Kolkata: West Bengal Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar alleged last week that the Mamata Banerjee government has “mounted electronic surveillance” and converted the state into a “Facetime state”, saying police and administrative officials are all mandated to use the chat app WhatsApp and Apple’s video-call feature Facetime as modes of communication.
The governor even initiated a probe into the matter, following which two Raj Bhavan officials were posted out, it is learnt. “Snooping is a critical and serious issue in Bengal. We will surely take it up with the authorities,” the governor told ThePrint.
Dhankhar is, however, not the first in the state to allege snooping.
While in opposition, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had time and again alleged that the erstwhile Left Front government tapped her phone.
She has also accused the Modi dispensation of putting her and officials of her government under electronic surveillance. And similar allegations have been made by members of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress in West Bengal.
In 2018, Banerjee even penned a poem on digital surveillance targeting the Modi government. Titled ‘Unki (to peep) Online’, the poem sought to explain how the central government conducted electronic surveillance through its Aadhaar network.
While the proliferation of tech has made snooping a widespread worry, there are few places where such allegations animate politics like in Bengal, with pretty much all political players accusing their rivals of listening into their private conversations or keeping a tab on them in other ways.
These allegations come in the backdrop of purportedly “leaked” conversations, video clips and documents, which often result in controversies for those involved.
After assuming office in 2011, Banerjee had formed a high-powered committee to probe into phone-tapping complaints. However, a senior government official, who didn’t want to be named, told ThePrint the committee never came out with a report. “It (the investigation) was inconclusive,” he said.
Everyone under surveillance?
Allegations of spying on political leaders, journalists and government officials keep coming from all states, but it is seldom with the intensity seen in Bengal.
As opposition leader, Mamata Banerjee was probably the first in the state who alleged that her phone was being tapped, and she alleged it was the handiwork of the then Left Front government.
In the past 10 years, several politicians have made such allegations, with purported “leaked” audio clips of conversations, video clips of “private moments”, and emails and other documents finding their way onto social media.
During a press conference last week, Dhankhar alleged that the state government had put Raj Bhavan under surveillance and important documents from his office, which only he had access to, were getting leaked.
He had made the same allegations in August. “A list or paper that should not go out of Raj Bhavan without my sanction is getting circulated outside. Documents are procured. I have initiated a very serious probe into it. Those who have done this must pay a heavy price,” he had said at the time.
Asked about suspicions of snooping by rivals, every political party has their own personal example to offer.
West Bengal Congress chief Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury said he had registered four detailed complaints with the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) about “snooping in Bengal”.
“I recently met (Union Home Minister) Amit Shah ji and lodged complaints against the Bengal government. I also lodged complaints earlier, when Rajnath Singh ji was home minister,” he added. “Surveillance is now routine in the country. I am not a criminal and I do not fear surveillance. Sometimes we need to make desperate calls for political discussions. For that, we use internet calling like WhatsApp.”
Asked about the governor’s allegations, Chowdhury said “we cannot ignore his words”.
“He must have evidence. I know how my calls were tapped. Something exclusive I discuss with some colleagues, and that gets leaked,” he said.
It was in a similar manner that BJP national general secretary Kailash Vijaywargiya allegedly discovered he was under surveillance.
“My conversations with other leaders were leaked in the form of audio tapes. Isn’t it proof? And there are some disgruntled IAS and IPS officers who gave us information,” he said. “But as politicians, we have to deal with that. The governor’s allegations are 200 per cent true.”
Vijaywargiya said he has registered two complaints with the MHA in this regard.
Questioned on Banerjee’s allegations against the Modi government, he referred to the BJP’s corruption accusations against her.
“Her phone might have been tapped by the CBI for her alleged involvement in the chit-fund scam. Otherwise, who would tap her phone? She is no threat to Modi ji or Amit ji. She is not important in the national scheme of action,” she said.
Speaking to ThePrint, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) claimed it is finding new modes of communication to deal with snooping, saying the Modi government and the Mamata Banerjee administration are both “authoritarian regimes”.
“Mamata Banerjee accused the Left Front government of snooping. At that time, snooping requests could only be sanctioned by the central government, because there was mostly BSNL network,” said CPI(M) Politburo member Mohammad Salim. “Now, they do it by coercing service provider,” he added.
Veteran Trinamool MP Sougata Roy said the allegations “are used for political mud-slinging mostly”.
“Nobody can prove these. But the issue of electronic surveillance is there in the data privacy bill. The bill is with the select committee now,” he added.
The Print reached Trinamool MP Mahua Moitra, a member of the standing committee, through calls and texts, but there was no response till the time of publishing.
Trinamool Congress spokesperson and state minister Dr Shashi Panja cited the recent Hathras phone-tapping episode in Uttar Pradesh to allege “illegal snooping of phones has been part of the Modi-Shah standard operating procedure”.
“See the statement from the Editors Guild on the issue. This is the Gujarat model of snooping,” she added.
‘Snooping requests have increased over the years’
A retired IAS officer, who had served in the Banerjee government, said the number of phone-tapping requests for legal and investigative purposes has increased manifold over the years.
“A few years ago, the state’s home department used to get surveillance approval requests (from law enforcement agencies, etc) for over 300 phone numbers per month. All these approvals needed to come from the home secretary. And these requests for surveillance should have details of the persons, the reasons for the surveillance and criminal antecedent, if any. But later, the numbers started rising,” said the officer on condition of anonymity.
“About taking political leaders under surveillance, I can only say that it will never be done officially and through papers,” he added.
The officer also said law enforcement agencies can seek data from service providers, “if there is an emergency situation”.
An IPS officer, who retired recently said law enforcement agencies can snoop in several ways as there are various software that “can be installed in phones easily”. “There is a key-logger software which can get everything that an individual types in his or her phone. But for installing the software, one needs to get access to the phone. This is a hidden software,” he said.
“There are some expensive air-sniffing equipment, which can get real-time data of telephonic conversations. But this is a very expensive piece of equipment made in Israel. For air-sniffing, one does not need any approval, the equipment is needed to be placed in a certain radius of the particular individual,” added the officer.
A second senior IPS officer said state police also have “voice-loggers”, through which they can listen to people’s conversations. A voice-logger is a device or programme used to record audio information from telephones, radios, microphones.