Digvijay Singh, Congress general secretary
Digvijay Singh was driving from his house in South Avenue through Sardar Marg Patel having a conversation on his cellphone with a Congress leader from Punjab. The two were discussing possible candidates for 2007 chapter of the Congress Working Committee elections, which are held every three years. The leader from Punjab was seeking Digvijay’s support for his possible candidature. Unknown to them, their entire conversation was being tapped and filed in a computer system. Digvijay had this to say about the surveillance: “I think it is illegal and unethical.”
Nitish Kumar, Bihar chief minister
The Bihar CM was on his way in his official car from Bihar Bhavan in Chanakyapuri to South Block for a meeting when his conversation—on a cellphone belonging to the then Bihar resident commissioner, who was travelling with him—was tapped. Nitish was discussing with a colleague how to get more funds from the Centre for his state. Other related issues like projects on the Kosi river also figured in his call.
Sharad Pawar, Union agriculture minister
Discussions between the minister and IPL commissioner Lalit Modi were tapped and taped last fortnight in the wake of the scandal in the cricket league. The recorded conversations allegedly threw up inside details of the deals that were struck in the bidding process for the various teams.
Prakash Karat, CPI(M) general secretary
The cellphones of Opposition leaders were tapped to ascertain their plans regarding the Indo-US nuclear deal and the consequent no-confidence motion in Parliament at the time. Karat was targeted since he was leading the charge against the UPA government.
M.K. Narayanan, Then NSA
He was instrumental in bringing the new tapping technology to India in 2005-06. During a demonstration at an NTRO facility in Delhi on Jan 7, ’06, his phone was tapped successfully.
In February 2007, Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh was on his cellphone with a party leader from Punjab. With Congress Working Committee (CWC) elections due soon, the Punjab leader was discussing his possible candidature. Neither was aware that the conversation was being tapped and taped. In fact, a team from the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO), an intelligence agency created in the aftermath of the Kargil war to cover all aspects of technical intelligence-gathering, was monitoring the conversation. The call was recorded, logged and filed away.
Likewise, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar’s mobile phone was tapped during an official visit to Delhi in October 2007. The call was intercepted while he was going in his official car from Bihar Bhavan in Chanakyapuri. Sources familiar with the interception say Nitish had called a colleague in Delhi seeking his help to lobby with the Planning Commission for more funds for Bihar. The CM was using the phone of the then Bihar resident commissioner who was with him. He also discussed certain projects for flood relief, and spoke about a project related to river Kosi. Currently a close aide of Nitish Kumar, the resident commissioner categorically confirmed to Outlook that the Bihar CM did make such a call and that he had this discussion.
Digvijay expressed surprise when Outlook sought his comment. While he couldn’t recall the exact details of his conversation, he conceded that there was a distinct possibility of it having taken place. It is a matter of fact that the CWC elections were due later that year. The CWC nominations and elections are held every three years. They were held last in 2007 and are due again in the latter half of 2010.
“The conversation may have taken place,” Digvijay told Outlook. “But I think this is very disturbing. I am very surprised to know that the government has been eavesdropping on political leaders, which I think is illegal and unethical.” While he wondered how such tapping could go on in a government headed by Dr Manmohan Singh, he felt that modern (surveillance) technology should be used only for national security.
“The whole system works on deniability,” a senior intelligence official told Outlook. “It can be deployed anywhere. We don’t need to show any authorisation since we’re not tapping a phone number at the exchange but intercepting signals between the phone and the cellphone tower and recording them on a hard disk. If too many questions are asked, we can remove the disk and erase the conversation. No one gets to know.”
Outlook has also learnt that an air vice marshal, then posted as an air defence commander in the Western Air Command, was put under similar surveillance. The officer’s cellphone, besides those of his wife and other family members, was tapped for several weeks in the early half of 2006. Ironically, the air vice marshal also applied for a position in the NTRO as a joint secretary since he had been overlooked for promotion by the air force.
