Udayavni Special

Pegasus row: Jury still out on political snooping allegations in West Bengal

PTI, Jul 30, 2021, 5:57 PM IST

Amid the raging countrywide debate over the Pegasus scandal, ex-top bureaucrats here have underlined that authorised phone-tapping is permissible in the country and West Bengal is no exception, but no allegation of snooping on politicians, mostly aimed at deriving mileage for a party, has been proved in this state thus far.

Former DGPs, chief secretaries and home secretaries agreed that charges of political snooping have flown thick and fast from time to time in the state, with Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee among others having claimed on occasions that their phones were being tapped.

None of the cases, however, reached a logical conclusion, they pointed out. The latest snooping scandal involving Israeli spyware Pegasus, nevertheless, has left politicians, officials and journalists shaken in the country.

With TMC national general secretary Abhishek Banerjee and party’s poll strategist Prashant Kishor reportedly figuring in the Pegasus target list, the controversy has hit the state anew.

The chief minister has formed a two-member inquiry panel to probe into the snooping allegations. Earlier, after coming to power in 2011, the CM had ordered a similar probe into allegations of phone-tapping during the tenure of the erstwhile Left Front government.

However, the inquiry report was never made public.

Former West Bengal DGP Bhupinder Singh, who headed the police force when Maoist insurgency was at its peak in 2009-2010, said phone-tapping is a common phenomenon to track down criminals and terror suspects, but snooping on politicians is a complicated matter and no evidence has ever surfaced to prove such allegations.

“During my tenure, we generally tapped landlines or mobiles phones of criminals, Maoist leaders and terror suspects. There are laid-down guidelines for the process… permission has to be sought and phones can be tapped only for a fixed period.

At the state level, phone-tapping is done after getting a written consent from the home secretary,” Singh told PTI. He claimed that tapping the phone of Maoist leader Koteshwar Rao alias Kishenji had led to several breakthroughs and helped the security agencies put up a stronger fight against the Maoist menace.

“But allegations of phone-tapping of politicians always ended up being described as rumours. No one could ever prove anything, and unless you have evidence, there is no point speaking about it,” he said.

Asked if phones of politicians can be tapped without official brief or nod, Singh said, “You can’t blame the force or the government if a rogue element within a system is doing something illegal for personal reasons. We always used to be doubly sure before recommending a number for tapping.”

Echoing him, former chief secretary Ardhendu Sen said police officers in charge of criminal investigation could request for access to phone conversations if they believe it could help them in their investigations.

These requests have to be approved by the home secretary of the state or the central government who assesses the importance of carrying out such vigilance before giving its consent, he said.

When prodded about the allegations of phone-tapping of politicians, Sen said it is possible only if a “home secretary is negligent in his duty”.

“It is true that Mamata Banerjee often alleged that her phone was tapped during the Left front rule. It is also true that she could not produce any evidence in the matter over the last ten years,” Sen said.

Ironically, during the TMC government’s first two tenures, political opponents and journalists have also levelled allegations of surveillance against the ruling dispensation.

Listing out the categories under which a phone is tapped, senior police officials said the person can be put under surveillance if he or she is a threat to national security, has a criminal background or Maoist links or cases under the UAPA law.

Once an officer comes up with an application for a specific phone number which supposedly needs to be tapped, he has to list valid reasons for his request. It is then passed on to senior officers. After clearance from the higher-ups, it is sent to the home secretary for final approval.

“It takes around a month to get the nod for tapping a specific number. Every month, there is an audit to determine if the snooping should continue. If there are no proper leads, then the tapping is stopped immediately,” a former state home secretary, who was later elevated to the post of chief secretary, said.

The retired official, however, agreed that there might have been instances of illegal tapping by some officials, “but that is unlawful, and if proved is a punishable offence “.

Former Kolkata police commissioner Gautam Mohan Chakraborty said no one would be able to throw light on allegations of political snooping as “tapping phones of politicians” is illegal.

“I can comment on something legal, not something that is illegal,” he said.

The ruling TMC claimed that there have been allegations galore about phone-tapping over the years but none other than BJP leader Suvendu Adhikari has gone on record to say he has access to call records of political opponents.

Adhikari, during a recent party meeting in Purba Medinipur, had said that he is aware of the phone conversations that TMC MP Abhishek Banerjee had been having with police officers in the district.

“It is true that during the Left Front regime, allegations of snooping were made. Never, however, has any politician openly admitted that he has access to phone conversations, barring Adhikari. The matter should be investigated,” TMC’s state general secretary Kunal Ghosh said.

In a counter-attack, Bengal BJP unit’s chief spokesperson Shamik Bhattacharya asked the state government to come clean on whether “any police commissioner visited Israel in the last ten years” to buy a snooping device.

“Mukul Roy, after joining the BJP in 2017, had alleged that his phones were being tapped. The state government should first come clean on whether any police commissioner ever visited Israel to buy a snooping device,” he said.

CPI (M) central committee member Sujan Chakraborty, on his part, said the allegations of phone tapping during the Left Front regime were “completely baseless”, and no proof to substantiate the charges has been found so far.

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