Medusa was a tough woman, now often seen as a symbol of feminine rage. She had snakes for hair, which was once beautiful, and her stare, with eyes that never left you alone, turned you stiff with fright, you turned into a stone. Then Perseus, a Greek hero, came along and beheaded her with a sword gifted to him by Zeus. And from Medusa’s blood sprang Pegasus, the winged horse, and it was the official transport of Perseus, a means of communication really, which is what transport is, for a while, until, in the end, Zeus fixed Pegasus in the sky, as a constellation.
Each shape in the stars tells a tale. The one that the Indian government is telling, related to Pegasus, is a tall one. The minister for Electronics and Technology Ashwini ( etymologically related in Sanskrit to a horse) Vaishnaw, who officially circulated the government stand on the issue, which began by trashing the Pegasus tale as a media conspiracy to destabilise the ‘robust democracy that India is’, and then proceeded to state the legalities involved in the State’s ‘interception’ of suspect subjects: ‘In India, there is a well-established procedure through which lawful interception of electronic communication is carried out in order for the purpose of national security, particularly on the occurrence of any public emergency or in the interest of public safety, by agencies at the Centre and States. The requests for these lawful interceptions of electronic communication are made as per relevant rules under the provisions of section 5(2) of Indian Telegraph Act,1885 and section 69 of the Information Technology (Amendment) Act, 2000.’
The Telegraph Act 1885, as is well known, is a powerful means for the Indian government because it was promulgated on October 1, 1885, the year when a hawkish Lord Randolph Churchill became Secretary of State for India. All of that year there had been a churning, and a great number of meetings took place in political, academic, and media circles on the theme of founding the Indian National Congress. The party came into existence in December of the same year.
So then the Act naturally was hostile, empowering the Churchill administration to keep an unblinking colonial watch on the media and a heavy white hand on brown mouths. That we are still bound by that Act has been a much-belaboured lamentation; but no government, no matter which party’s, has attempted to dilute it.
Last week’s government circular trashes the Pegasus project — spyware meant to surveil journalists (Siddarth Varadarajan among others) politicians ( Rahul Gandhi among others ), businessmen (Anil Ambani), former officials (ex-CBI chief Alok Varma among others) and even enterprising mercenaries like Prashant Kishore, who, before he became a strategic consultant for the Opposition, had once tried to reach out to the Modi dispensation, and whose offer was declined. And soon after Vaishnaw’s defence of his government, it tuned out his own name, along with another minister’s, were on the Pegasus list.
An inclusive and representative list, backed by a constitutional process. Each case of interception, monitoring, and decryption, then, is approved by the competent authority i.e. the Union Home Secretary. The secretary is directly answerable to the home minister. Amit Shah, in this case.
Contrary to the popular perception, the ethical aspects of this operation are best not discussed. Every government snoops. That is how States are run. Is it a good thing? No. But that is how power tries to perpetuate itself. By listening, watching, gathering information, and using it against those it perceives as inimical to its interests.
Therefore, it is surprising that there are only a very few (less than 200 as of now) who are suspected to be dangerous. This country has more than a billion people, millions of them idling their lives on social media, without saying anything really of interest to the State. Indeed, the heartburn in the elite media and activist circles is that they don’t figure on the list: what good are they?
As implied earlier, the Modi government is not the only one to listen in on conversations. Most notably, in the Manmohan times (2011), the then finance minister Pranab Mukherjee himself complained of his offices being bugged. A Times of India report, which came out in June that year, said a pained Mukherjee wrote to the Prime Minister, complaining that his offices were ‘bugged.’ Later, bug adhesives were found in the rooms of Omita Paul ( Mukherjee’s advisor) and Manoj Pant ( private secretary). Fingers were pointed at the home ministry, headed then by P Chidambaram.
Operation Pegasus is of a different order, of course. But it is a question really of degrees. Earlier dispensations have certainly spied in on private communications. What’s more interesting than listening to other people’s conversations? But the interesting thing, in this case, is we don’t know exactly what are the contents of the messages? How harmful were they to the nation’s interests?
What secrets did the government get out of such committed surveillance than the most private of the secrets available with each our transaction on a credit card, browsing history, and the communication hardware we use that comes embedded with all sorts of spyware euphemistically called trackers?
We live in the Surveillance Age. And, we have bought into that way of life: in fact, we feel safe to be in constant surveillance. Consider the CCT culture in public and private spaces. The social media staple of naming and shaming. The proliferation of recording and spy software. Or the scant respect we attach to invasive Google technologies or the Wikipedia culture that denies you privacy, or your right to be forgotten. We live in the full glare of others’ watch. We sleep, as it were, with the cell ( with its camera and mic on) right next to us. Our pillow talk is the next day’s shopping transaction because somebody or something somewhere has already heard it. They have got a plan for you because they know your mind. So does the government that stares, unblinking, at you, turning you into a stone. And our Perseus is Rahul Gandhi. Who doesn’t have a sword; or a horse.
CP Surendran’s novel, One Love And The Many Lives of Osip B (Niyogi Books) is releasing on July 29. It is now available on Kindle and Amazon.