Comment: India gets a snooping scandal of its own

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The tapes show that in 2009, a young woman architect, nicknamed “Madhuri” to protect her identity, was put under continuous surveillance for more than a month by the state intelligence bureau, the crime branch and the anti-terrorism squad of the western Indian state of Gujarat, in an operation run by the state’s notorious home minister, Amit Shah.


Shah himself reported the results of the surveillance to a higher-up only named in the tapes as “Saheb” (literally, “sir,” but more akin to “big boss”).

Why should this have ramifications not just for Gujarat but all of India? Well, the only man above Shah in Gujarat’s state machinery in 2009 was Narendra Modi, the charismatic and controversial chief minister of the state — and the man recently entrusted by India’s second-largest political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, to lead its campaign in next year’s general elections. To put it another way, the enormous power already enjoyed by a man who could soon become prime minister was recently used by him in a grossly unethical and illegal stalking operation.

Modi has refused to speak on the matter. Confirmation that the “Saheb” masterminding the operation in the tapes was none other than Modi came from an unlikely source — the BJP itself, which circulated to the press a letter defending Modi written by the victim’s father, Pranlal Soni. Different sources have revealed that “Madhuri” was known to Modi beginning in 2005, when she was introduced to an officer in the state police department, and thereafter visited Gujarat frequently on assignments given to her by the government. Her father claimed that he himself had enjoyed “long-standing relations spread over two decades” with Modi, and it was he who had asked the minister to keep watch over his daughter “in her own interest, safety and security.”

So it was only Papa who was feeling concerned. Really? Far from exculpating Modi from the charge of a terrible violation of privacy, the letter amplifies its seriousness. This possibility seems never to have occurred to his party, which seems to have imagined the letter would lead to the burial of the matter as “a family affair” in which two old friends got together to look out — for mystifying, but generally well-meaning, reasons — for a defenseless young woman.

Even more perversely, Soni claimed that his daughter was aware that she was being kept under watch. But even if we assume this is true, the state has no business breaching a citizen’s privacy based on an offer made by one person speaking on another’s behalf. Further, the conversations in the tapes reveal that the purpose of the surveillance seems to have less to do with ensuring “Madhuri’s” safety, and more with determining men she was meeting., the news portal that broke the story, supplied some of the astonishing details of the operation:

The recordings reveal that Madhuri was tailed even as she visited shopping malls, restaurants, ice-cream parlours, gyms, cinema halls, hotels and airports. She was followed even when she visited her ailing mother in a hospital in Ahmedabad. When she boarded a flight out of Ahmedabad, orders were issued to put cops on the flight so that she was not out of sight even when she was flying. Strict orders were given to closely observe and profile those who met her. Shah was particularly interested in knowing the men she was meeting and whether she was alone or with some man when she checked into a hotel in Ahmedabad. Her phones and that of her family and friends were tapped. Every bit of information was conveyed to Shah in real time, who in turn claimed to be relaying it to his ‘saheb’.

But Snoopgate and the reactions to it don’t just reveal something about Modi, they also reveal something about India. Indians are rarely very stringent in their regard for personal liberty — especially the liberties due in theory, but rarely allowed in practice, to women. As the columnist Pratap Bhanu Mehta wrote in a crushing piece on Modi and the BJP in the Indian Express, “In India, there is way too little outrage at the ease with which states violate privacy rights.”

Plenty of people seemed willing to interpret the story of Madhuri being stalked as evidence of the woman’s good fortune in being “protected” by an entire police force, a sign of how deeply patriarchy runs in India’s veins. And much of the news media seemed to treat the revelations as a matter that lay within the domain of a politician’s private life, an arena generally agreed to be out of bounds. Seen in this light, it was very clever of the BJP to activate the word “family” in its defense of Snoopgate, as that word in India can be used to sanctify all manner of outrages.

The fact remains: Something is rotten in the state of Gujarat. A recent report by Mahesh Langa, the Gujarat correspondent of the Hindustan Times, revealed that illegal surveillance is widely practiced by the state administration. Langa writes,”The extent of snooping is so pervasive that Gujarat’s director general of police Amitabh Pathak was shocked to learn in May that his own police officials had obtained call detail records of as many as 93,000 mobile phone numbers without his knowledge since December 2012.”

If Snoopgate is just the tip of the iceberg, this has serious implications for the future of Indian democracy and the rights and freedoms guaranteed to its citizens. Were the general public to fall for the BJP’s spin and accept the explanation — as many seem to have done — that the surveillance of “Madhuri” was actually something benign, a future Indian state headed by Modi could indulge in further such trespasses.

The feebleness, ineffectuality and corruption of the coalition government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has made many middle-class Indians, including substantial sections of the youth, clamor for “a strong man” to lead the country in a new direction in 2014. Modi has emerged to fill this space, attracting hundreds of thousands in rallies all around the country. In the run-up to next year’s elections, it was Modi’s alleged sins of omission or commission in the terrible religious violence of Gujarat in 2002 that had thus far been cited as the main reason for his being unfit for the post of prime minister.

But the sordid details of Snoopgate reveal that the chief minister of Gujarat has many other skeletons in his closet, and that the great power and slavish admiration he enjoys in his state means that he runs it like a kingdom.

India’s economy may be faltering, and the potential and aspirations of its billion-plus people still largely unfulfilled, but at least it qualifies in some measure as a country committed to civil liberties. Can it entrust those freedoms to a man so in love with his own power that he cannot see the contradictions inherent in keeping a woman under constant surveillance “in her own interest”? I wouldn’t think so.

Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View. His novel “Arzee the Dwarf” is published by New York Review Books.

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