Anybody can tap anybody's phone in India
The truth is that virtually anybody in a position of authority
can tap anybody's phone in India. Never mind the police,
IB and RAW. The enforcement authorities can do it. So can the
income tax people. Or the customs department. Or the CBI. Or a
state intelligence outfit. Or anybody with a grudge.
Unfortunately, most telephone tapping is undertaken for political
or personal reasons. IB taps the phones of every single minister.
It listens in to calls made by prominent Opposition figures. Selected
civil servants have their conversations taped. And periodically,
inconvenient journalists get bugs placed on their lines.
IB does not do this for national security considerations. It does
it so that its director can seem well-informed about the political
scene when he meets the prime minister. He can tell his political
master who is plotting against him. He can warn him of what the
Opposition is up to. And he can tip him off if a press campaign
is in the works.
Nor does this only happen at the Centre. In every state, the chief
minister operates a similar system. Some are more blatant than
others. Ten years ago, when H D Deve Gowda was a dissident in
the Karnataka Janata Party, his chief minister, R K Hegde, tapped
his phone. When Hegde discovered that Gowda was conspiring with
Ajit Singh, ostensibly an independent central observer, he promptly
leaked transcripts of their phone calls to the press.
Unfortunately for Hegde, the public was only mildly perturbed
to discover that Gowda and Ajit were in cahoots; we were more
interested in discovering how he had got the transcripts of their
calls. When it became clear that he had tapped Gowda's phone,
the uproar drove Hegde out from office.
Hegde went but the system remained. And the irony is that the
man who uses it today -- as prime minister -- is the same H D
I have seen Indian politicians trying every trick in the book
to escape surveillance. When cellphones were first introduced
last year, they used them in preference to land lines. Now that
the government has acquired the ability to bug mobiles, politicians
are back to using land lines but they talk in riddles. When they
fear that their homes may be bugged, they choose to hold meetings
in their gardens.
But none of them does what you would expect them to: try and change
the system. Chandra Shekhar accused V P Singh of bugging his phone
in 1990. But when he succeeded Singh as prime minister a few months
later, he did nothing to end political surveillance once and
The men who run the secret state always seduce India's politicians
once they are in power by offering them access to the kind of
information that they would not ordinarily get. The politicians
get so hooked on the information that they no longer care how
it is obtained.
The consequence is that in no democratic country anywhere in the
world is it as easy to invade somebody's privacy as it is in India.
In America, the FBI needs a court order. In Britain, M15 needs
special clearance. But here, all you need is a man with a grudge
or a prurient curiosity.
Clearly, politicians are not going to do anything about it. So,
it is up to us as citizens to demand that the system be made more
responsible and more accountable. The Supreme Court has asked
the home ministry to monitor all telephone tapping but because
few ordinary people are aware of the court directive or even,
of the extent of surveillance, the secret state can still do pretty
much what it wants.
It would be a shame if the outrage generated by The Indian
Express and The Statesman stories was allowed to die
out -- as it has in the past. We must not make the mistake of
arguing that all surveillance is unnecessary. That is a proposition
that the secret state loves to explode.
Instead, we should put forward a more limited case. Even if some
tapping is inevitable, why can't we follow the international practice
and have some safeguards and checks? Why should the secret state
be accountable only to itself?
That is a stronger case. And in the current climate of judicial
activism, we might even be able to get the judges to do what the
politicians won't: put a new regulatory system in place.
Tell us what you think of this column