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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 49, November 23, 2013

Snooping in Gujarat, Tejpal Issue and Media

Monday 25 November 2013, by SC

EDITORIAL

While the rival political formations continue their attacks on each other in public rallies in the course of the electoral campaign for the State Assembly polls, the Gujarat snooping controversy is assuming a new and wider dimension with each passing day.

On November 19, the issue came up in the Supreme Court with suspended IAS officer Pradeep Sharma, a sharp critic of the Narendra Modi Government, exhorting the Apex Court to urgently hear his plea on the audio tapes aired by the newsportals Cobrapost and Gulail on the alleged illegal surveillance of a woman architect in the State. Responding to the plea, a three-judge SC Bench, that includes the Chief Justice of India, fixed the hearing for the first week of December. Sharma’s counsel Prashant Bhushan subsequently told the media: “We will ask for an independent probe by the CBI or a special investigating team into the snooping controversy because it directly has a bearing on our case. A probe will establish that the State Government had taken vindictive action against Sharma because he was aware of the woman and the snooping incident.”

Sharma had filed a petition in the Apex Court accusing the Gujarat Government of harassing him because his brother, Kuldeep Sharma, “unmasked the government’s role in the 2002 riots”.

According to Bhushan, “frivolous” cases were slapped on Sharma once he came to know about the woman (purported to have been referred to in the audio tapes) and her association with the State Government.

Meanwhile, the father of the woman, Pranlal Soni, is learnt to have written to the National Women’s Commission and Gujarat Women’s Commission not to take cognisance of the matter. He asserted in it that his daughter was “fully aware” of the “help” extended by the State Government and that there “has been no encroachment of her privacy”. However, NCW member Nirmala Prabhavalkar, while admitting that “we have received the letter”, said it “did not have any e-mail address, telephone or mobile number”. She further pointed out that “if it is a family matter and he wants to put an end to the debate, he should have absolutely no problem coming forward and talking to us”.

At the same time the BJP leaders have dismissed the Congress’ demand for a probe into the alleged illegal snooping with Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley insisting that providing “security and protection is not snooping”. On the other hand, Finance Minister P. Chidam-baram, condemning the Gujarat Government’s role in the matter, affirmed that stalking was not the same as providing security. In his words, it is “the first time I have heard that there is request for providing for security and... security is provided by stalking and snooping”.

The Congress has raised a pertinent question: “If the government was protecting her, why did Amit Shah say ‘don’t let her escape’?” This is clear from the taped excerpts of the conversation between the then State Home Minister, Amit Shah, and Gujarat Police officer G.L. Singhal.

In this context The Times of India’s editorial observations are of inestimable value:

...the way the Gujarat Government chose to act on the father’s request raises disturbing questions. What was the nature of the threat to the young woman that warranted a round-the-clock check on her movements and tapping of her phone conversations? Why did Amit Shah insist that police officials should instantly provide him with a blow-by-blow account of her activities? And why did he ensure that his ‘saheb’ was also kept in the loop about them? His near-obsessive interest in her safety does appear to be bizarre.

But even if you give him the benefit of the doubt on this score, the intrusive surveillance brings to the fore issues of larger import. State agencies have to comply with certain procedures in order to snoop on citizens. Such snooping is permissible only if public interest is demonstrably at stake. The Gujarat Government has remained obdurately mum on the issue. However, now that the Supreme Court has stepped into the picture, ducking these matters is no longer an option for Modi and Amit Shah.

In the meantime the BJP’s act of honouring the alleged perpetrators of communal violence in Muzaffarnagar on their coming out of prison on bail has been strongly denounced by the Congress. This once again brings out the ugly face of the BJP despite Narendra Modi’s strenous efforts to put up an acceptable face by harping on development instead of Hindutva in his speeches.

Now as we go to press, the Tarun Tejpal issue has rocked the media. And this despite the Tehelka founder and editor-in-chief’s decision to step down from the post for six months to “do the penance that lacerates” him. It is a case of a young woman journalist accusing Tejpal of sexually assaulting her on two occasions during the “Think fest” organised by the magazine in Goa earlier this month. As the Editors Guild has stated,

there ought not to be any attempt to cover up or play down this extremely serious incident. Self-proclaimed atonement and recusal for a period are hardly the remedies for what the allegations show to be outright criminality.

What is the credibility of media personalities who indulge in the same reprehensible practices that they accuse others (including politicians of various hues) of resorting to? This question cannot be evaded under any pretext since the Tejpal episode brings out this very question in bold relief.

November 21 S.C.

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