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It’s official, a panel to probe saheb’s order

Sushil Kumar Shinde

New Delhi, Dec. 26: The Centre today formally cleared the proposal to set up an inquiry commission to probe alleged unauthorised surveillance of a woman by the Narendra Modi government in Gujarat.

The commission has been given three months — which suggests it is expected to submit its findings when the country is likely to be on the verge of immersing itself in the general election.

A retired judge will look into allegations that a Gujarat minister cleared the surveillance on the woman on the orders of a person referred to as “saheb”.

The terms of reference of the panel, which has been set up under the Commission of Inquiry Act of 1952, will be ready by tomorrow, Union home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde said today.

The Centre has taken care to include alleged instances of surveillance in two other states to combat charges that a witch-hunt is being launched against Modi, the BJP’s candidate for Prime Minister.

“It will look into incidents of physical and electronic surveillance in the states of Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh and the National Capital Territory of Delhi (carried out) allegedly without authorisation,” Shinde told reporters.

The case in Himachal relates to alleged snooping ordered by former chief minister and BJP veteran Prem Kumar Dhumal last year. The other case is of unauthorised access to the call data records of BJP leader Arun Jaitley in Delhi last year.

The alleged snooping in Gujarat came to light when an IPS officer G.L. Singhal, under the scanner in the Ishrat Jahan fake encounter case, handed over voluminous phone records to the CBI.

In some of the transcripts of 2009, Amit Shah, Modi’s close aide and then minister of state for home, was allegedly found to have mentioned the surveillance of the woman who worked on several Gujarat government projects.

The Gujarat government had already set up a commission to probe the charge, which was seen as an attempt to pre-empt a central inquiry.

But the Centre cited complaints by women’s organisations to justify the fresh probe into the alleged snooping in Gujarat. “Forty-seven women met the President of India and submitted a representation and that representation was sent by the President to the home secretary,” Shinde said.

The sole reason for taking up the Jaitley case seemed to show that the government is not acting with a political motive. Delhi police have already arrested and chargesheeted 10 persons, including four Delhi police personnel and three private detectives, in the case.

Shinde said the government included the Jaitley case in the inquiry because political parties had raised it in Parliament. In the Dhumal case, current chief minister Virbhadra Singh has complained, Shinde said.

The home minister rejected accusations by the BJP that a “phoney commission” was being set up with political motives. “There is no vendetta or revenge. There is no politics in this,” said Shinde.

If the charges are proved, the cost will be more political than penal. Home ministry officials said the Indian Telegraph Act did not consider unauthorised electronic surveillance of a private individual as a criminal offence.

Unauthorised electronic surveillance is punishable only by “departmental action”, if the charges are proven, an official said. “Eavesdropping on private persons will be made punishable as a criminal offence only when a privacy law is enacted by Parliament,” the official added.