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SubscriberWrites: What distinguishes Indian Muslims, and a look at Pegasus scandal with regards to privacy orders

Subscribers write on the recent Pegasus scandal and why Indian government needs to come clean on this politico-legal issue, and also take a look at what shaped the Indian Muslim identity.

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What characterises communalism towards Indian Muslim? It is not what people disagree about, rather what everyone agrees about – the recognition of Indian Muslim as a separate entity. Some may love that entity, some may vilify, but hardly anyone questions Muslims constituting a different entity. Even when one talks of Hindu-Muslim harmony, the assumption is they are sufficiently different.

But what really differentiates Indian Muslim? As a starter biology does not, even at the level of stereotypes. Given that no other religious community gets so much separate attention, it can’t be religion alone. A significant part of it is the notion of “Muslim culture” characterised by its affinity with Perso-Arabic-Turko-Mongol cultures (which has nothing to do with Islam). Given that the overwhelming majority of Indian Muslims came neither from Persia/Arabia nor anywhere else, it is worth asking – are similar phenomena common in world history?

We consider three aspects of this cultural identity and point out it is not. To sum up, much of an identity has been created out of thin air, by abnormal norms.

Name: What is the common-most way to tell if someone is a Muslim? By name. Because typically Muslim names are of Perso-Arabic origin, unlike the speaker’s mother tongue.
Comparatively, a great many common names for European Christians (such as Alexander, Charles, Edward, Helen, Henry, Richard, William) are neither Hebrew nor Latin. Common Chinese/Japanese/ Korean/Tibetan Buddhist names are hardly of Sanskrit origin. Even in the Islamic world, Persian names are not uncommon in Iran, Turkish names are not uncommon in Turkey.

Heritage: Traditionally there has been, and still is, a perceived dissociation of Indian Muslims from pre-Islamic India. E.g. during Muslim rule, Muslim scholars taking interest in pre-Islamic India, its lingua franca Sanskrit, its literature, philosophy etc, was not the norm (not without exceptions).
Compare this with Christian Europe’s interest in pre-Christian Europe, at least since the Renaissance. Much of Western superiority complex is boasting about the achievements of ancient Greeks. Today, be it scientific terminology or name of games (such as Olympic or Marathon), Hollywood movies such as Cleopatra, 300 or brand names such as Nike, ancient Greece and Rome are all over the West.
Coming to Chinese Buddhists, it has been two millennia since Buddhism arrived in China during the Han dynasty, never has it distanced them from their own heritage.

Language: In large chunks of the subcontinent, Urdu is a key ingredient of Muslim identity, characterized by abundance of Perso-Arabic loan words. Any linguist can confirm loan words do not create a new language. But do they often create the illusion of one? Even that is abnormal.
English was flooded with French loan words following the Norman conquest, Turkish contains a fair bit of Arabic and Persian words, Persian itself absorbed many Arabic words following Arab conquest, all our mother tongues by now contain a great many English words. In none of these instances a new language was imagined.
Much of this illusion is caused by the Arabic based script used for Urdu. Given that Urdu is a form of Hindustani decorated with Perso-Arabic loan words and not the other way around, is it a natural script? No. In Urdu, Arabic/Persian alphabet needs to be supplemented with new letters to capture Indian sounds (such as retroflex ones), absent in Arabic/Persian. Conversely, quite a few Arabic sounds can not be pronounced by an Indian without some training and practice. The normal thing would have been to make necessary additions to Devanagari to accommodate Perso-Arabic sounds.

These abnormalities stem from the fact that, unlike Chinese Buddhist or European Christian, much of Indian Muslim identity has been shaped by foreign conquerers, who settled in India and Indianised too, but not sufficiently. The enduring scar of Islamic rule is not the alleged destruction of some temples, but distancing a great many Indians from their own roots. If the rulers were Muslims of Indian ethnicity, things may well have been different. After all, there was a time when praising Allah in Sanskrit was not abnormal.

If foreign invaders are responsible for shaping an abnormal Indian Muslim identity, then Hindu elites are responsible for denying fellow Indians what would have been their normal identity in the first place. This mentality of exclusion unfortunately continues. Politics is not helping either. Right complicates the matter by confusing civilisational identity with religious one, whereas the left shies away from openly discussing anything concerning Muslims.

