Politics of phone tapping

The tapping of the telephone of Samajwadi Party leader Amar Singh continues to make news as the police in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh conduct vigorous investigations apparently with different agendas.

Published : Feb 10, 2006 00:00 IST

Amar Singh.-V, GANESAN

Amar Singh.-V, GANESAN

CHARGES relating to espionage employing methods such as tapping of telephones and surveillance of rivals have been levelled time and again in Indian politics. One such serious accusation and the controversy that followed it led to the collapse of the minority government led by Chandra Shekhar in 1991. The Congress, which backed the government, withdrew its support alleging that party leader Rajiv Gandhi was under surveillance by government agencies.

The latest allegation of telephone tapping has come from Samajwadi Party (S.P.) leader Amar Singh. The controversy seems to be turning into a long-drawnout legal and administrative battle between the SP, the ruling party in Uttar Pradesh, and the Congress, which heads the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre.

Central to the battle are two separate police investigations being conducted, one by the Delhi Police and another by a Special Task Force (STF) of the Uttar Pradesh Police. While both the investigations began on January 17, the Delhi Police claims to have more or less wrapped up the case. The STF investigation is still under way. Delhi Police officials insist that the investigation has reached a point of near-conclusion.

Petitions have been filed in the court against the Uttar Pradesh STF's investigation in areas outside its jurisdiction. But leaders of the State government, including Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav who ordered the inquiry, assert that since the First Information Report (FIR) on which the investigation is based was filed in Uttar Pradesh, the STF can indeed go ahead.

According to the Delhi Police, the tapping of Amar Singh's phones was motivated by a simple and straightforward drive on the part of four persons who wanted to make quick money by blackmailing Amar Singh. According to this version, the case does not have the sensational political angle that Amar Singh claims it has.

Amar Singh has alleged, right from the last week of December when he first raised the charge, that top Congress leaders where behind the operation. According to him, Congress president Sonia Gandhi was in the know of the operation. The Delhi Police, however, firmly rule out any political angle to the conspiracy or the involvement of any political personality in it.

The four people arrested by the Delhi Police include three private detectives and an employee of Reliance Infocomm, the telephone company. Apparently, the three accused hatched a conspiracy to do a "sting operation" on the S.P. leader, hoping to unravel facts that would put Amar Singh on the defensive.

Within hours, however, the "victim of the conspiracy", Amar Singh, lampooned the findings of the Delhi Police as "mere hogwash". And, almost simultaneously, officers of the STF reached Ghaziabad, the Uttar Pradesh district adjacent to Delhi, and started a parallel investigation, asserting that their own leads pointed towards the involvement of "influential politicians" and some "associates in the corporate sector" in the operation. The STF investigation was ordered by Mulayam Singh Yadav, on the basis of complaints filed by two persons, Chairman of Flex Industries Ashok Chaturvedi and an S.P. activist, Ashok Singh Chauhan, that their conversations with Amar Singh had been tapped.

A senior STF official told Frontline that the State government's investigation would proceed on systematic and methodical lines. This, he added, would imply moving for the transit remand of the four accused identified by the Delhi Police and their interrogation in the custody of the Uttar Pradesh Police. Uttar Pradesh Director-General of Police (DGP) Yashpal Singh, told Frontline that the STF had been asked to look into the ramifications of the case that have not been addressed by the Delhi Police. The DGP's obvious reference, albeit understated, was to the political angle.

Amar Singh has said repeatedly during the Delhi Police investigation that it was focussing only on the "pawns in the game" and that the "political mastermind" behind the operation was being overlooked deliberately. He alleged that Congress Rajya Sabha member Rajeev Shukla was involved in the tapping. By all indications, the STF investigation would involve calling Rajeev Shukla for interrogation. Amar Singh and Rajeev Shukla are reportedly on different sides of the two "split" wings of the Reliance group, one led by Anil Ambani and the other by Mukesh Ambani.

Even as the STF's moves are awaited, the Delhi Police is all set to file chargesheets against the four accused identified by it. Although the final shape of the chargesheet is yet to be made public, informed sources in the Delhi Police told Frontline that it mainly revolved around the three private detectives, namely Vijay Dhawan, Bhupendra Kumar and Anurag Singh, and the Reliance Infocomm employee, Kuldeep Singh.

According to the Delhi Police the idea to tap Amar Singh's phone lines belonged to Vijay Dhawan and Bhupendra Kumar, who started working on it in mid-October. The operation, according to the Delhi Police, was carried out in three phases. First, Vijay Dhawan and Bhupendra Kumar went to Anurag Singh, who is known to be well-versed in electronic surveillance, and asked him to do the job for them. Anurag Singh, a doctor-turned-private detective, apparently refused to be party to it. Vijay Dhawan and Bhupendra Kumar then decided to do the job themselves with the help of Kuldeep Singh. Kuldeep Singh apparently provided Bhupendra Kumar with two model letters of the Delhi Police and the Union Home Ministry requesting permission for tapping of phones. The two conspirators then forged the letters, submitted it to Amar Singh's phone provider, and obtained a parallel line of the S.P. leader's phone.

