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Of India, Snowden and global voyeurism

July 08, 2013 11:20 IST

India has no compelling reason to grant his request for asylum but was unduly inhibited in raising its voice against the United States' extensive and vulgar intrusion into the privacy of its institutions and citizens, says Shyam Saran

There has been hardly any public debate or commentary on India's rejection of the asylum request made by Edward Snowden, the US Central Intelligence Agency operative, who blew the whistle on the extensive and intrusive surveillance the US undertakes on world-wide communications. The top-secret programme, PRISM, targets governments and citizens alike throughout the world.

India is said to be fifth in the ranking order of countries most targeted by US intelligence.

India was one of 15 countries approached by Snowden formally for asylum from his current refuge at Moscow's international airport. According to the Ministry of External Affairs spokesman, the request which was received by the Indian Embassy in Moscow on July 2, was promptly rejected the same day.

India does not have a refugee or asylum law and, therefore, takes decisions on these matters on an ad hoc, case by case basis. Even when a person has been given shelter in India in the past, it has not been characterised as political asylum. The best examples are His Holiness the Dalai Lama and more recently the Karmapa.

They were both escaping political persecution in their home countries. In the case of Snowden, the rejection of his plea is not at all surprising. India had no compelling reason to grant the request, since he was not politically persecuted in his country. One may disagree with the US laws on how whistle-blowers are treated, but there is no reason why we must abet any escape from those laws.

The manner in which Snowden is to be treated must be separated from the material that he has made available to the international press.

The value of that information should in no way affect the legality or otherwise of his actions. Ecuadorian President, Rafael Correa who seemed inclined earlier to consider Snowden's asylum request sympathetically, did eventually back-track saying, "… someone who breaks the law must assume his responsibility".

Snowden's revelations about PRISM, which are still coming in a steady stream, have greatly embarrassed the US government and earned it the reputation of a Global Voyeur. They have led to strains in its relations with its European allies and several other friendly countries. The revelations have been received with unconcealed glee by both the Chinese and the Russians, who have been frequently pilloried by the US for cyber attacks against the US and other Western countries. The US' attempt to distinguish between cyber attacks and cyber surveillance is mostly lost in public perception and discourse. The distinction is, in any case, a convenient fiction.

If India was circumspect in denying asylum to Snowden, it was unduly inhibited in raising its voice against this vulgar and uncalled for intrusion into the privacy of its institutions and citizens. Even the North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies of the US have not hesitated in protesting loudly and strongly against this blanket surveillance in the name of counter-terrorism. They have demanded an explanation and details of the programme from the US and have received an assurance that this would be forthcoming.

Instead, we seem to have handed over a clean chit to the US though, after a public outcry, the MEA made a somewhat tepid statement in protest.

Frankly, the controversy over Snowden's status has obscured the much more serious implications of the US surveillance programme. For one, its gives a lie to the high-decibel campaign we have witnessed in this country against any form of inter-governmental role in managing the internet. The passionate cries to uphold freedom of content and liberty of expression have proved to be motivated and hollow.

The objective has been to maintain the fiction of the non-governmental character of the internet, even while the main service providers have given willing access to the US government to all the content swirling through the cyber world. It is necessary to revisit this issue and ensure that all the stakeholders, including governments, have a say in the governance of the internet.

The US government is obviously worried about the fallout of further revelations that may emerge from Snowden. How worried it is was made starkly apparent in the extraordinary manner in which the plane carrying the Bolivian President, en route from Moscow to La Paz, was denied access to the airspace of US NATO allies, forced to land in Vienna and be subjected to the indignity of a security check, all because of a suspicion that Snowden may have been on board.

This unprecedented breach of international law and diplomatic norms and practice, carried out at the behest of the US , has so far, elicited protests from only a handful of Latin American countries. Maintaining silence on such matters is short-sighted and may come to haunt the world in the future. Snowden may have broken US law. The US and its allies have displayed utter contempt for international rules and codes of conduct which they never tire of preaching to other countries.

It is also worrying that India, too, may be moving in the same direction as the US, creating a similar elaborate surveillance system to pry into its citizens' private lives in the name of security. It is only an aware and engaged citizenry which can prevent the emergence of a polity based on fear and suspicion rather than on shared liberal values and human dignity.

The writer is a former Foreign Secretary and currently Chairman of Research and Information System and Senior Fellow, Centre for Polic y Research

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