Confuse and deceive – Email interception in Kerala and the formula for political survival: Yaseen Ashraf
Guest post by YASEEN ASHRAF, associate editor of the Malayalam weekly, Madhyamam
An article by Viju V Nair in Madhyamam Weekly (issue 727, 23 January 2011) has raised the hackles of the Kerala Government and its political allies. Strange, because the report was about the excesses of the police intelligence, something which can be – and should be – investigated and corrected. The investigative report claimed that 268 email accounts were ordered by the Kerala state intelligence to be tapped, out of which a huge majority belong to Muslims. None of these persons has any previous criminal history. So it is not clear why they are put under the cyber scanner.
The Weekly further stated: irrespective of their social status, the Government is peeping into the personal lives of around 258 citizens including politicians, parliamentarians, journalists, professionals, eminent personalities and students – an authoritarian surveillance breaching the barriers of privacy and civil rights. The letter sent from Special Branch CID of Kerala to the Hi-tech Cell said: “Please find enclosed a copy of the email IDs of the individuals who have connection with SIMI activities…” These “suspects” under cyber snooping include eminent a former Muslim League MP, social service organisations and journalists. Oommen Chandy, Congress leader and Kerala Chief Minister, is handling home affairs.
It was on 3 November 2011 that the Special Branch issued a letter asking to check the personal ID’s of these selected people and to collect their login details. As the special branch lacks the facility to do so, the order reached the Hi-Tech Crime Enquiry Cell, along with a list of the IDs, 159 of them from gmail, 63 yahoo mail, 22 hotmail, and 23 company mails. Though this investigation was ordered as part of probing connections with SIMI (an organisation that was banned a decade ago), there has been no case or incident or suspicion to warrant this.
When the expose caused a flutter among ruling circles Chief Minister Oommen Chandy ordered a police enquiry and came out with his counter, duly approved by the State cabinet. His response can be summarised as follows:
- The report that emails have been invaded is wrong. The Special Branch CID had gathered these email IDs from a person questioned by them, and wanted to verify whether these really belonged to genuine persons. There was no intention to open any email account and breach privacy.
- This was part of their routine work, and there was no targeting of any particular community.
- The Weekly had manipulated the list of email IDs by omitting some which apparently belonged to non-Muslims. This was deliberately done to validate their claim that the Special Branch order targeted the Muslim community. Such a move is malicious and unfortunate.
Madhyamam responded to the accusation by publishing the omitted email IDs. It could well have done so the first time, because by omitting them it unwittingly handed the Government a stick to beat it with, even in the face of the strong proof of politically sensitive snooping. The inclusion of those omitted IDs would not have affected the arguments of Madhyamam. The main points made by it are:
1. There has been a suspicious move to gather information on several people including journalists and public figures by tapping their email.
2. A request to this effect had gone to service providers in November 2011. Since these activities come under the Home Ministry which is under the direct charge of the Chief Minister, there is a lot here for the CM to explain.
3. Apart from this general charge of email snooping there is also the disturbing aspect of a community being targeted.
The list published by Madhyamam has not been denied by the Government. Indeed, it confirmed the list while also pointing out the existence of ten more IDs. So the snooping charge stands. This list apparently contains IDs of politicians, journalists working in various establishments, social activists and others. What characterises this list is the preponderance of Muslims. That is the single commonality that binds a vast majority of IDs on the list. Obviously this lays it open to the charge of communal targeting too.
At first, different officers came up with conflicting arguments. A coordinated response was later formulated at a meeting of top officials called by the CM. But the Government’s argument that no mail has been tapped cannot be taken at face value because through a confidential message it had asked the mail service providers to give the “registration and login details” of the mails in the list. They obliged, and all this vast information has been collected by the Hi-Tech Cell in a 7 gigabyte CD (See the follow-up report by Viju V Nair, Madhyamam Weekly, Issue 728; 30 January 2012). This would mean more than mere examination of the genuineness; indeed, it suggests that a lot of information has already been gathered by snooping. The desperation of the Government was evident in the initial explanation given by the Director General of Police Jacob Punnoose. He said it was no snooping, but a mere check on the genuineness, and that such examination will in fact help protect genuine ID holders. The obvious question then is, who asked you to? Why pick these for such unwarranted “protection” when there has been no complaint on that score from anyone? Such ridiculous explanation can only corroborate the suspicion of foul play. Take the entire probe list including the IDs excluded by the Weekly in its first report, and this concern of targeting is inescapable.
