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How to Ward Off a Surveillance State

Hiren Gohain |
Government is not trusted: a public forum must audit Pegasus case.
Surveillance State

Image for representational use only.Image Courtesy : The Telegraph

The term “surveillance state” does not only capture a specific characteristic of a certain kind of state, but also veils the ominous character of that state. For the purpose of surveillance is not only to breach the privacy of citizens, but take active steps to disarm his or her ability to freely think or act in the interest of society.

Surveillance helps the state sabotage spontaneous formation of public opinion, its consolidation through exchange and discussion, and eventually it prevents solidarity and organisation in public actions.

The state has developed agencies and instruments to anticipate, frustrate or deflect such healthy tendencies in society, instead inducing a mood of listless apathy. This effectively throttles the circulation of life-blood in a democracy.

One is afraid that the recent exposure of the use of Israeli spyware to snoop on, intercept and confuse individual initiatives and activities of citizens in matters of public interest has not aroused the kind of wide outrage, disgust and public reaction it actually deserved. It has been shrugged off as yet another vile misdeed of a pathological saffron state. Torrents of other news are already sweeping it away into a corner where it becomes safe for the state.

The official plea for extensive and deep espionage on conscious citizen activists in India is ‘national security’, a thin cover for oppressive anti-people vested interests that grab the nation”s wealth for private gain and steer political activity for their sole benefit.

The misguided and widely unpopular acts of terror by various militant resistance groups, in revenge against state terror in obscure parts of the country, normally occur beyond the radar of national media. They briefly loom into public view when such apparently inexplicable violence provides an excuse to install the ‘national security’ doctrine against internal threats.

The government of India does not say that it has not acquired and used this spyware. It only says that it is not possible [to deploy] in India because of strict protocols in place. In the United States, the super-secret Guantanamo Bay horrors came to light because, apart from whistle-blowers, the House of Representatives does try to keep a watch on government overreach. Here, things can be put under the lid for an indefinite period because it is seen and projected as a fuzzy area. But let us consider the current state of affairs reflected in the Bhima-Koregaon case, where the Indian state has raised the apparition of ‘urban Naxals’.

There is no evidence that Indian Maoists adopted the tactic of forming “urban guerrillas”. Nevertheless, the present government claims that such cells are active and the late Arun Jaitley coined the term ‘urban Naxal’ to characterise such (imagined?) groups. Broadly speaking, the term seems to apply to lawyers and human rights workers who help adivasis resist the mining and real estate mafia that are evicting them en masse from their ancestral territory and offering legal help to Gandhian and other activists that support the struggles of adivasis.

To some extent, the earlier Congress government had a hand in starting the state-sponsored terror. Salwa Judum was a Congress invention, though some in the Congress also were disturbed by its atrocities. The saffron government however has turned the attack on Naxalism into a full-scale war and has widened the definition and the net to catch all varieties of political activists and social workers opposing the government’s agenda and ideology. The steps against Maoists who refuse allegiance to the state are being slyly turned into an all-out campaign on all serious dissent and opposition. The spyware is quite likely a cherished part of the present government’s arsenal.

Since this is actually a covert and sometimes explicit war on all institutions and norms of democracy, it is vital to go deeper into this affair and bring things into the light of the day. The pertinent question now is: has the spyware been used against them.

The social worker Sudha Bharadwaj exclaimed on being charged with sedition and plotting to murder the Prime Minister that she did not know many people who, it was being said, were her alleged associates. The teacher and rights activist Anand Teltumbde also said that he had not played any role in organising the Elgar Parishad meeting, which allegedly became the flash point of the ‘conspiracy’. There was no reason to doubt their sincerity. Details of arms procurement by people who cannot be linked to them by any stretch of the imagination, and flagrantly dubious letters to underground ‘comrades’ that hint at imminent crimes against the state were nevertheless ‘downloaded’ on reams of paper from the laptops of the accused.

The immediate and spontaneous reaction of all conscious people to this hunt had been of sheer incredulity. People also believed the higher judiciary would at once throw these charges into the waste paper bin. This did not materialise. Apparently, the “evidence” looked genuine enough on the face of it. To untangle over time the entire mass of such “evidence” may take many years. Thus causing irreparable damage to the lives of these citizens who had taken recourse to the law against unconstitutional use of power by the state or spoken out against it.

But one significant service of the Israeli spyware is installing malware in the email and WhatsApp accounts of targets for insinuating fake and incriminating documents against the users.

Hence, it is of utmost significance that there should be an impartial probe into this ghoulish business. The lid should be removed on electronic snooping now in use in broad outlines if not details. Since the government is itself suspect, none of its agencies can be expected to be above suspicion. These cannot be trusted to do this job.

This lack of trust casts a dark shadow on the implementation of our basic democratic rights and on the government’s valid constitutional methods to exercise power. The usual governmental machinery can perhaps no longer protect our Constitution and democracy. A public platform should be formed with renowned jurists, lawyers and eminent public figures who can be expected to defend democracy. It should be allowed to suggest how such a probe should be conducted so as to render it effective and fair.

If a lazy and casual approach is taken, allowing the platform to vanish from public consciousness, that will amount to the grossest kind of folly.

Hiren Gohain writes on sociopolitical issues and is a literary critic.

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