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Open Letter To Arun Jaitley

Open Letter To Arun Jaitley

Dear Shri Arun Jaitley ji,

I do not know why you alone are asked to defend the indefensible. I remember the valiant efforts you made to defend demonetisation which I described as nothing but a “Himalayan blunder” minutes after Narendra Modi made that earth-shaking address to the nation two years ago.

I knew that you had nothing to do with Modi’s decision to ban the high-denomination currency notes which was taken at the higher levels of the government. You may wonder whether I do not know that the finance minister is at the highest level of the government.

Yes, I know that you are one of the decision-makers but “the nation” doubts whether you were involved in the decision to declare Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes legally invalid. This is despite the argument after argument you gave to justify demonetisation.

If there was any validity in what you claimed at that time, why is your party not mentioning the achievements of the demonetisation in election after election? Is it not proof that whatever you said in defence of the note ban was nothing but balderdash.

This may be because you are a lawyer and lawyers are expected to accept any brief, whether the lawyer believes in the justifiability of what is sought or not. A criminal lawyer who defends a “rapist” may know that the fellow is indeed a rapist but he does his job to make a living or to buy jewellery as one of your tribe in the Congress did soon after Modi’s demonetisation speech.

That is, perhaps, why you were called upon to defend the order issued by the Union home secretary authorising 10 government agencies, including the Delhi police, to check anyone’s computer to see whether it contains any matter inimical to the interests of the mighty Indian state.

Debaters, often, resort to colourable quotes and expressions when they find that they are on weak ground. A judge, a good one at that, knows precisely when a lawyer loses his or her steam while defending his client. That is when he raises his voice or uses complex legal jargons to obfuscate, rather than, elucidate the issue concerned.

What you did is not any different.

When a political party questioned your government’s decision to make India a police state, you mentioned that the party saw “a mountain where not even a molehill existed”. The fact is that your statement is an admission of many failures which I would explain in an instant.

If I remember correctly, you were jailed during the Emergency. I was a cub reporter those days and I remember how you made an impact on the national scene when you got elected as president of the Delhi University Students Union.

I have no idea where Shri Modiji was during the Emergency. Of course, he can claim that he was underground doing everything possible to disrupt everything that the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, stood for. After all, he is a “disruptor” as one of your party men, Dr R Balashankar, calls him in a recent book I am yet to read.

Did Mrs Gandhi introduce any law to impose the Emergency on the nation? She did not. All she did was to look for that provision in the Indian Constitution, which allowed her to impose the Emergency, round up leaders like you and ensure that the trains ran on time.

What she did had a legal basis, though it was politically unethical. To give her, her due, she never blamed the Constitution for the Emergency. She suffered in the 1977 election but not even once did she blame the Constitution for the Emergency.

On Friday (December 21, 2018), you said that the new snooping order issued by the home secretary was a re-issuance of an order that existed since 2009 when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance was in power.

When I heard your argument, the question that I wanted to ask you was whether you were elected to implement all the wrong Congress policies and programmes.

Did Modi in 2014 tell the voters that if he was elected to power, he would strictly implement whatever decisions the Manmohan Singh government had taken?

Another question, if the order was in force, what was the need to re-introduce it? A citizen like me does not have access to all the files in the government like you have but your argument that it was a Congress policy does not inspire confidence.

Without quoting the new rules, let me explain that they allow the 10 agencies to check anyone’s computer to see whether it contains anything inimical to the interests of the nation. Nobody can define what exactly is national security when someone who defends the tribal’s right to forest land is labelled as an urban Naxal and arrested.

Under the new order, you cannot even question the policies of a foreign government. For instance, if I prepare an article questioning the French government’s decision to award a contract to a dubious company, it can be termed as prejudicial to the national interest because France has done India great favour by selling some military aircraft at "a throw-away price."

Earlier, only those reports or data which were in circulation could be intercepted and action taken against those who circulated them. Now, even if you just write an article for the sake of writing, it can be termed as prejudicial to national security and you can be arrested.

Yesterday, I received a message from Facebook warning me that someone had tried to access my account using an iPhone 6s with a certain digital address. It was I who tried to access the account. What I want to point out is that Facebook knows what all devices I have. If Facebook can, surely the central government, too, can find out what devices a citizen uses.