There is also the claim going round, ignored by the authorities so far, that all these mails were picked from the group contacted by one mail ID from Kodungallur. If true, this effectively refutes the Government claim that emails have not been opened and read, and that the list came from a person interrogated. Disclosure has also emerged from at least one who figured in the email list—that in December a group of policemen from Special Branch went to a town in Malappuram district and in an intimidating manner questioned some about several phone numbers.
The response from the Chief Minister too has served to add to the suspicion. He has been talking of suing Madhyamam. The charge? Communal polarisation, when in actual fact the accused is the Government! But though the Editor welcomed the move for enquiry and litigation, the CM is wavering. And, unbecomingly for a CM, he has been spreading malicious propaganda against Madhyamam, saying it manipulated the email list to bring about communal polarisation. Here, the CM is being less than honest. The Madhyamam expose does not target any community; instead it only points to a possible victimisation of a community by the Government. Here the two adversaries are Madhyamam, the accuser, and the Government, the accused. No other community has been vilified or even mentioned.
On the fact that the move to probe emails was part of investigating “SIMI connections”, the Chief Minister says it was a mistake on the part of the Government. This actually raises more doubts than it explains. If intelligence gathering is done in such casual and irresponsible manner, who can be safe from snooping or framing by motivated bureaucrats or politicians or agencies? Did the CM ask for an explanation about the “mistake” which is serious and capable of being used for communal targeting? Did he take any action on this count? If not, why?
The CM talks of suing Madhyamam for communal polarisation. Let us pause a bit here and compare the two recent social interventions on the part of the media. One was the “love jihad” propaganda undertaken by a group of newspapers like Malayala Manorama, Deepika, Mangalam, Kerala Kaumudi, Mathrubhumi and so on. The other is the present email issue. The reaction of the Government to these two is a study in opportunism and motivated targeting;
(1)The sensational reports that ran for several months in various newspapers and periodicals were eventually found to be baseless by the police and the judiciary. It was also seen as communally divisive.
(2) A community was the (wrongly) accused. The reportage was rabidly communal and victimised a community. It was several media against one community. If anything could be termed communally polarising, this was, because it created an atmosphere of widespread persecution of Muslims by elements from other communities. That was indeed the way Gujarat had travelled before the infamous racist genocide.
(3) The Kerala Government was not concerned at all about this communal polarising and irresponsible reporting; it did not sue, or even talk of suing, any of these papers.
(1) The report carried by Madhyamam Weekly has by and large been confirmed by the police and the Government. The Government has taken exception only to the omission of a few IDs belonging to non-Muslims, an omission which was of course unnecessary and does not in any substantive way change the suspicion of snooping and targeting.
(2) The Government is the (rightly) accused. It is a case of a weekly against the Government over a question of civil liberties, the right to privacy and journalistic freedom.
(3) The Government deliberately twists the issue to communalise it, and then charges Madhyamam of this communalisation. Instead of setting his house in order the Chief Minister makes insinuations against the media and threatens to sue it for whistle-blowing.
The issue of email snooping by the Kerala Special Branch CID has been distorted out of its true meaning by Chief Minister Oommen Chandy and his Government. The Government is now playing the good old trick of “confuse and deceive”. This may be necessary to insulate the present regime against the well-founded charge of snooping and communal targeting, but it accentuates the feeling of insecurity among the people. There have been examples galore from north India of intelligence agencies and police forces targeting innocent people, and of communal targeting of minorities. No amount of threatening postures can change the fact that emails were sought to be tapped. And no amount of contrived indignation can change the fact that the recent move smacked of communal targeting. It is for the Government to clear the doubts and come clean on a question that directly concerns civil rights and citizens’ right to privacy—and security from selective targeting.