With individuals, who are subjects of telephone tapping by investigative agencies such as the Central Bureau of Investigation, using the Right To Information Act to obtain details, the Central Information Commission (CIC) has been giving out some mixed signals on the matter so far.
CIC has received at least three such requests in the past year from persons accused in alleged corruption cases, who have sought to get details from the home ministry—the approving authority for permitting central investigative agencies to tap a telephone—on how their telephones were tapped. It is unclear how many such requests have been received by state information commissions.
So far, CIC has ordered the home ministry to give details on one application and turned down two other requests.
Phone tapping remains a highly sensitive issue globally and so is it in India as well. Last year, for instance, Samajwadi Party general secretary Amar Singh had claimed that his phones were illegally tapped by the Delhi Police at the insistence of top Congress leaders, creating political turmoil that lasted a month. Two decades ago, president Giani Zail Singh accused the Rajiv Gandhi government of bugging Rashtrapathi Bhavan while Ramakrishna Hegde had to resign in 1988 as Karnataka chief minister after he was accused of tapping the phones of his rivals.
In India, the Union home secretary is the authority for empowering central investigative agencies to tap phones while his counterparts in the state governments clear such requests from the state police.
One of the cases that came before the CIC is that of S.P. Singh, a former chief excise commissioner who is being investigated by the CBI in a six-year-old bribery case. The agency had intercepted Singh’s telephone calls after it received a clearance from the home ministry.
Singh, who has since retired in the wake of proceedings against him, filed a right to information application seeking a copy of the report on the basis of which orders were given to intercept his telephone, ahead of a trial in a designated CBI court in Andhra Pradesh. The home ministry claimed an exemption, without specifying the reason, and refused to part with the information.
The former excise officer then appealed before the CIC, which also denied the appeal on the ground that “matters connected with the interception of telephones were governed by the provisions of the Indian Telegraph Act and were distinctly related to the security of India.”
Singh had sought to convince the commission in his application that being an accused in a corruption case did not make him a threat to national security, which was the basis on which the home ministry authorizes telephone tapping. However, the Commission refused to accept this view and rejected Singh’s application. “The CBI has tapped even my private conversations, which have no bearing on the investigations and used them in the chargesheet,” says Singh.
Three attempts by Mint to contact CBI director Vijay Shanker were unsuccessful as he was repeatedly unavailable for comment.
Meanwhile, Singh has now complained in a letter to the Prime Minister that the CIC had not given him a fair hearing.
“Sir, you would appreciate that the tendency of investigating agencies to provide false grounds of anti-national activity in order to get permission to intercept phones can have serious and adverse repercussions on the functioning of a State as a whole,” he wrote.
However, in an application filed by Dharambir Khattar last year, who is also an accused in a corruption case, the CIC made a U-turn and asked the home ministry in April to provide details, such as names and designations of members of the review committee in the home ministry, which processes requests for phone taps; the dates on which it met and its conclusions.
“The information asked for by the applicant in this case is significant because, the (review) committee has to record why they were tapping somebody’s phone and reasons for continuing with the eavesdropping beyond a stipulated period,” says a home ministry officer with experience in such cases who didn’t want his name mentioned.
In Khattar’s case, the CIC asked the home ministry to provide these details since a sizeable amount of information on the same subject considered “sensitive” had already been made available to the applicant through the court. The CIC said, “It is not comprehensible as to what objection a public authority can have to the disclosure of the details about a meeting (of a) statutorily mandated review committee, except if the purpose is to prevent the infirmities in the information to be brought out in the open. It shall be impossible for the commission to support such a position.” Details of the original Khattar corruption case were unavailable and he could not be reached for comment.
In the third case, pertaining to an application filed by one S.C. Sharma of Janakpuri, the CIC simply denied information stating that the information would compromise national security. Sharma declined to comment for this story about his filing.
The CIC chief, Wajahat Habibullah, justified the different decisions saying the commission goes by precedent in order to decide “what information can be parted with and what cannot be”.