In 2012, Narendra Modi prayed for good sense to dawn on everyone. The Gujarat CM was protesting against the government’s attempts to block websites, Facebook accounts and Twitter handles in the wake of communal violence in Assam. Modi had then taken off his picture from his Twitter page, tweeting passionately: ‘Sabko sanmati de bhagwan’ (Let good sense prevail). After 10 months as PM, his enthusiasm for freedom has ebbed. Instead, a culture of secrecy and surveillance is being put in place in recognition of the limits of transparency that his government can afford.
Modi’s government let it out this month that even real-time data of air quality for New Delhi would no longer be released. It seemed a reaction to the World Health Organisation describing Delhi’s air quality to be worse than Beijing. The data released by the Delhi Pollution Control Committee, explained Union minister Prakash Javadekar, needed to be ‘harmonised’ with data collected by other agencies. In December, the government also blocked 32 websites for carrying ‘anti-India’ content.
The paranoia was evident even earlier in the manner in which a veil of ‘secrecy’ was sought to be imposed over deliberations, dissent and action within the executive. With the PMO giving the impression of monitoring everything, steps like surveillance in ministries and restriction on visitors followed. Care was taken to ensure that visitors leave their mobile phones outside.
It reached a peak when the NSA Ajit Doval wrote to the cabinet secretary about his concern at NDTV airing details of indigenously built nuclear submarine INS Arihant. A flurry of office memos followed to plug ‘leaks’ and initiate action for violation of the Official Secrets Act, a colonial law which the administrative reforms commission in 2006 had advised the government to junk.
The government’s reaction was comical, because parts suppliers and manufacturers, defence attaches in foreign missions and even arms dealers would in likelihood have known the specifications. The NSA would have found it instructive that at least in two high-profile cases when journalists were booked under the osa, the judiciary found complaints against Iftikhar Gilani and Santanu Saikia unfounded.
With every information from government offices deemed an ‘official secret’, including cabinet notes and discussion papers, bureaucrats are loath to part with information, not sure what would be held against them. But they can always share juicier details over a drink, while playing golf or during personal meetings. One has serious doubts if any government can win this battle, especially in this day and age.
While thousands of poor and tribal people languish in jail charged with sedition and many citizens from minority communities are held as terrorists, it is disconcerting to find courts finding no evidence against the accused in far too many cases. Nor are we much wiser about the bomb blasts at Patna, Bodh Gaya, Bangalore or in West Bengal. While the government informs that four engineering students from Mumbai travelled to Syria and Iraq to join and fight for the Islamic State, we remain ignorant of what these young men had to say for themselves. Similarly, there is no explanation why the government cannot reveal details about the perks the PM’s wife is eligible for or the correspondence between the then PM and the Gujarat CM post-Godhra in 2002.
Michael Hayden, a former director of the CIA, summed up the dilemma of the ‘secret state’ when he said after laying down office, “It is clear to me now that in liberal democracies security services do not get to do what they do without broad public understanding and support.” In both the US and the UK, intelligence agencies are accountable to the legislature. But in India the agencies have fought bitterly to avoid such accountability and abolish the Official Secrets Act.
The government, of course, leaks what it likes. The letter written by the NSA, the ‘secret’ Intelligence Bureau report on NGOs targeting India’s economic interests, the opaque advisory to offload a Greenpeace activist at the airport and the insinuation that there was an IB report damning enough to keep eminent lawyer Gopal Subramaniam from getting elevated to the Supreme Court bench are recent examples of this insidious culture. The government knows best and it cannot be held accountable for what it does and the way it does it. The prime minister might do himself and the nation a service by coming out of the influence of Chanakya or Cardinal Richelieu.