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FrontLine - - COVER STORY - BY VENKITESH RA­MAKR­ISH­NAN

The de­ci­sion to al­low snoop­ing into data in every com­puter in the coun­try seems to have been made at the high­est level and is of a piece with the rul­ing dis­pen­sa­tion’s long-stand­ing cam­paign around the “na­tion­al­ism

ver­sus sedi­tion” theme.

THE UNION HOME MIN­ISTRY’S DE­CEM­BER 20 or­der au­tho­ris­ing 10 agen­cies to “mon­i­tor, in­ter­cept and de­crypt” data from any com­puter in the coun­try was is­sued nine days after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) suf­fered set­backs in the elec­tions to five State As­sem­blies, los­ing Ra­jasthan, Mad­hya Pradesh and Ch­hat­tis­garh to the Congress. A sec­tion of op­po­si­tion lead­ers, in­clud­ing Lok­tantrik Janata Dal (LJD) pres­i­dent Sharad Ya­dav and some mid­dle-level Congress lead­ers, drew at­ten­tion to this fact. Their ar­gu­ment was that a sense of panic trig­gered by the losses led to the move and the BJP was try­ing to use de­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tive ma­noeu­vres to sab­o­tage the op­po­si­tion and its gov­ern­ments in the States.

How­ever, sig­nals from the Union gov­ern­ment, es­pe­cially from the Union Home Min­istry, did not cor­rob­o­rate the the­ory that the le­git­imis­ing of snoop­ing was caused by a short-term po­lit­i­cal re­bound. The over­all im­pres­sion that ob­servers could draw from re­ac­tions from top ech­e­lons of the BJP and the rest of the Sangh Pari­var was that there was no di­rect link­age to the elec­tion re­sults. There have been in­di­ca­tions from the Home Min­istry that the or­der was not pre­ceded by wide­spread con­sul­ta­tions within ei­ther the bu­reau­cracy or the po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship. Un­der nor­mal cir­cum­stances, such a sig­nif­i­cant or­der should have come up for con­sid­er­a­tion at sev­eral lev­els among se­nior of­fi­cials and the po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship be­fore be­ing is­sued. But from what was dis­closed by sec­tions of the bu­reau­cracy, it ap­pears that the or­der fol­lowed a di­rec­tive from Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­viser Ajit Do­val, which the Home Min­istry im­ple­mented with­out rais­ing any ques­tions. The feel­ing in the Min­istry is that the or­der was the re­sult of a de­ci­sion taken much ear­lier at the high­est lev­els and that the Prime Min­is­ter and the BJP pres­i­dent were in­volved in the de­ci­sion-mak­ing. The same im­pres­sion was dom­i­nant within the Sangh Pari­var out­fits in­clud­ing the BJP, the Vishwa Hindu Par­ishad and the Rashtriya Swayam­se­wak Sangh (RSS).

A se­nior RSS leader based in Luc­know linked the ex­pla­na­tions of­fered by Fi­nance Min­is­ter Arun Jait­ley and se­nior Home Min­istry of­fi­cials to the un­der­stand­ing that pre­vails in the Sangh Pari­var and the Min­istry: “Jait­ley ji and the of­fi­cials have re­it­er­ated how this is a con­tin­u­a­tion of the pow­ers vested in the gov­ern­ment un­der Sec­tion 69 of the IT Act [the In­for­ma­tion Tech­nol­ogy Act, 2000]. This po­si­tion has been ex­plained in the same vein within the Sangh Pari­var out­fits. It was ex­plained clearly that the gov­ern­ment was not bring­ing up any new or fun­da­men­tal di­rec­tive.” How­ever, the RSS leader ad­mit­ted that the or­der gave the mon­i­tor­ing agen­cies greater pow­ers than what the law per­mits. Ear­lier, the agen­cies could only mon­i­tor and in­ter­cept data that were trans­mit­ted or re­ceived by a com­puter, but now they have the au­thor­ity to look at mat­ter gen­er­ated or stored in any com­puter re­source. In other words, even data keyed into a com­puter and not trans­mit­ted could turn out to be li­able for le­gal pro­ceed­ings and even pun­ish­ment.

