Spooks and States

By Rudra Chaudhuri and Srinath Raghavan
Seminar, 30 June 2010

THE recent furore in the Indian Parliament over the alleged tapping of telephones was something of a missed opportunity. The debate unerringly focused on the periphery of the problem, leaving aside questions of vital importance. Political leaders across the spectrum were visibly agitated over the possible interception of their telephonic conversations. The Indian government assured them that no such tapping had been authorized, and there the matter rests. But from information available in the public domain, it is evident that electronic eaves-dropping did take place. Even if unintended, it raises the disturbing possibility that the intelligence agencies are operating at and probably pushing the bounds of legitimacy and accountability.

This sits uneasily with the central precept of democratic theory and practice: securing and maintaining public consent for activities of the state. Alongside the military, intelligence agencies play a critical role in protecting national security. Very like the military, they also raise the ticklish question of how to guard ourselves against the guardians. The agencies’ control of sensitive information, their institutional identity shrouded in secrecy, their professional expertise in surveillance and covert operations: all are essential to their functioning, but could also erode the practice of democratic governance, and the rights and liberties of the people. Political control of intelligence is an important challenge for ‘mature’ as well emerging democracies.