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 August-September 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-Koreg aon.
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 long-standing 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.