NOT ENOUGH PO­LIT­I­CAL DIV­I­DENDS

All this in­di­cates that “na­tion­al­ism ver­sus sedi­tion” will be the theme around which the Sangh Pari­var will build its cam­paign. Yet, Sangh Pari­var in­sid­ers say that this line, though it has been brought up sev­eral times in the past two years, has not helped the BJP and the rest of the Hin­dutva com­bine ac­quire the kind of tan­gi­ble so­cial and po­lit­i­cal ben­e­fits that the Ram Jan­mab­hoomi move­ment yielded in the 1990s or even the more re­cent use of the dou­ble plank of com­mu­nal po­lar­i­sa­tion and the de­vel­op­ment agenda did in 2014. “Even as re­cently as Au­gust­septem­ber 2018, the bo­gey of the ‘ur­ban Naxal’ and the sup­posed threat he/she posed to ‘na­tional se­cu­rity’ had brought at­ten­tion to this agenda, but it could not be car­ried for­ward to its log­i­cal con­clu­sion,” the RSS leader said.

He was re­fer­ring to the ar­rest of five prom­i­nent so­cial ac­tivists—sudha Bharad­waj, Var­avara Rao, Gau­tam Navlakha, Ver­non Gon­salves and Arun Fer­reira—on Au­gust 28, 2018, by the Pune Po­lice on the claim that all of them were “ur­ban nax­alites” who had links with the Com­mu­nist Party of In­dia (Maoist) and were “in the process of cre­at­ing large-scale vi­o­lence, de­struc­tion of prop­erty re­sult­ing in chaos”. There was an­other round of

ar­rests by the Pune Po­lice on June 6. The Dalit ac­tivist Sud­hir Dhawale, the Nag­pur Uni­ver­sity Pro­fes­sor Shoma Sen and the ac­tivists Mahesh Raut and Rona Wil­son were ar­rested avowedly in the course of in­ves­ti­ga­tions into the El­gaar Par­ishad held on De­cem­ber 31, 2017, in Pune and the vi­o­lence that took place the next day at Bhima-kore­gaon.

The cam­paign met with sig­nif­i­cant op­po­si­tion from var­i­ous well-known per­son­al­i­ties. The his­to­rian Romila Tha­par, the econ­o­mists Prab­hat Pat­naik and De­vaki Jain, the so­ci­ol­o­gist Satish Desh­pande and the hu­man rights ac­tivist Maja Daruwala filed a pe­ti­tion in the Supreme Court against the Au­gust 28 ar­rests. This stalled the pro­ceed­ings against the ar­rested in­di­vid­u­als and pro­longed the pe­riod of their house ar­rest. The Supreme Court, how­ever, dis­missed the pe­ti­tion on Sep­tem­ber 28 and re­fused to set up a spe­cial in­ves­ti­ga­tion team. All the ac­tivists other than Gau­tam Navalakha are now in jail. Nev­er­the­less, Sangh Pari­var in­sid­ers feel that the move against the ac­tivists did not gen­er­ate the de­sired po­lit­i­cal mo­men­tum. The Luc­know-based RSS leader said: “With the BJP in power at the Cen­tre and in many States, it [the cam­paign against the sup­posed trou­ble-mak­ers] should have taken off eas­ily but it has not.”

CAM­PAIGN CON­CEIVED IN 2015

The “na­tion­al­ism ver­sus sedi­tion” cam­paign was con­ceived at the Akhil Bharatiya Karyakarini Man­dal Baitak (Na­tional Ex­ec­u­tive Com­mit­tee meet) of the RSS held in Oc­to­ber-novem­ber 2015 in Ranchi. The meet­ing was at­tended by the lead­er­ship of more than 35 as­so­ciate or­gan­i­sa­tions of the Sangh Pari­var, in­clud­ing the BJP. The re­alpoli­tik be­hind the meet­ing con­sisted of con­cerns about the track record of the Naren­dra Modi gov­ern­ment and the BJP’S elec­toral per­for­mance in some key States. The gov­ern­ment at the Cen­tre had com­pleted nearly one and a half years at that time, and the as­sess­ment at the meet­ing was that its track record was not up to the mark. The Delhi As­sem­bly elec­tions of Fe­bru­ary 2015 were con­vinc­ingly won by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), and there were in­ter­nal re­ports in­di­cat­ing a rout in the Bi­har elec­tions (held in Oc­to­ber-novem­ber 2015 ), then just around the cor­ner. The re­sults of the Bi­har elec­tions bore out the RSS’ in­ter­nal as­sess­ment.

