Red-flagging universities in Intelligence Bureau note a reminder of growing shadow of government surveillance

A recently-published report in The Print is simultaneously unsurprising and terrifying. Apparently, the Intelligence Bureau (IB) has sent a note to the Ministry of Human Resource Development ‘red-flagging’ certain universities (including Ashoka University, KREA and Azim Premji University), because key stakeholders in them were critical of the Narendra Modi government. This has made the HRD ministry hesitant to award the Institute of Excellence (IoE) status to these private universities. The higher education secretary in the HRD ministry, R Subrahmanyam, has tweeted a denial of the existence of the IB note, though unnamed government sources have confirmed it.

Why terrifying? Because the only 'crime' of some of the people named is to point out gaps in government schemes and policies. As students, we are subjected to correction by teachers; as employees, to inputs from bosses; each of us knows in our work lives that no plan is perfect, and needs critique and independent judgment to improve. But take a look at what the State considers a red flag: pointing out that shortage of medicines and lack of infrastructure is a ‘challenge’ for the Ayushman Bharat scheme. Or that the ‘Gujarat model’, for all its successes, has failed when it comes to health indices (an unambiguous fact backed by several reports by prestigious institutions).

Why unsurprising? Because reports of the extent of surveillance have been circulating for a while now. All the way back in 2014, within the first months of the Modi regime, NGOs were targeted for apparently being a threat to national security. We have heard, and ignored, the threat Aadhaar represents in the way it dramatically expands the capacity of the state to surveil its citizens. We have seen the crackdowns on universities and intellectuals that has played out over the past two years, bringing into our lexicon terms like ‘urban naxals’.

Red-flagging universities in Intelligence Bureau note a reminder of growing shadow of government surveillance

Ashoka University is among the institutions reportedly red-flagged in the IB note. Image via Facebook/@AshokaUniversity

And finally, we have the attempts by the present government to track social media. There have been many feints and attempts to do so. In April 2018, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting tried to set up a ‘social media hub’ to monitor all social communications. When rebuked by the Supreme Court after a case was filed against the tender, the government hastily backtracked in August. However, this was only a tactical retreat. In December 2018, the ministry of Home Affairs published a notification authorising 10 central agencies to access any information on any computer. The government defended itself, saying it was merely implementing the provisions of the IT act of 2009, passed by the UPA government. The justification given is to prevent incidents like public lynchings due to the circulation of fake news on WhatsApp.

Sounds like a good intention, right? But it is exactly these good intentions that have been used as opportune moments to extend State power. And this is not a BJP- or Modi-only issue; the present government is right in pointing out that these powers of surveillance have been advanced by whichever party is in the center. It was the UPA that created Aadhaar, seemingly to help the poor, though a new book shows how hollow that intent was, and how much the true aim was surveillance.

Similarly, the Manmohan Singh government used 26/11 to create a media monitoring centre; once such a centre was in place, it did not take much imagination from Narendra Modi and Amit Shah to use it to track all mentions made of them, and keep notes on who was critical of them. As senior journalists have found out since, this kind of monitoring is used to deny news outlets access to interviews by government officials, or worse, to paint them as targets of raids.

Earlier, I used to think of privacy concerns as overblown. Most citizens feel they have nothing to hide, and only criminals are surveilled. Even when mere criticism of the government becomes cause for surveillance, most citizens aren’t particularly bothered; they are not particularly aware or interested in what the government is up to; they just live their lives, navigating the structures and challenges around them. It takes a particularly sharp disruption, like demonetisation, or forced linking of Aadhaar, to make them sit up and take notice.

This is natural; citizens are busy with many other concerns. It takes great time and effort to keep an eye on the government, to make sure its policies are not lazy or actively harmful. Most of this work is done by activists, NGOs, intrepid reporters and academics; journalists and columnists put this hard work into perspective and try to publicise the information. Often, it is this spadework that prevents bigger disasters from occurring. Caught red-handed, the government withdraws its more egregious actions. It is this group of specially aware and active citizens who recognise how terrifying this extent of surveillance is, because their very lives and freedom are at stake.

This work is difficult enough by its very nature. When you add to it the feeling of constantly being watched, and your record being compiled to be used against you through petty punitive actions, that work starts to look impossible to do. Family members of activists and journalists start to tell them to stop doing this work.

Under all these pressures, those who are critiquing governments on behalf of the citizens of the nation start to silence themselves. This self-censorship leaves the field even more open for powerful people to do as they please, without regard for consequences on the aam aadmi.

These critics only have the power of the pen and the power of information dissemination; the government has the police, the military, tax authorities, and any number of other powers with which to make the lives of citizens hell. And yet, politicians have managed to turn popular anger and skepticism away from themselves and onto the media. Instead of keeping an eye on power-hungry politicians, we are now calling journalists "presstitutes".

What can a journalist or an academic at a would-be Institute of Eminence do, other than give you information? Is the intellectual really as much of a danger to the citizen as a politician? It is time to remember again who our friends are, defending citizens against State power — and who is constantly looking to increase this power every chance they get.

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Updated Date: Jan 30, 2019 08:05:36 IST

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