Coronavirus and the Ministry of Utmost Priorities

In November 2019, it became public that the WhatsApp data of 121 Indians; including over 30 journalists, activists and lawyers critical of the government’s policies; was compromised through an Israeli spyware named Pegasus. Most of those affected during this ‘snoopgate’ alleged governmental responsibility and involvement in the scandal – indeed, NSO, the makers of Pegasus, clarified that the software is licensed only to government intelligence and law enforcement agencies. The Ministry of Home Affairs not only denied the involvement of the Government of India, but accused WhatsApp of not informing them in a timely fashion – and when it was revealed that WhatsApp did, in fact, notify the government of the issue twice, they said that the information was too “vague” and “jargonistic” to take action. When questioned in parliament by DMK’s Dayanidhi Maran, the MHA in a fantastic non-answer cited its powers under Section 69 of the Information Technology Act 2000, which allows government agencies to intercept, monitor or decrypt “any information generated, transmitted, received or stored in any computer resource”.

On Thursday,the MHA issued an advisory regarding Zoom, a popular video conferencing platform, citing it as “unsafe” and vulnerable to unauthorized interception, and issuing guidelines that its burgeoning private usership, increased in light of the Coronavirus lockdown and ‘work-from-home’ compulsions, can follow. At the same time, the government is pushing forward its Aarogya Setu app as a tool for tackling the Coronavirus pandemic – the app saw over 5 million downloads within three days of launch, and is being staunchly and steadily promoted on social media and through schools and government offices. However, privacy focused groups such as Internet Freedom Foundation have raised alarm due to the app’s non-compliance with globally-held privacy standards. There are widespread concerns over its scope for data collection and capacity for surveillance, the lack of transparency in the absence of a legal framework governing its use, and the lack of clarity on which ministries can access the data collected through it. Plainly speaking, the purpose of the app is vague enough to be expanded and exploited by the government.

This raises two questions about the government – and specifically the Ministry of Home Affairs – regarding their inclination to track and monitor citizens and what they wish to achieve from it, and regarding the matters they consider important enough to provide comment on.

Both questions come into sharp focus in context of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the events surrounding it. Both the violence at Jamia Milia Islamia and the riots which broke out in North-east Delhi on February 23rd came as offshoots of the government’s decision to implement a nationwide National Register of Citizens (later retracted in a mind-boggling set of contradictory statements by Modi and Shah), actions that would most drastically affect India’s Muslim population, in addition to women and the poor. The MHA’s guidelines on Zoom calls come in wake of Home Minister Amit Shah’s unwavering public silence with regards to the Delhi Riots. While Shah did make an insubstantial statement of “grief” in the Rajya Sabha a few days ago, his barely-articulate  assurances with regards to the implications of the NRC and CAA for minorities to ring hollow. Similarly, while Shah ordered the Delhi Police to take strict action against the man who fired a gun at the Anti-CAA protesters at Jamia Milia Islamia on January 30, not much progress has been seen since.

On the contrary, while panic over the Coronavirus pandemic is taking over, it is the students who were victim of these attacks that are being taken into custody under the pretext of alleged incitement of the riots. In the past week, the media coordinator from Jamia Coordination Committee has been arrested, along with at least two more students all on account of “communal conspiracy,” while over 50 students who were part of the protests have been served notices to appear for an investigation on the 20th of March even as lockdown continues to be enforced. Students in Delhi are exiting protest groups on WhatsApp en masse, alleging that members are being tracked and arrested indiscriminately. In fact, while the country is struggling to cope with the implications of the Coronavirus, law enforcement energies are being directed overwhelmingly towards arrests – recently, Dalit rights activist and scholar Anand Teltumbde – one of the people whose phones were revealed to have been spied on in November – was taken into custody by one arm of the government even as its mouthpiece, the Prime Minister of India, ironically greeted people and remembered Babasaheb Ambedkar on his 129th birth anniversary.

In all of this, the MHA’s priorities seem worrying and self-defensive. Be it surveillance or arrests, the government seems to be acting in shoddy self-interest. Whether it is also in the interest of the nation and its people is for us to truly ponder on.