The second phase involved tapping the phones over the next one and a half months. According to the Delhi Police, seven audio CDs running into 20 hours of conversation were recorded by the duo. Apparently, Amar Singh's conversations with 35 people - including Mulayam Singh Yadav, his son and Lok Sabha member Akhilesh Yadav, his brother and Uttar Pradesh Agriculture Minister Shivpal Singh Yadav, and Bollywood personalities - were recorded during this period.

The third phase, according to the Delhi Police, started in December, when Bhupendra Kumar approached Anurag Singh again seeking help to organise some political rival of Amar Singh to buy the recorded conversation. Anurag Singh, however, could not get a buyer for the digitally recorded conversation. Anurag Singh double-crossed the two conspirators and informed Flex Industries chairman Ashok Chaturvedi, with whom he had familial association, and advised him to be careful when talking to his "friend" Amar Singh. Ashok Chaturvedi, in turn, informed Amar Singh about the tapping on December 27.

Amar Singh went public with the phone-tapping allegation and alleged that Rajeev Shukla and Sonia Gandhi were among the possible conspirators. Talking to Frontline, Amar Singh said that his point was that no ordinary private detectives would have the "guts" to tap the telephones of a senior leader like him without powerful political backing. "In fact," he added, " I have had doubts for a long time that my phones were getting tapped but Chaturvedi's call gave a sort of confirmation." Amar Singh also said the Union Home Ministry and the Delhi Police's initial reaction was to deny the charge but when he made his own investigations and provided the letter given to Reliance Infocomm, both departments changed tack. "It was then that they admitted that phone-tapping was taking place, but without official authorisation and on the basis of a forged letter," Amar Singh said.

Amar Singh's contention has found many takers. The S.P. leader went round the country meeting influential persons across the political spectrum, including Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa and former Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister and Telugu Desam leader N. Chandrababu Naidu, who supported him. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) took suo motu notice of the development and party president Rajnath Singh said that the Congress was bent upon bringing back the draconian atmosphere of the Emergency. Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Prakash Karat also said that phone tapping was a serious issue and the charge needed to be probed thoroughly.

The Congress, on its part, denied any involvement. Party leaders such as Ambika Soni indicated, not so obliquely, that Amar Singh's friendship with Bollywood personalities could have induced the "blackmailers" to get into the act. Congress secretary Bhola Pande has said on record that it is Akhilesh Yadav who organised the tapping because he wanted to reduce Amar Singh's influence over the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister and the S.P.

This acrimonious exchange is bound to continue given the way it has developed. In the midst of all this, senior leaders such as Janeshwar Mishra of the S.P. have tried to focus on the seriousness of the issue and point out that neither the government nor the people raising the charges should trivialise or sensationalise the matter and should examine it seriously in order to take corrective measures.

Talking to Frontline, Moloy Krishna Dhar, former Joint Director of the Intelligence Bureau, agreed with Janeshwar Mishra. In his opinion, all governments at the Centre irrespective of their political hues have used government agencies to spy on political and organisational rivals. He said the practice could be controlled only if all political parties came together to work out a common agreement and implement it faithfully.

In this particular case, several questions beg for answers, beyond all the debates. The most important among them pertain to the Delhi Police's claim that it was not aware that the phones were being tapped since the letters given to Reliance Infocomm were forged. But Reliance Infocomm had sent a letter to the Delhi Police stating that 30 phones were being tapped and had also attached the list of the phone numbers. The list contained Amar Singh's phone number too. The police do not have a clear answer for that.

The second relates to Anurag Singh's status as a private detective, who has been used repeatedly as a cyber security expert by various government agencies including the Delhi Police. His services were used by the police in probing the cricket betting scandal and the Delhi Public School sex MMS case. Many police officials admit that private detective agencies are used in many police operations. In the context of this admission, Amar Singh's charge that private agencies are used by government agencies for different types of snooping does acquire some seriousness. In the context of these revelations, the Union Home Ministry has asked the Delhi Police to ensure that private experts are not requisitioned in future.

The third important question relates to Amar Singh's own relationship with Anurag Singh. Amar Singh himself has admitted that Anurag Singh's family, especially his father, is known to him. It is also an established fact that Anurag Singh's family is close to Ashok Chaturvedi. These factors have given rise to speculation that the entire episode was the result of some business or personal rivalries.

As both the Delhi Police and the Uttar Pradesh STF go ahead with their respective agendas, and the Centre tries to handle the fallout of the different dimensions of the case, there is no clarity as to how the controversy would end.

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