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Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Months after political crisis, Gehlot govt admits to phone taps

The confirmation, posted on the website of the Rajasthan Assembly in reply to a question asked of the government during the House session of August 2020, flies in the face of earlier assertions both by the government and by the Chief Minister personally.

Written by Hamza Khan | Jaipur |
Updated: March 15, 2021 7:44:40 am
‘Leaked’ tapes triggered crisis in Congress

Eight months after “leaked” phone conversations between a Union Minister and Congress leaders in Rajasthan triggered a political crisis in the state and gave rise to allegations of illegal phone taps, the government of Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot has confirmed that phones were indeed “intercepted”.

The confirmation, posted on the website of the Rajasthan Assembly in reply to a question asked of the government during the House session of August 2020, flies in the face of earlier assertions both by the government and by the Chief Minister personally.

BJP MLA Kalicharan Saraf, who was Health Minister in the government of Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje, had asked: “Is it true that phone tapping cases have come up in the last days? If yes, under which law and on whose orders? Place full details on the table of the House.”

In its reply, given after a delay of several months, the government has said: “In the interest of public safety or public order, and to prevent the occurrence of a crime which might risk public safety or public order, telephones are intercepted after an approval by a competent officer under the provisions of section 5(2) of The Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, and section 419 (A) of The Indian Telegraph (Amendment) Rules, 2007, as well as section 69 of the Information Technology Act, 2000.

“Telephone interception has been done by the Rajasthan Police under the above provision and only after obtaining permission from the competent officer.”

The government has not specified the telephone numbers that were intercepted, and the time for which they were put under surveillance. It has only said that “interception cases are reviewed by Chief Secretary, Rajasthan, who presides [over the meetings] as per rules. All cases till November 2020 have been reviewed.”

Saraf said that he is yet to receive a written reply from the government.

The crisis in the Rajasthan Congress and its government began in July 2020 after recordings of phone conversations among Union Jal Shakti Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, then Rajasthan Tourism Minister Vishvendra Singh, and Congress MLA Bhanwar Lal Sharma among others, were “leaked”. A day after the audio clips started circulating, the Special Operations Group of the Rajasthan Police used them as the basis for an FIR against Shekhawat and Sharma among others, for allegedly trying to topple the state government.

Chief Minister Gehlot had claimed at the time that it was “not the way” of his government to tap the phones of Ministers and MLAs.

“Dekhiye humare yahan kaayda nahi hota hai ke kisi MLA ka ya mantri ka phone tap karein (It is not our way to tap phones of an MLA or a Minister),” Gehlot had said in an interview with ABP News in July. He had also said that he would resign and leave politics if the allegations that the audio clips were “fake”, were proven to be correct.

“Agar main jhoothi tap banwaun logon ki, apne hit ke andar, sarkaar bachane ke liye, toh mera moral adhikar hai kya ke main sarkaar mein bana rahun? (If I get a fake tap made to protect my interests and to save my government, will I have the moral right to continue in government?)” he had said.

Most Congress leaders had evaded questions about the alleged tap. Asked about a letter sent by the Union Home Ministry to the Rajasthan Chief Secretary about the alleged interception, Ajay Maken had said on July 19 – a month before he was appointed the party’s state in-charge – that he did not think that such actions had been undertaken in violation of the Constitution or the law.

That same day, BJP state president Satish Poonia had told The Indian Express, “Whatever is happening in Rajasthan is politically motivated… We have been asking questions regarding [phone] tapping but they haven’t answered any.” The BJP had also demanded a CBI investigation into the allegations of illegal tapping.

In August, the Sachin Pilot camp accused Gehlot of tapping the phones of some MLAs who were staying at a resort in Jaisalmer.

“Four jammers have been installed at Suryagarh resort by Ajaib Electronics and there is just one place in the entire hotel from where calls can be made,” the Pilot camp had claimed, and released a document purportedly showing a list of calls made to some Gehlot camp MLAs, including Cabinet Minister Shanti Kumar Dhariwal, and MLAs Rohit Bohra, Zahida Khan, Arjun Singh Bamniya, Virendra Singh, and Baljeet Yadav.

The Pilot camp had also claimed that calls made through the hotel’s intercom system were being recorded, and provided a list of intercom numbers that were being allegedly tapped. The entire exercise was being monitored from a hotel in Jaipur’s Mansarover locality with “top police officials” and “two private officials of a telecom company”, the Pilot camp had alleged.

However, the police had “clarified” in a statement that “no unit of Rajasthan Police is involved in tapping (phones) of any MLA or MP and nor was it conducted earlier.”

The statement added that “Even the allegation of recording intercom conversations is untrue and fictitious”, and that “Rajasthan police always works to stop criminal acts and illegal phone tapping is a criminal act”. The police appealed to people to not pay attention to “mischievous elements who are spreading rumours due to ill-will and for selfish reasons”.

On October 1, an FIR was filed at Jaipur’s Vidhayak Puri police station against Pilot’s aide Lokendra Singh and the Rajasthan editor of the news channel Aaj Tak, Sharat Kumar, accusing them of spreading “misleading and fake news” regarding the accusations made in August.

However, in December, Rajasthan Police filed a final report (FR) in the case, saying that the “origin” of the WhatsApp texts on the basis of which the FIR was filed, “could not be established”.

Chief Secretary Niranjan Arya did not respond to calls and messages from The Indian Express on Sunday.

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