May 25, 2020
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X-Ray Report: No Spine

Khobragate: the price for India’s silence on the Snowden affair

X-Ray Report: No Spine
Illustration by Sorit
X-Ray Report: No Spine

Call it slam-bang diplomacy. The New York cops started it with their typical swagger. They handcuffed Devyani Khobragade, an Indian diplomat, subjected her to a strip-search and kept her in a cell crammed with criminals. In response, the Indian state began to flex its muscle: bulldozers roared in front of the US embassy and new tax files were opened overnight. Within days, the most famous address in Chanakyapuri was in the crosshairs of Indian diplomatic fire.

But if the officials and experts who went ballistic over Khobragade’s arrest really cared about our sovereignty and ‘pride’, they should have fired at the US embassy when National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked top-secret documents which revealed how India was one of the biggest targets of American spying. But at that time they pretended there was no problem.

The Indian response to the Snowden revelations was not meek; it was suici­dal. It opened the doors for Khobragate.

In July, it was revealed that X-keyscore, an NSA tool that collects everything a user does on the internet, was located in Delhi. But the government didn’t bother to find out if this tool was being operated from the US embassy. Another document showed that the NSA and CIA were running Special Collection Service (SCS) centres from their embassies for targeting difficult-to-reach places such as secret installations. One of the maps, dated 2002, showed two actual SCS locations: one was in Brasilia, the other in New Delhi. Another document, dated 2012, showed New Delhi was one of the 40 ‘FORNSAT’ locations from where the SCS centres, with satellite intercept capabilities, were operating. It meant that all of India’s satellite communications were being monitored from the American premises on Shanti Path.

But even as these stories sparked a global rage, India kept a stoic silence. The silence turned into denial when more stories about the NSA spying on India began to come out in September. No minister went to a television studio to scream about the violation of the country’s sovereignty. Foreign minister Salman Khurshid sought to justify the NSA activities as a routine exercise. “Everybody spies” was the expert opinion of our strategic affairs pundits. And when it was revealed that the NSA was monitoring the mobile phones of 35 world leaders, our response: “The prime minister doesn’t use a mobile phone.” The spine that India suddenly developed after its diplomat was strip-sea­rched in New York was definitely missing at the time of Snowdengate. There was no fury at the revelations that the privacy of its citizens and sovereignty of the government was being routinely violated by the NSA. In September, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met President Barack Obama at the White House but didn’t utter a word about it.

Obama was not so lucky with other world leaders. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, told the US president in no uncertain terms that the NSA was like Stasi, the notorious East German agency. Other European leaders told Obama to rein in the NSA. Even an emerging country like Brazil has taken the US to task over this issue. After it was revealed in August that her personal phone was targeted by the NSA, Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff cancelled her visit to the US. In September, Rousseff blasted the US at the UN General Assembly session. And now, Brazil has rejected a $4.5 billion contract for Boeing’s F-18 fighter jets.

Since June, when Snowden began leaking NSA documents, Brazil’s global stature has grown because of its stand on mass surveillance. India, meanwhile, by meekly accepting the NSA monitoring, has become a global dwarf.

In today’s world, data is the new oil. The power that controls data controls the world. In these circumstances, Snowdengate has shown that India as a country does not really care if it is monitored—and controlled—by a foreign agency. The message from New Delhi could not have been clearer: we will crawl if you ask us to bend.

This behaviour assured the Americans that India can be kicked around without a murmur of protest. So, when New York attorney Preet Bharara asked the US State Department for permission to arrest Khobragade, he got the green signal, no problem. For the Americans, there was no reason at all to suspect that a country that doesn’t care a hoot about the violation of the privacy of millions of its citizens would be so riled up by the poking at the tooth cavities of a diplomat accused of visa fraud.

(Shobhan Saxena is a Sao Paulo-based journalist. He has done a series of stories on the NSA spying on India, based on documents provided by Edward Snowden.)

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