Recently a private member’s bill titled The Intelligence Services (Powers and Regulation) Bill introduced in Parliament by Manish Tiwari, a Congress MP, was the subject of intense public debate.

The bill strives to achieve oversight over the primary intelligence agencies of the country. The attempt is to make the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) accountable to the public and also to ensure that these two seminal agencies function effectively without treading on each other’s turf. An oversight of their functioning is long overdue. India has always lacked a national security culture and this bill may awaken us from our callow slumber.

Indian governments, past and present, have been reluctant to introduce parliamentary oversight over intelligence agencies. This has become a deplorable habit. For instance, the National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC), the National Intelligence Grid (Natgrid), the Aadhar/UID Project, Crime and Criminal Tracking Network and System (CCTNS), etc are not governed by any legal framework and parliamentary oversight. the intelligence agencies, especially the IB, has been used by the government of the day to victimise their political opponents. A democratic polity can ill afford this. In fact the IB has no legal or constitutional framework to justify its existence. It only has a government order (GO) of the British Imperial government, which is 125 years old, to proclaim its raison d’etre.
Legislations like Official Secret Act (OSA) provide  immunity and blanket protection to the works of these agencies, whereas other legislations like the Right to Information Act, 2005 are simply not applicable to them.

There are many interesting suggestions in this bill. The most pertinent one being that  “ll agencies are forbidden to take any action that furthers the interests of any political party or coalition of political parties or other such interest groups.: This will certainly prevent intelligence agencies from the unenviable fate of being hapless poodles to their political masters.

It seeks to restrain the IB to “collection and management of intelligence within the country.” This is to restrain the IB from its ever increasing foreign presence (external intelligence is the primary responsibility of R&AW). This predatory tendency has been steadily growing since the time when M K Narayanan was the IB supremo.

Fiscal transparency

The bill also mandates a strict system of reporting to the prime minister. Bi-annual reports have to be sent to the prime minister, with a statement of accounts. This will inject a sense of responsibility and fiscal transparency. No intelligence chief can now hope to get plum appointments after retirement, being not “eligible for reappointment to any post under the state except as an advisor to the Government of India.” There will be a ‘National Intelligence and Security Oversight Committee’ headed by the chairman of the Rajya Sabha. Their annual reports are to be tabled in Parliament. There will also be an ‘Intelligence Ombudsman’ to address departmental grievances and a ‘National Intelligence Tribunal’ chaired by a retired Supreme Court judge to investigate public complaints. There are also strict rules that pertain to electronic surveillance.

Like any piece of progressive legislation, this one too has its ‘honest’ shortcomings. For instance there is not a single reference to the National Security Adviser (NSA). This appears to be a rather peculiar omission. Will this render the office of the NSA redundant?
The bill is strangely silent on this. The home minister’s role too appears to be rather opaque. The home minister is only mentioned as a member of the National Intelligence and Security Oversight Committee.

In India a lot of the responsibility falls directly on the prime minister, who being overburdened, more often than not delegates it to the prime minister’s office (PMO). The PMO has attracted a lot of adverse publicity in the recent past and it may not be wise to continue with this practice. Instead there can be a proposal to create the post of National Intelligence Adviser, who would attempt to integrate intelligence inputs from multiple agencies and would become a nodal official reporting to the Union cabinet.

Vice President Hamid Ansari had raised the question of legislative oversight a while ago, when he delivered the RN Kao memorial lecture at the R&AW headquarters. He queried “How shall a democracy ensure its secret intelligence apparatus becomes neither a vehicle for conspiracy nor a suppressor of the traditional liberties of democratic self-government?” He had said the current scheme where intelligence agencies are kept outside the ambit of parliamentary scrutiny is no longer tenable.

It is for us to reflect on these sagacious words. This bill is a bold attempt to transform the relationship between intelligence agencies and the public. Citizens of any democratic polity have the right to demand accountability from their rulers. In India there seems to exist a sense of quiet desperation amongst the public, who seek probity in governance.
This bill will certainly go a long way in reassuring them.

(The writer teaches at Christ University, Bangalore)

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