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Who tapped Amar Singh's phone?

By T V R Shenoy
January 06, 2006 19:40 IST
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Are the world's two largest democracies marching in lock step? On December 16, 2005 The New York Times broke the story that the US National Security Agency had been tapping gigantic swathes of the population.

Two weeks later, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav called a press conference to announce that 10, Janpath had ordered Samajwadi Party General Secretary Amar Singh's phones to be tapped.

Call me biased but I was inclined to take allegations by a newspaper a wee bit more seriously than a sensational announcement by a politician. Until, that is, Ambika Soni came riding to her party chief's rescue.

Congress General Secretary Soni was, to put it mildly, utterly frivolous in her approach. 'What was the Samajwadi Party afraid of?' she demanded sarcastically, going on to make some rather strained connections to Amar Singh's friendship with various members of the Hindi film fraternity. Was she just being supercilious, or did she really not get the point?

The levity is unwarranted if only because the same question can be raised against Ambika Soni's own party. Aniel Mathrani was whisked away by government agents the moment he set foot in Delhi, without being given a chance to speak to reporters outside the airport. Mathrani's first reactions to the media came long after the Enforcement Directorate (and possibly others) spent time with him. What was the Congress scared that he might say?

Wire tapping is, except under certain specified conditions, a crime. That brute fact needs to be pounded in until everyone gets it. It doesn't matter to whom Amar Singh was talking. In fact, it doesn't even matter that it was a senior politician's conversations that were being monitored, it would be just as illegal if it were any citizen's phone.

That fact has been understood by the Delhi Police if not by Ambika Soni and her ilk. The investigators have no hesitation in saying that whatever happened was utterly illegal. But the Delhi police have now been pushed into going farther than that bare admission of the facts; investigators have admitted that someone 'very influential' was behind the wire tap.

To date, however, they have fought shy of naming that 'very influential' individual. In other words, we now possess the concrete assurance of the Delhi police that the Samajwadi Party was correct in its assertion.

This raises another troubling question. It is not probable that Amar Singh was the only politician whose communication were being monitored. I understand that Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa too now claims that her phones were also being tapped. Who else is being tapped?

The Delhi police got it right in claiming that there is some 'very influential' person behind it all. Just look at the sums of money that are involved. Bhupendra Kumar, the private detective, who carried out the actual nuts and bolts operation on Amar Singh's phones, was being paid Rs 5 lakh (Rs 500,000) every week for the job.

He had received at least half a crore (Rs 5 million) on the job before the scandal resulted in his arrest. How many people are there who can put out that kind of money? Or many times more if I am correct in assuming that Amar Singh was not the only man being tapped.

It all reminds of the sickness that infected India thirty years ago, during the Emergency. Most Opposition leaders had, of course, been thrust behind bars. That did not, however, prevent a paranoid government from keeping an ear on every other group that seemed to be against it -- judges, lawyers, journalists, and so on.

Even Congress ministers, the ones who were judged too ambitious or too unreliable, might have been tapped. I recall one such minister pulling me out into the garden where he could talk freely rather than inside his ministerial bungalow. Are we going back to those plague-stricken days?

Ambika Soni also wondered aloud why Mulayam Singh Yadav had not bothered to fill out an First Information Report if he was so concerned. The Delhi police had long since filed a case by the time the Congress general secretary spoke but Soni's inability to keep up with the news is not the point -- which is that Bhupendra Kumar had gone ahead on the basis of some letters.

Mulayam Singh Yadav waved two letters before the media. The first reaction from the Delhi police seemed to be that both had been forged, today it seems that at least one of them might be genuine. Why aren't those officers whose names were misused filing FIRs?

At the end of a week of confusion we can discern some islands of clarity amidst a raging sea of confusion.

First, Amar Singh's phone was being tapped.

Second, the tap was illegal.

Third, some private detective was being paid a crazy amount of money to do the job.

Fourth, the Delhi police admit that they have a fair idea about the identity of the 'influential' person behind it all.

This is an outrageous assault on civil liberties. Anyone and everyone who is responsible for it should be punished. Does the Congress agree with that basic fact?

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T V R Shenoy