Random access: Accused by the pen drive

Fear can be funny. Paranoia makes people do strange things, like that General Ripper in Dr Strangelove. In the terrible grip of a crazy idea that the Commies are poisoning “the purity and essence of our natural fluids”, the American General, fondling a phallic cigar and contorting his face, launches a nuclear strike against Russia on his own. To “save the precious body fluids of the American people,” the General presses a panic button that triggers a doomsday machine which destroys the whole world. Ripper’s fear was not funny. It was destructive. In this Kubrik classic, all the powerful people wearing funny hats were driven crazy by fear.

The fear of Reds crawling under your bed is making the police in India do strange things as well. People are being

picked up and interrogated on the basis of the files in their computers and pen drives. And if the pen drive contains files about SEZs, land-grabbing, atrocities against dalits and communal riots, you are in big trouble.

Not only will you be taken to the police station, given a dose of truth serum and questioned in isolation, the police will also threaten to lock up anyone who dares to speak in your support.

We don’t know if Arun Ferreira from Bandra is a member of the CPI (Maoist) or not, or if he has been involved in any violent act, but the police have already passed a judgement: He is a seditionist — a Naxalite threatening the Indian state. Part of the “evidence” is in his pen drive which has some files on “sensitive issues”.

They haven’t produced any evidence of his involvement in any violent activity, but Ferreira is guilty because the police suspect he is guilty.

This is not funny. It’s scary. If people can be put behind bars for what they have saved in their computers, half the journalists, academics, social activists, NGO workers and writers in this country should be in the police station waiting for their turn to be jabbed with sodium pentothal and talk in a daze about the “seditionist material” in their computers.

And then they would throw you into a dingy cell where petty thieves, rapists and professional killers kick you day and night for being “anti-national”.

This is exactly what happened with Delhi-based Kashmiri journalist Iftikhar Geelani a few years ago. The police caught him under the draconian Official Secrets Act for some documents in his laptop which reflected “his inclination towards insurgency in Kashmir”.

The documents turned out to be a US State Department report which is available on the internet and had been published by at least one newspaper in India. But, for the police it was simple: a Kashmiri carrying information on the Indian army has to be a terrorist. So, Geelani was guilty because they suspected him of being guilty. It was the same story with B K Subbarao, a scientist with the Indian Navy who was in jail for 20 months because a paranoid establishment suspected him of selling off national secrets.

And they built a case against him on the basis of material he was carrying when they intercepted him at the airport. He was eventually absolved of the charge. Subbarao says that he was called a spy for carrying his own PhD thesis (from IIT-Bombay).

In the past few years, national security has become an obsession. As hundreds of social movements for empowerment — from dalits to tribals to women — gain strength every day, the establishment gets terrified. And it hits back with a vengeance, with national security as its weapon and its shield.

It is a mild reminder of a certain Mr Joseph McCarthy and the ministry of fear he created in the US in the 1950s.

Paranoid about social unrest in the US, McCarthy was convinced that “subversives” had infiltrated the American government and that they were disclosing secret information. Exaggerating the threat of communism, McCarthy claimed that there was a “homosexual underground” that was abetting the “communist conspiracy”.

He put many marginalised groups on his list of subversives. And the result was a crackdown on political opponents, writers, film-makers, social and civil rights activists.

We are witnessing something similar here now: the police picking people merely on suspicion, trying to build cases on the basis of emails, phone calls, SIM cards and pen drives.

The cases keep falling flat in the courts while real terrorists walk in and out of the country at will, blowing up common Indians on trains and buses, at mosques and in temples, in cinema halls and offices. The real perpetrators of these crimes almost never get caught, tried and convicted.

Catching people for carrying “sensitive information” can’t be a way of tackling national security issues. It has something to do with opinion. It has something to do with suppressing political opposition. It is all about trampling on liberties and stifling dissent. Governments around the world — from the US to China to Sudan to Colombia — have been itching to launch a war of terror on those who oppose them. And thousands of people with political opinions have been “fixed” through this “war on terror”.

In this season of suspicion, I check my personal computer at home. There are hundreds of reports on human rights violations in India, police atrocities, dalit organisations, transcripts of Al Qaida tapes, Abu Ghraib, Naxalite groups, and Nandigram, all downloaded from the net.

I don’t think it’s safe anymore to save those files on the computer or a pen drive. It’s better to keep all this in your mind. They don’t have a machine with which they can read your mind. Not yet.

Shobhan Saxena , TNN, May 2007 

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