India a police state: Is the Centre planning a crackdown?

Is the Government preparing for a crackdown? Why else would it authorise 10 agencies to inspect computers, retrieve metadata and snoop on phones barely three months before the election?

Representative image
Representative image

Uttam Sengupta

The ‘order’ signed by the Union Home Secretary Rajiv Gauba on Thursday should not have come as a surprise. All intelligence agencies, state police etc. have been snooping on computers and tapping on telephones for the past several years. In January this year when potatoes were dumped outside the house of UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath, Uttar Pradesh Police officially admitted to have put 10,000 telephones under surveillance to catch two ‘culprits’, who, they said, had dumped potatoes to defame the CM.

What is interesting about the latest ‘order’ is the list of 10 agencies authorised to inspect, snoop and retrieve data from computers, phones and metadata from WhatsApp etc. The list includes the Commissioner of Delhi Police besides agencies like CBI, RAW, NIA, CBDT, ED and Revenue Intelligence. Emergency or no Emergency, India can now officially be hailed as a police state.

What was the urgency in issuing the order during the last stages of this Government and barely three months before the next general election? The timing, if anything, appears odd because barring parts of the North-East and Jammu & Kashmir, the rest of the country has been by and large calm, notwithstanding communal flare-ups, farm unrest and various agitations. What would have warranted such draconian powers to be given to so many agencies ?

Three possible explanations come to mind. It is possible that the Government is privy to intelligence reports suggesting a major disruption being planned and it wants to prevent it. It is also possible that the Government is planning a crackdown, possibly on political rivals and hence this sweeping order. And, finally the government may have realised that the surveillance already being done by agencies is inadequate and require to be increased.

The need to ‘formalise’ what possibly was happening anyway could also be an attempt to legitimise past operations and safeguard the agencies. In case of a change in government, the agencies would then find it convenient to explain the surveillance undertaken by them.

What is worth pondering are the implications. The Home Secretaries, both at the Centre and in states, had the authority to order such surveillance and retrieval of data on a case to case basis. But following this order, will state governments be also tempted to give similar powers to the state police ? And will the state police then go after political rivals of the party ruling in the state to collect information, intelligence and dirt ?

One of the key problems with this Government has been its ‘cloaks -and-daggers’ style of functioning. Like a bull in a china shop it rushes headlong into decisions without consultation, discussion or consensus. Only the other day it told the Supreme Court that it did not think it was necessary to consult the Central Information Commission before finalising amendments in the RTI Act.

What happens then to privacy upheld by the Supreme Court as a fundamental right of the citizen ?

The Internet Freedom Foundation on Friday tweeted its apprehensions and urged the Government to reconsider the order and engage in a public and transparent process for ‘surveillance reform’ and data protection. If the Government fails to respond, the Foundation would then explore the options of moving the court.

In other tweets, the Foundation said, “Home Ministry order goes much beyond mere telephone tapping: 1) Content streams are much richer, pervasive and personal.

2) Phrasing of, “intercept” in the rules includes traffic diversion. May permit code injections and malware attacks.

3) It permits decryption. Requiring you or any service provider to break encryption.

4) Imagine your search queries on “Google” over years being demanded. Mixed with your Whatsapp metadata, who you talk to, when & how much. Added layers of data streams from emails + Facebook.

One of the key problems with this Government has been its ‘cloaks -and-daggers’ style of functioning. Like a bull in a china shop it rushes headlong into decisions without consultation, discussion or consensus. Only the other day it told the Supreme Court that it did not think it was necessary to consult the Central Information Commission before finalising amendments in the RTI Act.

The judiciary, therefore, may have to intervene and prevent India’s descent into being a police state.

For all the latest India News, Follow India Section.