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A new age of surveillance and control in India

In the name of 'national interest' the Union government, has made it so that citizens must come to terms with a life of surveillance

In India, the key challenge it seems remains the decolonisation of administrative authority and power. There is a strong element of suspicion towards citizens who disagree with the ideology of the regime. (Representational Image)

Written by Javed Iqbal Wani

With the recent Pegasus scandal, the relationship between state surveillance and democratic practices is in sharp contention. It seems that control has become the sacrament of the state in India, based on a conception of sovereignty that operates by strictly regulating and punishing those considered foes of the regime. In India, the key challenge it seems remains the decolonisation of administrative authority and power. There is a strong element of suspicion towards citizens who disagree with the ideology of the regime.

Since coming to power in 2014, the current government has actively tried to underwrite most relations of power and authority. Such an approach is set in a paradigm of security, where political paranoia and anxiety have gained primacy over justice. Given the emphasis on market-driven development and the self-sufficiency approach propagated by the government, one would expect the state to make itself less visible in the everyday life of the citizens. However, there is an increasing presence of the state felt in the quotidian lives of its citizens against, what the Union government has time and again argued, a condition of desolation and anarchy leading to “anti-national” activities. As a result, what is proposed is that state sovereignty requires the protection of institutions of security.

The problem with such a security paradigm is that it pursues an imposed mode of political life and becomes more an issue of power and obligation than of participative and deliberative democracy. The desire of the Union government appears to be to continue disciplining citizens and to slow down any opposition to its policies and ideology. Thus, control emerges as a substantive issue here. The Union government is trying to surreptitiously comport itself in its imagined crises. By unleashing institutions like the National Security Agency and Enforcement Directorate, and laws such as UAPA, the government has unsuccessfully tried to embody a new form of state power and yet it keeps insisting on the autonomy of these institutions. More recently, allegations of snooping on various “persons of interest” by utilising a shady organisation like NSO, have raised new questions about its approach. If the allegations are true, it can be deduced that the state is sourcing and deploying new technologies to conduct its dirty work. This secret condition of governance in India makes the political utterly vulnerable and scuttles established “rule of law” practices.

In the name of “national interest,” the Union government has in a way proposed that citizens must come to terms with a life in which accepted surveillance, security and discipline are the preconditions of the “new” citizenship. It is arguing for divesting the citizens of democratic deliberation and dissent. Recently, with various intellectuals and activists arrested under the draconian UAPA, it is clear that the space to critique the political rationality of the government is shrinking at a great pace. In the current scenario, it seems that one’s ideology, if it differs from the government, is weaponised against oneself. The ambitions of the government are increasingly becoming opaque to the citizens.

In the era of the pandemic and the many challenges it has created, a government is expected to practice an ethic of care and not animosity. It is expected to listen and constructively respond to the queries and anxieties of its people. Care and not control should take precedence in establishing confidence amongst the citizens. The relentless urge to control has put limits to governments’ own civility and has created a wedge between democracy and authority. Authority without responsibility is an imminent danger facing India right now.

The writer is an assistant professor at Ambedkar University Delhi

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