The key to the veracity of the astonishing claims made at a press conference in London on 21 January by a United States-based radio frequency engineer, Syed Shuja (AKA Syed Hyder Ahmed), about hacking of Indian Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) lies with American authorities.
Syed said he arrived in Chicago on an Air India flight on 16 May 2014 and immediately applied for asylum. The basis for seeking such status was, according to him, a shooting episode in his home city of Hyderabad, where several of his colleagues were killed and he, too, was injured. The reason for the massacre, he maintained, was that he and his mates – all of whom he described as designers of EVMs contracted by Electronic Corporation of India Limited from a private firm – had discovered that machines in some areas had been tampered with in the 2014 general election.
There is now documentary evidence that Syed Hyder Ahmed was indeed granted asylum by the US on 1 March 2018. So, the first question is what persuaded the US administration to accommodate his request?
Syed’s version of events is he was hospitalised after reaching Chicago, because of a bullet wound he was retaining from the incident he described, before being held at a detention centre. These apparently consumed a total of 34 days. While confined, he is likely to have been interrogated, which is standard practice. Records of such questioning will reveal what he told the interviewers.
A court case to remove him from the US was, thereafter, registered against him. In effect, the onus was put on him to provide evidence to substantiate his claims to avoid expunction and a return to India. Presumably, he proved his case to be allowed residence in the US for an indefinite period.
In short, records of the court proceedings are important and are likely to reveal what Syed submitted. There are unconfirmed reports that US officials in India or by visiting the country cross-checked his contentions at first hand. That they monitored the February-March 2017 Uttar Pradesh and the December 2017 Gujarat state elections to consolidate their conclusion. For the sake of Indian democracy, Washington needs to share such details even if they are required to be declassified.
The second query is, why didn’t Syed physically turn up at the press conference and demonstrate with an EVM how this could be tampered with? It was agreed he would come to London to do so. IJA’s invitation (which deliberately did not mention Syed’s name for security reasons) to all concerned, including the Election Commission of India and Indian political parties was emailed on 9 January. He, it seems, almost instantly came under pressure to pull out. Who had most to lose from his presence at the presser? A day after the event, he told a YouTube channel operated out of Texas by Avi Dandyal that he had been offered a significant sum of money not to participate.
He stated that on the 18th night he was beaten up in a street and had to be administered several stiches on his head and chest. He was scheduled to take a flight from Newark on the 19th night in order to arrive in London on the 20th morning. Following the attack on him, he indicated, it was not possible for him to do so. With dozens of media-persons committed to attend the presser, it was explored if he could appear by Skype. He agreed to do so. But the display of how an EVM could be interfered with went out of the window.
Interestingly, I was phoned and messaged a few times by journalists in India on 19 and 20 January asking if the press conference had been called off. On the 21st morning I received a text message from a staffer at the Economic Times saying: “Hope the conference is as per schedule. As someone told me it might get cancelled.” Despite Syed’s identity not being disclosed, some scribes in India had come to know about it and also that he had been assaulted. Somebody, somewhere was desperate to sabotage the press meet.
US law enforcement agencies have the capability to inquire if anyone offered him money to remain silent. They can also determine who bashed him up; and if it was a hired hitman who was behind the job? They owe the facts to the Indian people.
Indian Journalists’ Association (Europe) was established in May 1947. I have had the privilege of being its president several times from 1983 till date. During my tenures we have consciously been even-handed towards Indian political parties, playing host to Indira Gandhi, Atal Bihari Vajpayee (in his wilderness years in the mid-1980s when he had lost even his Lok Sabha seat), Rajiv Gandhi, and lately Arun Jaitley, Nitin Gadkari and Rahul Gandhi.
Most people present at the conference felt – and so did I – that the picture Syed painted was not credible. Yet, there are unanswered questions. Thus, the US needs to step up.
The Direct Recording Electronic Voting Machine, which is what an Indian EVM is, is used in very few countries nationally. Brazil, Estonia and Venezuela are among very few who do. Its introduction at a state level in the US proved controversial. Belgium, France, Netherlands, Germany, Paraguay and Japan have, in fact, discontinued availing of it.