The bugbear of national security, a favourite pet of authoritarian regimes, has received a resounding rap on its knuckles from India’s enlightened judiciary. In an unambiguous denouncement of the tactic adopted by the Narendra Modi government to stonewall public enquiries into allegations of the deployment of sophisticated surveillance technology against Indian citizens — they include journalists, activists, politicians and even doctors and judicial functionaries — the Supreme Court has decided to form a committee, overseen by a former judge, that will look into every aspect of the Pegasus snooping scandal and submit a report within a specific time frame. Among the several points raised by India’s highest court, two are of critical importance. First, the learned judges, falling back on the principles of the K.S. Puttaswamy case, have clearly stated that while the right to privacy may not be absolute, it is sacrosanct and integral to human dignity and autonomy. Consequently, invoking the rhetoric of national security, as Mr Modi’s government has done, to justify the violation of individual privacy cannot be condoned. The court’s censure is of paramount importance given the propensity of elected regimes to stifle dissent and, in the process, democracy by spouting a specious argument concerning threat to the nation. Second, in one fell swoop, the court has exposed the Centre’s complicity in encouraging obfuscation in the crucial matter: this amounts to wilful deprivation of citizens’ rights on the part of the government and soils the compact between State and people.
The outcome of this order can play out at multiple levels. It will provide political oxygen to Mr Modi’s opponents — Rahul Gandhi has taken the lead — to demand transparency from the regime not only on Pegasus but also on such other issues as the alleged loss of territory to China. The order could also generate momentum for demands of re-examining the evidence against those accused in the Bhima Koregaon case. Perhaps the surest way of honouring the spirit of this judicial intervention would be to kindle a wider public campaign to make institutions and the government accountable for the upholding of rights. This is an imperative, given Mr Modi’s push to leash fundamental rights to the yoke of ‘public duty’. Hearteningly, the pronouncement reiterates the apex court’s uncontested legacy as the custodian of civil rights and freedoms and would go some way in soothing anxieties about the judiciary and the executive speaking in a similar voice.