Punish the guilty

Home minister P Chidambaram’s bland denial of any government role in the tapping of political leaders’ telephones does not answer all the questions raised by reports of intelligence agencies’ surveillance of personal communications.  The minister’s statement in parliament on Monday is in fact not a complete denial. He has only denied authorisation by the government of the reported activities of an intelligence outfit which pried into the telephone lines of leaders like Sharad Pawar, Prakash Karat and Nitish Kumar. He has even kept a window open by saying that the government is ready to thoroughly investigate the charge if there is evidence. That is as good as saying that if the telephone tapping has taken place, the government has not ordered it. But government sanction is not the issue; it is whether it has taken place, with or without  authorisation. If a government agency has done it, the government is responsible for the action. Period.

Reports had suggested that an intelligence outfit called the National Technical Research Organisation, which was formed after the Kargil war to monitor security threats, had regularly eavesdropped on the conversations of political leaders. All electronic communications, not just phone calls, may be under surveillance. This is an intrusion into the citizens’ privacy and a violation of their fundamental rights. Governments have been tempted to use intelligence agencies for political purposes. Tapping of phones had come to light during the Emergency and later during Ramakrishna Hegde’s chiefministership in Karnataka. In an open and democratic society such violation of rights and misuse of intelligence machinery for political ends are absolutely unacceptable.

Laws governing surveillance of individuals’ communications are not strong in the country, even though the issue has come into the public realm a number of times. The guidelines issued by the supreme court on telephone tapping are not effective. There may be a case for strengthening the laws but the technology is growing so fast it is easy to find loopholes in the law. The issue is one of attitude, of respect for others and commitment to the rights of people and to fair play in politics. No one will grudge the state’s power to enter people’s lives to ensure national security. But it cannot be misused, and if there is misuse, those responsible for it should not be spared. Chidambaram’s statement was not reassuring and has not removed all apprehensions of the Big Brother’s presence in our lives.

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