Herald View: Why is ‘national security’ the last refuge of this Government ?

While it is no secret that this Government wants to be the judge, jury and the prosecution, it can scarcely keep its digital footprints hidden from international scrutiny

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Representative image
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Herald View

‘National Security’ is clearly the last refuge of this Union Government. It cites ‘threat to national security’ at every step and for all its acts of omission and commission ranging from lockdowns to use of spyware.

Even then, the Government’s refusal to file an affidavit in the Supreme Court on a petition praying for a court-monitored probe into the use or misuse of spyware Pegasus was intriguing. Proceedings in the court make it clear that the Supreme Court Justices merely wanted the Government to declare on oath that it had or had not authorised the use of military grade spyware Pegasus.

The ministry of Defence had already distanced itself from the controversy and declared that it had not ‘bought’ the spyware. In legalese, it may have meant little. Some other ministry could have bought the spyware and the Defence Ministry could have used it. But the act of disowning responsibility was still remarkable, though it is not clear what triggered such candour.

That left only the Prime Minister’s Office and the Home Ministry, which could have authorized the use. Since neither has taken any oath to be truthful and since both see national security as a good enough reason to lie, they could in all seriousness and solemnity have filed an affidavit and denied any wrongdoing. With this Government so prone to lying, it would have been the simplest of tasks. Why then was the Government being so squeamish? That is the question that should worry us.

Is this because, as the saying goes, there is honour even among thieves? What stopped the Government from telling the Supreme Court that the spyware was used strictly for surveillance on people suspected to be working against the interests of the country? The court could then have assuaged its conscience and given the Government a clean chit. But would it have then opened a Pandora’s box?

There was justified outrage when it was revealed earlier this year that the military grade spyware had been misused by governments to snoop on political rivals, leaders of other countries, journalists and activists. Israel and France ordered inquiries. The German parliament was told that its police had indeed bought and used the spyware. The European Parliament has said it is monitoring the on-going probes. But the Government of India does not want the Indian Parliament to inquire into the allegations; and it is unwilling to say either yes or no to the Supreme Court which asked if the spyware had been used for illegal or unauthorized surveillance.

But the Government, amusingly, was ready to have the issues examined by a committee of experts chosen by itself. While it is no secret that this Government wants to be the judge, jury and the prosecution, it can scarcely keep its digital footprints hidden from international scrutiny. A book by Ronald Diebert of The Citizen Lab, Toronto had identified India as one of the countries where the number of victims of spyware targeting was by far the highest in the world. Indian police and security agencies were heavy users and abusers of NSO’s spyware, he had concluded.

So, whether the Indian Government likes it or not, it can hardly hide its activities from the world. That is why a court monitored probe is even more necessary to protect the country’s dignity, democracy and self-esteem, if not privacy of its citizens or integrity of its elections. Finally, even if one concedes that the spyware was used against criminals, the country has the right to know the details.

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