It was against this back­ground that the Ranchi meet out­lined the con­tours of a new Sangh Pari­var project that would es­sen­tially di­vert at­ten­tion from the fail­ures of the gov­ern­ment and en­thuse the Hin­dutva sup­port base on the ba­sis of a nu­anced new project. Barely two months later, the Akhil Bharatiya Vid­yarthi Par­ishad, the stu­dents’ wing of the Sangh Pari­var, brought up the “na­tion­al­ism ver­sus sedi­tion” is­sue force­fully through in­ci­dents at Jawa­har­lal Nehru Uni­ver­sity in Fe­bru­ary 2016, drag­ging the then JNU Stu­dents Union pres­i­dent, Kan­haiya Ku­mar, and other stu­dent lead­ers into a con­tro­versy. The volatile start not­with­stand­ing, the cam­paign did not gather the kind of mo­men­tum that would be­queath elec­toral vic­to­ries to the BJP. The re­cent de­feats in Ra­jasthan, Mad­hya Pradesh and Ch­hat­tis­garh have un­der­scored this.

Still, even as the “na­tion­al­ism ver­sus sedi­tion” cam­paign of Au­gust-sep­tem­ber 2018 faced for­mi­da­ble op­po­si­tion, the talk within the Sangh Pari­var was that the BJP and the Modi gov­ern­ment would de­vise new ways to make po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal out of the is­sue. The Home Min­istry’s re­cent or­der, many Sangh Pari­var ac­tivists feel, might well be one of the key el­e­ments in this plan to re­vive the agenda.

In a con­ver­sa­tion with Front­line, Sharad Ya­dav said that the or­der should be viewed en­tirely from a po­lit­i­cal per­spec­tive be­cause au­thor­i­tar­ian mea­sures to fid­dle with the demo­cratic sys­tem were now the only re­course left for the Modi dis­pen­sa­tion. “Modi and his acolytes have tor­mented every sec­tion of so­ci­ety. They have in­flicted un­prece­dented mis­ery on farm­ers and agri­cul­tural labour­ers, bro­ken the back of the mid­dle classes and even pur­sued a par­ti­san pro­mo­tion of cor­po­rates. So, they are left only with de­vi­ous and fis­si­parous games like com­mu­nal po­lar­i­sa­tion and op­pres­sion in the name of na­tion­al­ism. I am only say­ing that this will ex­tend even to trou­bling elected State gov­ern­ments us­ing de­vices like le­git­imised snoop­ing and prevent­ing ful­fil­ment of peo­ple’s as­pi­ra­tions. That is what one should be guarded against per­ma­nently.” The vet­eran politi­cian’s views have many tak­ers among po­lit­i­cal ob­servers, in­clud­ing long­stand­ing ob­servers of the Home Min­istry’s func­tion­ing. One of them told Front­line: “Long be­fore the or­der came out, sources in the in­tel­li­gence agen­cies have been talk­ing about the man­i­fold in­crease in sur­veil­lance num­bers in the coun­try. Be­lieve it or not, it has had a five­fold in­crease in just the last four months. The trend is in­deed omi­nous in di­verse ways.”

Op­po­si­tion po­lit­i­cal par­ties rang­ing from the Congress to the Com­mu­nist Party of In­dia (Marx­ist) and other Left par­ties and re­gional forces such as the Sa­ma­jwadi Party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Bahu­jan Sa­maj Party, the All In­dia Ma­jlis-e-it­te­hadul Mus­limeen and the LJD have ral­lied against the Home Min­istry or­der. A clutch of civil so­ci­ety or­gan­i­sa­tions have also moved the Supreme Court chal­leng­ing the con­sti­tu­tion­al­ity and le­gal­ity of the or­der. There is lit­tle doubt that yet an­other is­sue has been added to the in­tense po­lit­i­cal bat­tles that have been rag­ing be­tween the BJP and the united op­po­si­tion for the past six months.

There are in­di­ca­tions that the or­der was not pre­ceded by wide­spread con­sul­ta­tions within ei­ther the bu­reau­cracy or the po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship.

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