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India: The Gujarat model of stalking

20 November 2013

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livemint.com, 20 November 2013

The Gujarat model of stalking
Unless the recent tapes that highlight illegal surveillance of a young woman are proven to be fake, the public is entitled to certain answers

Sampath G

Last week, two independent media websites released audio tapes that purportedly show Amit Shah, the BJP national general secretary and a top aide of Narendra Modi, directing the illegal surveillance of a young woman in August-September 2009. Photo: PTI

Minister: I talked to Sahib and he got to know from someone that they did go outside twice. They went for shopping as well. Our men are not watching properly.

Cop: Yes, sir. Security has been placed in such a way there that our men have to go there ostensibly to make enquiry about car insurance.
According to media reports, the above exchange is a sampler of how the war on terror is fought in Gujarat—by using the state police to stalk a harmless young woman because “Sahib” wants it done. No other reason or concerns—of illegality, privacy or procedure—matter.

Last week, two independent media websites, Cobrapost.com and Gulail.com, released audio tapes that purportedly show Amit Shah, the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) national general secretary and a top aide of Narendra Modi, directing the illegal surveillance of a young woman—christened ‘Madhuri’ by the journalists to protect her identity—in August-September 2009.
The tapes reveal Shah, who was then Gujarat’s minister of state for home, issuing instructions, at the behest of a “Sahib”, to Gujarat IPS officer G.L. Singhal, who was then posted in Ahmedabad as SP (operations) with the Gujarat anti-terrorist squad (ATS). In their conversations, neither is in any doubt regarding who this Sahib might be. The tapes reveal that apart from the Gujarat ATS, the state intelligence bureau and the crime branch were also roped in to snoop on Madhuri.

The woman being spied on posed no threat whatsoever to law and order. In the absence of any security dimension, but given the scale and intensity of the surveillance mounted on her, the whole operation comes across as not just a snooping but a stalking enterprise driven by personal agenda. There is, after all, a difference between snooping and stalking. Snooping, however despicable a practice in moral terms, might still enjoy some measure of legal cover or justification, especially when carried out within bureaucratic parameters in the light of specific objectives of the state in the domain of security or international relations. But there can never ever be any justification for stalking, which according to any dictionary you may care to refer, is a mark of obsession or derangement.

Singhal, an accused in the Ishrat Jahan encounter case, reportedly handed over 267 audio tapes—mostly conversations between him and Shah—to the CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation) in June this year. The panchnama prepared by the CBI on 9 July 2013 states: “Shri GL Singal informed that these files contain telephonic conversation between him and Shri Amit Shah, the then MoS (Home), Gujarat State in the month of August and September 2009 relating to misuse of the police for extra legal purposes in miscarriage of justice.”

Now, these tapes are either genuine or they are fake. In case they are fake, their fakeness should be fairly easy to establish. All that’s needed is for the CBI—which, strangely enough, has been sitting quietly on these tapes all these months—to do a forensic analysis, if it hasn’t done one already. If the tapes turn out to be doctored, we can forget all about them. But so far, even Shah hasn’t issued a statement denying that it was his voice on the phone.
Instead, the BJP has tried to parry the allegations by circulating a bizarre statement (published by Times of India dated 16 November) from the girl’s father that he had personally requested Modi to “take care of my daughter and to ensure that she does not face any problem. He assured me as a political head of state.” Rather than serve as a defence, this statement only ended up deepening the mess for the BJP by directly linking Modi’s name to the whole saga, which hitherto had only Shah in the line of fire.

On the other hand, if the tapes are genuine, then it is important that we do not let the discussion be hijacked by their political ramifications in the run-up to the 2014 elections. While those are important, of far greater significance is the public interest involved in getting to the bottom of this whole regime of impunity where the state seems to believe it can get away with putting anybody it wants to under secret surveillance without due process of the law.

In this particular instance, it wasn’t only a private citizen who was being stalked. The tapes reveal Shah asking Singhal to also track the movements and phone calls of senior IAS officer Pradeep Sharma, who was then the Bhavnagar municipal commissioner. The objective apparently was to find out if he was meeting Madhuri. Interestingly, Sharma has a filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court (SC) alleging that he was being framed in false corruption cases by the Modi regime. The details of Sharma’s story—which goes back to the time when he was collector of Kutch in 2003-06—are beyond the scope of this piece. But the allegations in his SC writ petition—a public document that is freely available on the internet—leave little to the imagination regarding the identity of “Sahib” and his motive for putting both Sharma and Madhuri under surveillance.

On the face of it, these tapes constitute evidence of a crime. And they suggest that the Gujarat model of stalking operates thus: An almighty “Sahib” issues oral instructions to his trusted aide, the minister. The aide/minister then orders the cops, again, orally, to carry out whatever dirty jobs that he or the Sahib wants done. The law and order machinery, instead of protecting the citizens, preys upon them, functioning more as the criminal arm of the state. The resignation letter of a deputy inspector general (DIG) in Gujarat, D.G. Vanzara, also an accused in the Ishrat Jahan encounter case, had alluded precisely to this kind of modus operandi, and squarely blamed Shah and Modi for the state of affairs.

Unless these audio tapes are proven to be fake, and because the chief minister under whom these alleged abuses took place is a prime ministerial contender, the public is entitled to answers to the following questions:

• Who is this “Sahib”, this all-powerful individual for whom Gujarat’s home minister was willing to commandeer the state’s entire security apparatus?

• Why was this “Sahib”—whoever he might be—so interested in a minute-by-minute update of a single woman’s whereabouts, activities and details of her private life, including her dating life?

• Is it alright for the police to tap a private citizen’s phones and have her followed around with no written authorization—merely on oral instructions from a minister?

• Other illegalities apart, does invading the privacy of a young woman without any legitimate reason—tapping her phones, having her followed everywhere, from restaurants to shopping malls, gym, ice cream parlour, hotel, hospital, airports—constitute a gender crime, or does it not?

• Was Narendra Modi aware or not aware of this entire operation while it went on? If he was aware, why did he do nothing about it? If he was not aware, will he come forward with a statement saying so, and call for an independent probe into this gross abuse of political authority and police power that took place under his watch as CM?

• The BJP kicked up a fuss—and rightly so—when it emerged that its leader Arun Jaitley’s phones had come under unauthorized surveillance. Will it take a similar stand against unauthorized surveillance in this instance where a BJP government is the perpetrator?

• Was this woman the only such instance of illegal surveillance, or is it just one of many such cases?

The state acquires its legitimacy from the social contract it enjoys with its subjects. It is obligated to function as the protector of the citizens’ rights. This is the basis for the monopoly it enjoys over the use of force, and the allied apparatuses of repression and control, including surveillance. But what recourse does the citizen have to protect herself from the state when it abuses its monopolistic command over these resources and technologies?
As the numerous exposes by Right to Information (RTI) activists have shown, lack of transparency and public oversight is a recipe for the abuse of political power. But establishing even a minimal degree of accountability becomes difficult when the state props up national security as a convenient excuse for seeking secrecy.

How then does one hold the state accountable to the law, and penalize the abuse of privileges secured in the name of security? What is the guarantee that a journalist, a human rights activist, or a political adversary the government is unhappy with would not be targeted the way Madhuri was? And lastly, how do we know if the Gujarat model of stalking is not already a common practice in other parts of the country as well?

P.S.

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