It is dangerous to defend Barkha Dutt, the well-known TV anchor, on whom stones are being thrown from different directions following the publication of a set of carefully selected telephone intercepts of her conversations with Niira Radia, who was handling the public relations and government liaison work of two of the leading corporate houses of India. I have been subjected to considerable abuse. The critics of Barkha are shocked that I should be defending her instead of joining the hunting pack and going after her. A senior journalist, who had served in the Prime Minister's Office when Shri Atal Behari Vajpayee was the Prime Minister, subsequently went on a diplomatic assignment before reverting back to journalism, is reported to have described me as a tired old man .
I chose to defend Barkha because I strongly feel that her hard-earned reputation as a young, courageous and successful journalist, is sought to be besmirched--wittingly or unwittingly-- on the basis of an incomplete and motivated narrative. It is incomplete because only about three per cent of the total number of about 5800 intercepts has been made public. This clearly indicates that there has been a careful selection of the intercepts to be leaked to the press. Who made the selection? With what motive? Unless one has answers to these questions, there should be a big question mark over the narrative.
Telephone intercepts are double-edged swords. One can get valuable information regarding law-breaking from them. At the same time, they also lend themselves to be easily manipulated to damage innocent reputations. That is why many foreign governments have carefully drafted dos and don'ts regarding telephone tapping --like fixing the duration of the tapping just as one fixes the duration of police custody of a suspect, taking a fresh authorisation every time the duration expires, destroying intercepts which do not indicate any violation of law to prevent their misuse for character assassination etc.
The danger of misuse of intercepts to harm innocent persons is real. In the 1980s, when Rajiv Gandhi was the Prime Minister, a young officer, who was in charge of tapping, was sacked because he manipulated the process in order to create suspicions about some members of the Sikh community being Khalistani sympathisers. His manipulation of the process was detected in time before any damage was done to the reputation of those named by him.
Many circumstances relating to the tapping in the present case are not clear. On what specific grounds was the tapping authorised by the competent authority? Was the authorisation of limited duration? If so, was it renewed from time to time? Was a due judgement made at the time of each renewal that there were valid reasons to suspect criminal wrong-doing? Were the intercepts not indicating any criminal wrong-doing ordered to be destroyed to prevent their falling into wrong hands? Such questions need to be gone into thoroughly and a detailed directive issued on the use of tapping for the investigation of crime.
Tappings are meant to facilitate detection and prosecution of crime and not to damage the reputation of innocent persons.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi