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Commentary/Vir Sanghvi

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 Deve Gowda.

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 for all.

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.

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Vir Sanghvi

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