Like god, the caliph saw all: Through the eyes of a Tartar teacher, a dervish from Kashgar, a beggar from India, actors, jugglers and illusionists and tens of thousands of other secret agents, Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II surveilled his empire. From Beyoğlu, Bakirköy and Büyükdere came reports of intrigues against the throne, and from outer Bulgaria, a warning of a plot to dynamite bomb the emperor at prayers. Each report was read by the emperor himself and then handed to officers after excising the name of the agent.
The emperor encouraged even his most trusted ministers to spy on each other. “They all liken one another to a minaret: on the outside, it looks straight, but inside it is actually crooked,” contemporary Egyptian journalist Ibrahim al-Muwaylihi recorded. “The mouth may smile, but the heart is full of vengeance.”
Last week, a Supreme Court-appointed committee led by Justice R.V. Raveendran recommended legal reforms to ensure India doesn’t degenerate into the kind of paranoid dystopia built by the sultan. Although the report has not been made public, the Court said Justice Raveendran has sought a law to regulate electronic surveillance by India’s intelligence services, with measures to protect the privacy rights of citizens.
Even though the committee hasn’t been able to determine if the Indian government planted malware on the phones of activists, journalists and political leaders—nor if Israel-made Pegasus software was used—this is not the important issue.
For generations, governments have pushed intelligence services to engage in espionage against political adversaries, using tools meant to uncover national security threats. The practice has had deep costs on Indian democracy—and time’s running out for change. As Abdul Hamid II and dozens of other authoritarian rulers learned, a surveillance State isn’t the same thing as a secure one.
Indian political espionage
Involvement in domestic political espionage was hard-wired into India’s intelligence services under British colonial rule. Frederick Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, viceroy of India from 1884 to 1888, laid the foundations for the Intelligence Bureau, ordering the creation of a central organisation for the “collection of intelligence on political, social and religious movements.” In 1920, this became the Intelligence Bureau with a primary focus on gathering political information.
Faced with the intensification of nationalist ‘terrorism’ early in the last century, the central intelligence organisation acquired growing influence over decision-making. Although the Intelligence Bureau was much smaller than Sultan Hamid II’s massive Yildiz networks—also born in the 1880s—its power raised concerns even within the imperial government.
Edwin Montague, then-secretary of state, warned in 1918 that the central intelligence service was being used “not merely as a great detective agency, but as an instrument of government.” He worried “that its activities are too widespread; that it is growing too rapidly; that it is convenient but dangerous to govern by means of your police.”
After Independence, the Indian government’s dependence on the Intelligence Bureau intensified. In 1963, the Intelligence Bureau instructed the Gujarat Police to mount surveillance on leaders of the opposition Swatantra Party and Right-wing elements in the Congress. Faced with concerns voiced by chief minister Balwantrai Mehta, the Union home ministry insisted surveillance had to be maintained on those “who habitually opposed the policies of the government.”
In 1978, the Justice JC Shah Commission, which investigated unlawful intelligence operations during the Emergency, reprimanded the Intelligence Bureau for mounting surveillance against politicians such as Babu Jagjivan Ram. The Commission, however, did not insist on a legal framework for the Intelligence Bureau’s operations, recommending instead that a committee of eminent citizens be appointed to monitor its functioning.
For all practical purposes, the intelligence services acted as instruments of the prime minister—with no legal framework for their operations, nor a process to ensure accountability.
A challenge for democracies
Like India, democracies across the world have struggled with the misuse of intelligence services for political ends. Through the 1960s, it is now known, the United States National Security Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) surveilled the civil rights movement, targeting Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, and even actress Jane Fonda. A Congressional investigation warned these practices posed growing risks to democratic institutions and the rights of ordinary citizens.
France saw similar scandals involving the misuse of the Renseignements Generaux, its domestic intelligence service, against opposition parties. The UK’s MI5 has been revealed to have spied on Trotskyite groups, and its police forces on militant environment movements. The European Parliament is now conducting hearings on credible information that Pegasus might have been used to spy on opposition leaders in Spain, Poland and Hungary.
Even though it is no secret that nation-states spy on each other—a European Parliament investigation revealed the US-led Echelon system was eavesdropping on global electronic communications for decades—most democracies protect citizens against surveillance by their own intelligence services.
The UK’s safeguards system centres around an independent review tribunal, while France, Germany and the United States require judicial authorisation for surveillance.
India, though, is an outlier among major democracies. The Information Technology Act gives power to intercept digital communications to the Union home secretary and the home secretaries of states and union territories. In emergencies, like an ongoing counter-terrorism operation, an inspector-general of police or a joint secretary to the government may issue orders.
The government decides when circumstances justify electronic surveillance, how long it should be maintained, and if there should be judicial disclosure. Put simply, it is the judge of its own cause.
Lack of cooperation from the Narendra Modi government—placed on record by chief justice N.V. Ramana himself—and the absence of a criminal investigation, make it hard to establish exactly which agencies may have deployed malware against journalists and opposition leaders. Evidence is mounting, though, that such abuse is endemic. In the 2018 Bhima-Koregaon case, charges have surfaced that malware was used to plant evidence on suspects.
Faced with calls for greater legal and parliamentary oversight on intelligence operations, Indian leaders have argued that the multiple threats the country faces—ranging from terrorism to religious chauvinism—justify sweeping surveillance powers. The evidence of history, though, makes that claim specious.
The illusion of security
Laid end-to-end, the files of the German Democratic Republic’s Ministerium für Staatssicherheit—popularly, the Stasi—ran for 111 kilometres, documenting in intimate detail the lives of some 5.6 million people, as I have noted before. In 1989, the Stasi had 91,015 staff, and at least 173,081 paid informants—more than two for every 100 citizens. That year, though, the regime disintegrated. Sultan Abdul Hamid II was ejected from office by the radical Young Turk movement, among them modern Turkey’s founding leader, Mustafa Kemal.
There’s no shortage of similar examples. The surveillance regime set up by Joseph Stalin, with its show trials and savageries, served only to fuel fear and resentment that culminated in the destruction of the Soviet Union. Citizens competed to denounce each other to the State, Sheila Fitzpatrick has shown, undoing social cohesion and trust.
For scholars, the inability of surveillance States to ensure their own stability isn’t a surprise. Andreas Lichter, Max Löffler and Sebastian Siegloch found that the “density of informers undermined trust and led to a withdrawal from society”. “In particular, more intense surveillance caused lower trust in strangers, stronger negative reciprocity, fewer close friends, lower sociability, and reduced societal engagement”.
The scholars also noted the “negative and persistent effects of government surveillance on various measures of economic performance.”
“Everybody began to report on each other,” expert Ekrem Ekenci has written of Abdul Hamid II’s Turkey. “Absurd rumours and even slander began to be reported.” Even a performance of Euripides’ drama Iphigenia in Tauris, historian Merih Erol has recorded, was deemed seditious, because of its genesis in Turkey’s national rival, Greece.
The agents of the imperial secret service soon learned that the greatest rewards—gold, state office, concubines—were to be earned by reports that directly concerned the sultan himself. There was no penalty for fabricating threats: “If we punish spies for telling lies,”, the dictum went, “then we sacrifice the truth as well.”
For too long, India’s intelligence services have profited from the same perverse logic—entrenching a national security system primarily directed at securing political patronage, rather than the security of the Indian State.
The author is National Security Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.