It is no secret that government agencies have been tapping the telephones of all its critics. Even the telephones of those in the government are also tapped. The new order is quite different. It authorises the agencies to check any computer and take action.

Let’s accept your argument that it was introduced by the UPA government in 2009 and you have been implementing it as a dutiful successor. In the recent past, there have been some significant judicial verdicts. Did you not read the verdict on the right to privacy? It virtually says that privacy is sacrosanct.

Whether the verdicts were on Aadhar or consensual sex between same-sex adults, what the court ruled was about the sanctity of the right to privacy that a citizen enjoyed in the country. What right does the government have to check a citizen’s computer when he has the right to store any data or pictures which are for his personal use?

How the order, supposedly issued originally in 2009, could have envisaged the Supreme Court verdicts of 2018 on the right to privacy? A journalist may get information or data which may be secret in nature. Once he publishes something in the media, print or social, he will be responsible for it.

Now, even if he stores something in his computer which the government thinks is against the national interest, he can be punished. Do you remember Julian Assange? He had accessed tens of thousands of letters and messages the US government had exchanged with foreign governments and its own embassies and agencies.

All of them were not worth publishing. What some leading newspapers did was to split them among themselves and employ staff to critically examine them and use those which were newsworthy. Under the new rule, anyone having such content in his computer can be punished.

No journalism is now possible without the computer. Nowadays, even family members use the computer to remain in touch with one another. In such a scenario one can easily imagine how the government will use the right to check computers to fix anyone it does not like for political or other reasons.

In Manipur, a journalist was arrested and sent to jail for one year. What was his crime? He called the chief minister a puppet of the prime minister. The fact is that there are so many such puppets in the country. He also questioned the decision to celebrate the birth anniversary of the Rani of Jhansi. He rightly asked why should Manipur celebrate the anniversary.

Why only Rani Jhansi? What about Tatya Tope? Was the anniversary of the edict for Jihad — the second to be issued in India — to support the “First War of Independence” ever celebrated? Was the birth anniversary of Bahadur Shah Zafar who was exiled to Burma ever celebrated?

The journalist was arrested and punished. A few years ago, your own party men questioned the Karnataka government’s decision to celebrate Tipu Jayanti. Was any of the BJP leaders arrested and jailed for questioning the government’s decision? The fact is that Tipu Sultan was a great warrior who fought against foreign aggressors while those whom you claim as great nationalists like ‘Veer’ Savarkar wrote letter after letter seeking mercy from the British.

Let me also mention something about the Rani of Jhansi. She had declared that if she returned to power, she would reintroduce Sati, abolished by William Bentinck. It is not proper to blame her now, as nationalism was alien to Indians at that time.

That is why when freedom from the British appeared within their hands, the mutineers of 1857 entrusted their leadership to a poet who was whiling away his time in some corner of the Red Fort. What did the commanders of 1857 stand for? Please read the proclamation they made to know that they did not stand for equality, fraternity and liberty.

If a journalist cannot question a government decision in a democracy, can such a state be called a democratic one? Of course, the Manipur government is much better than the Saudi authorities who killed a journalist who had been questioning their deeds.

I grew up reading George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty Four”. It influenced me so much that I even went to Motihari to visit the place where he was born and brought up. I was very young when I read it. It was difficult for me to read the book sitting alone in a room at night. It was so scary.

Written by Orwell in the late 1940s, the dystopian date of “1984” is now 34 years passed. But that doesn’t mean the nightmarish world of complete state control is gone. The order on computers your government has issued and which you defend using your mastery of idiomatic English is really scary seen in the context of what happened to the Manipuri journalist.

Winston Smith is the chief protagonist of Orwell’s novel. In the novel, he gets a piece of advice: “But always – do not forget this, Winston – always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.”

After reading the order and your stout defense of it, the image that I have in my mind is that of the boot stamping on a human face.

I do not know whether you remember one promise your leader made during the 2014 elections. He said he would introduce “maximum governance and minimum government”. Have you forgotten this? Is empowering the police to check your computer to know what you have written or you have downloaded from the Internet is what Modi means by “minimum government”.

I am sorry to tell you that what he has implemented is “maximum government and minimum governance”. If you believe in democracy and if you believe in the right to dissent, you should oppose this snooping policy. You may lose your ministership but you will gain your conscience. Please don’t convert India into a police state.

Yours etc

( ajphilip@gmail.com)

(Published on 24th December 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 52)