Though slowly, things are changing for the better within Muslim society. Yes, this would not solve all communal issues overnight, but there will be much less (fictitious) ground for it. Anyway, a deeper self-realisation never harms. As the Upanishads say- ātmānam viddhi, know yourself.

Swapnamay Mondal

Legend says that the Greek hero Bellerophon, after slaying the monster Chimera, arrogantly thought that he deserved to fly to the home of the Gods, Mount Olympus. However, Pegasus, the fabled winged horse which was flying him, was stung and he fell down to the mortal realm of the humble Earth.

Today, Pegasus has become the controversial household name in India because of the recent expose done by the global consortium of media organizations, showing alleged breach of digital privacy of many journalists, lawyers, political opposition, dissidents, human rights activists etc. The developer of this spyware is an Israeli technology firm named NSO Group and according to it, its products only help licensed government intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Caught in this situation, an urgent need has arisen for the government to come clean on this politico-legal issue, which either shows government’s involvement or shows gross violation of Indian laws by a private entity.

Successive governments in India have been pushing the limits of electronic surveillance over the years. However, the Supreme Court, in the Puttaswamy’s case in 2017, held privacy to be a fundamental and constitutionally protected right. The difficulty is to distill such judgments to practice. One year after this, a notification was issued by MHA authorising ten central agencies to access personal information from any computer by intercepting, monitoring or decrypting any information which is generated, transmitted, received or stored, even including Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, CBDT etc. This is against the backdrop that economic offence/tax evasion, which were initially covered under the reasons for interception of phones, was withdrawn in 1999 by the Government based on a Supreme Court order citing protection to privacy of the individual. The instant order created much furore.

Historically, such state surveillance was restricted to maintain law and public order or security of the state etc. Section 26 of the Indian Post Offices Act, 1898 provides for interception of postal articles in cases of public emergency or in the interest of public safety or tranquility, while section 5 of the Indian Telegraph Act provides for use of such powers in cases of occurrence of public emergency, interest of public safety, or in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, security of the state, friendly relations with the foreign state or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of an offence.

However, despite the broad wording of the section, the Supreme Court, in its 1997 PUCL judgment, indicated that “occurrence of public emergency” was sine qua non to its application, thereby preventing its abuse to some extent. The Information Technology Act, which came in 2000, interestingly, in the relevant section 69, does not include “public emergency” and even more curiously, adds “incitement to commission of any cognizable offence” thereby attempting to create a different genus of cause for the section’s broad application. It was for the first time that the word “incitement”, which could be very broad, was brought within the purview. Further, the incitement could be for a mere “cognizable offence” and which may not be a threat to public safety or sovereignty of India.

Cognizable offences are those where the police can arrest without a warrant but it also includes offences like maliciously insulting religious beliefs and economic or corruption related offences, which can often be used as a political tool. Though both the Telegraph Act and the Information Technology Act have put down rules for procedural safeguard, still the 2018 notification came as a further blow to the already weakened right of privacy which had got an interim reprieve with the 2017 Supreme Court’s Puttaswamy judgment. Even Justice B.N. Srikrishna’ report of 2018 vociferously makes a case for reduction in state surveillance. It further recommends notification of the Data Protection Authority of India enabling the aggrieved individuals to approach in case of breach of their data privacy.

The Cyber and Information Security (CIS) wing of the Ministry of Home Affairs, in an RTI reply, had categorically denied that any order to acquire the instant spyware was ever made. Similar claims have been made by the minister too. However, the uproar is not settling. WhatsApp has already filed a lawsuit in 2019 against the NSO Group for alleged wrongful trespassing in the Californian court and sought a permanent injunction to block this group from accessing its computer systems.

Now, it is incumbent on the government to act and to be seen acting proactively and seek detailed reports from WhatsApp and thereupon fix the liability upon all the persons involved in this privacy breach. Mere denial of its role may not be enough and a thorough and independent investigation based upon an FIR is the need of the day. The more the delay in taking remedial measures, the more the speculations and uncertainty will be. The Watergate scandal involved similar snooping. Nixon, riding high on his landslide electoral victory, was quick to dismiss it lightly. However, it eventually led to his resignation from the presidency, much like the fall of Bellerophon from the Pegasus.

Rahul Sagar Sahay and Siddharth Bangar

Also read: SubscriberWrites: Shortcomings of liberal democracy, and a look at the political imbalance in Cabinet reshuffle

These pieces are being published as they have been received – they have not been edited/fact-checked by ThePrint.

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