India’s ‘Watergate’ rocks ruling Congress coalition
The Congress-led government, under scrutiny in the wake of allegations of financial irregularities in a multi-billion cricketing tournament, has now come under fire from the opposition over accusations it tapped phones of senior leaders.
A united opposition demanded a joint parliamentary committee to look into these allegations, ruled out by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who is in Bhutan attending a summit of South Asian leaders.
Last week, a magazine report said mobile phone conversations of senior politicians were tapped, sparking allegations intelligence agencies were being used to spy on political rivals.
The ethics of phone tapping, its need in internal surveillance and its scope and limitations are widely debated and this is not the first time a government has come under fire for “political eavesdropping”.
Tamil Nadu Social Welfare Minister Poongothai Aladi Aruna tendered her resignation in May 2008 after transcripts of her conversation with a state vigilance officer surfaced in the media.
Similarly Ramakrishna Hegde was forced to resign as Chief Minister of Karnataka in 1988 after allegations that the phones of prominent leaders in his state were tapped.
In a landmark judgement in 1997, India’s apex court ruled that an individual’s right to a telephonic conservation in the privacy of his/her home or office is part of the Right to Life and Liberty as stated in Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.
It went on to elaborate the scope and limitations of the section of the Indian Telegraph Act that allows the state to intercept messages on occurrence of emergency or in interest of public safety and gave certain necessary directives for the tapping of phones.
Legal experts say there may be some merit in opposition demands of scrapping the “outdated” Indian Telegraph Act of 1885 that struggles to cover communication breaches in an era of advanced telecommunication technology.
Advancement in science and technology and the growing need to protect its sovereignty against external attack has meant that the government now has access to hi-tech equipment that can tap phones without the involvement of service providers.
The easy access of evolved, unobtrusive wiretap must also mean that in the wrong hands it can expose an entire nation to danger, apart from playing havoc with the individual right to privacy.
The government has denied all allegations of phone-tapping, but the fact remains that stringent laws are needed that will clearly define cause and authorisation of wiretap by surveillance agencies if it falls outside the purview of terror threats and law and order issues.