I appreciate the article We, the Eavesdropped (May 3) on the illegal eavesdropping conducted by Indian intelligence agencies (and their international cohorts). I’m convinced, however, that the problem is far more insidious. Illegal privacy invasion has become ubiquitous as intelligence agencies have collaborated with equipment that can literally eavesdrop on the thoughts of the human mind, and use key words to hone in on the thoughts of just about every citizen of any industrialised country. Just a few (in my opinion, lucky) individuals in remote parts (such as tribal communities) are not subject to this invasion of privacy. Of course, this does explain why there is such a drive to overcome these communities and integrate them into the larger citizenry. Robert Weise, on e-mail
I’d love to ask Congress spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi how someone’s phone can get tapped “accidentally”. It’s akin to the US air force bombing news network Al Jazeera’s offices “accidentally” in Afghanistan! Abesh, London
I wish the Opposition would use the phone-tapping issue to unite against the Congress. Laloo and Mulayam were right when they told the BJP in Parliament recently: “Aapne agar masjid na girayi hoti to aaj hum bikharte nahin.” If the BJP could somehow break itself from the rss grip, apologise for Babri and Gujarat, the electoral map could be a very different one indeed. The secular/communal divide would be gone, and replaced hopefully by a Congress/non-Congress one. As of now, the Congress seems to be slipping into the dangerous complacency of a more or less permanent one-party rule. Chinmay, Hanover
It’s strange how all the politicians have come together on the issue of phone-tapping. Where are these hypocrites when Pakistan eavesdrops or the Chinese hack into our networks? R.C., Mumbai
Wire/phone-tapping/surveillance is an integral part of modern-day life and intelligence-gathering. In no other country does the media bear thus on disclosing information regarding the nation’s surveillance activities. Now a JPC will be called for, the details of India’s surveillance will be made public and an important organisation like ntro will be set back by many years. Gautam, Mumbai
Is there any way of confirming if one’s mobile is being tapped? I can hear my own voice when I am speaking and my cell’s battery gets discharged pretty soon too! Amit, Mumbai
Tapping phones and intercepting e-mails of politicians, radicals, social activists and journalists by intelligence agencies has been an old phenomenon. A spokesperson of the Dal Khalsa—a known overground political group advocating the goal of Khalistan—I have no doubt that my phone has been and is being tapped by the IB and state intelligence wing since I entered the political arena in 1998. However, when a person like me shouts that “our phones are being tapped, we are under constant surveillance and our liberty and life are being invaded,” there is no hue and cry in society. We are given to understand that we are Sikhs and have no right (constitutionally or otherwise) to question the state for committing such illegal and immoral acts. However, Outlook does a story on how high-profile politicians from the Hindi heartland have been successfully though illegally tapped, and there is a storm in political circles. Kanwar Pal Singh, spokesperson, Dal Khalsa
On the one hand, our politicians say they are “public servants”. On the other, they complain about phone-tapping. If they have nothing to hide, why the fear? In fact, if the conversations of politicians were to be made public, we would know exactly how much they care for their constituents. Dinesh Kumar, Chandigarh
The misuse of government machinery and power is very rampant these days. I was shocked when I came to know that my mobile and those of some other people who united to get their money back from a fraud builder in Faridabad were being tapped by Delhi police. Ironically, it was very easy and cheap for the builder to eavesdrop. He just had to file a false complaint in the Kalkaji police station and the rest was taken care of by the greedy government force. Arvind, Delhi
The three Fox intercepts Outlook quotes appear to have been picked up randomly by the system and not targeted specifically at the individuals concerned. While searching for the elusive needle in the haystack, intelligence agencies are likely to inadvertently latch on to some ongoing conversations between vips/politicians or the general public, which can’t be considered as targeted tapping: tapping has a different connotation altogether. Such agencies, perpetually blamed for intelligence failure, have to remain steps ahead of the nation’s enemies; some loss of privacy is a small price to pay in the national security interest. Brig Lakshman Singh (Retd), Noida
Intelligence agencies would tap politicians or men of power to find out whether they are anti-national, anti-social, corrupt, involved in money-laundering, human trafficking, rape, murder and, last but not the least, anti-party activities. But they need not be tapped for this, we already know this. Spindoc, Somerset
This could now be regarded as a criterion to judge a person’s importance. If your conversations aren’t being tapped, then you’re not playing in the zone. Ashok Lal, Mumbai
A limerick for Big Bro:
It seems our phone lines are tappedTo plug the information gap, Thousands are employed, Ministers are overjoyed Listening to unadulterated crap. Verse Cannon, New Delhi
Sensation-seeking Outlook finds another piece of yellow journalism to boost sales. Rajendra Chopra, Faridabad
This seems like a classic case of ‘paid news’, and all fingers seem to point to a disgruntled Sharad Pawar. With exposes such as these, who needs enemies? What next? A disclosure on our nuclear weapons sites? MPs are not above the law to not come under the ambit of intelligence, especially when every internet-using citizen is being monitored electronically. Besides, only those who have clandestine dealings should have reason to be perturbed. Ramon Terence, one e-mail
It’s unlikely that an agency which can’t track tech-enabled terror strikes like 26/11 can unearth anything useful from our politicos’ calls. Krishna Vinashak, Faridabad
Price rise, the IPL controversy and now this...the UPA government doesn’t seem to be doing anyone any good. R.K. Agarwal, Bangalore
The iron being hot, now is a good time for the Opposition to strike at the UPA. The coalition may have won the electoral battle, but the Opposition could well win the war if it gets its strategies right. Alok Kumar, Muzaffarpur
imported leaders are far better than home grown leaders as far as corruption goes .
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