War Cry: Within the mind of Saffron Terror

Growing up, I used to think of Saffron — the top band of the Indian national flag — as the colour of strength, of courage. Today, however, it is anything but: today, Delhi is burning with the glowing hatred that saffron has now come to symbolise. Today, I give this space to my dear friend Noumaan Anwer, whose powerful words and poetry seek to capture the colour of this fire from within the mind of its arsonists:

I write this from a national capital currently ravaged by communal riots – where entire enclaves of the city lie tarnished by flames; where sleeplessness and hunger of those pushed to the streets are only increasing; where a wave of unabashed saffron rage is ripping through the fabric of this country more viciously and explicitly than ever before.

Someone once said that every modern genocide in history started with a majority manufacturing the story of its own extermination.

In midst of this bloody pogrom, with uncertainties multiply exponentially, Delhi and India urgently seek answers. Why do the perpetrators feel that such unfettered violence was needed? Where does the justification for the slaughter of innocents come from? Why is this vengeful lust so irrepressible? What makes them push their blades deep into the heart of our country?

Centered around the echoing devastation that surrounds cries of ‘Jai Shri Ram’, the following poem, titled “War Cry”, attempts to address these questions. It tries to tie together justifications for ‘reclamation’ of ‘lost’ territory and supremacy and the disproportionate violence meted by the Saffron terror of the RSS, its members, and its die-hard allies. Looking at communal violence from the perspective of its perpetrators, this piece attempts to detail how emotionally invested the Sangh and its cadres are in this ‘battle’, how divisive ideas and hatred seep through their veins, and how far they will go to ensure that ‘their’ land is cleansed of those they see as outsiders.

The language of this poem, which at times confuses and enrages, attempts to capture the systematic otherisation meted out to Muslims, women, Dalits, people from the North east, Adivasis, dissident students, activists, and journalists, and any other group of people who disagree with the RSS’ message of violent exclusion. War Cry seeks to paint a picture of the sheer ruthlessness that drives those who brandish the blades of violence in Delhi today.

 

War Cry

“That most risky and volatile of all things a self-pitying majority”
– Christopher Hitchens

 

I.

 

Conscripted, at birth, 

Into the Lord’s ‘brave hearted’ corps, 

Arm strength and unison, 

suppressed idea to the fore. 

 

Steadfast in our trenches, 

Deprivation slashes our cheeks, 

Every recollection – a tale of the forgotten, of victimhood, 

Of seeds sown for the meek. 

What for the fact, 

That our blood flows through these toiling plains? 

Progeny that fought for this dust, 

Sacred pride pumping through their veins.

Amidst nightfall’s lust, 

Stood awake our forebearers, ivory dagger in hand.

Knuckles prepared to preserve providence

From a storm of foreign sand.

Vengeance, imperative! 

For how imported thunder crushed fertility, 

Corruption emptied vaults of virtue, 

Shattered edifice; unignorable profundity. 

Regimentation of offence, 

A collective memory of humiliation, 

Yet the fibres of seven decades past –

Embroidered with their salvation. 

A hideous affront to the weighing scale, 

Of what is pristine and true

Blood traitors eulogized as founding fathers,

Ridicule of us ‘few’.

II.

Forsaking flesh of millions, 

To fill bottomless pits sanguine. 

Spicing the soil with blasphemy, 

Nourishing it with brine. 

Their morals are of a cutthroat, 

Not a semblance of mercy in their eyes, 

Our land reeked of senselessness, 

Wholesale murder rained from our skies. 

Despair however could parch these fields, 

For only stolen stacks of time. 

Emptied now, are their lockers of good fortune, 

Down came the heavy spectre, on unforgivable crime. 

The tendons in our exploding throats, 

Came alive, out of comatose oblivion. 

Our vanguard’s steely righteousness, 

Expelled dynasts and their minions. 

Savagery – imprisoned, 

Its devotees shown the door, 

But no respite consumes our troops, 

Till nobility bleaches the stinking floor. 

Untethered courage and brotherhood, 

From which we forged sabres of gold, 

To be wielded against their injustices, 

Banish alien-ness from our fold. 

This never was, nor shall it be, 

Their playing field of anarchy. 

An end put to their uniqueness, 

Finality in our decree. 

III.

And if they cease to set aside

Their murderous independence, 

Collective will shall push them over

To the greener side of the fence. 

The generals in command today, 

Plant triumph in our throats, 

To scream out from the wilderness, 

By pledging our priceless votes.

For who belongs, and who defiles, 

The essence of what it means to be,

Our jury shall determine, 

Our fury shows no empathy. 

By the scruff of their existence, 

Shall they be dragged out from recluse, 

For insult to our eternal glory, 

Vendetta, our strapping muse. 

Bare-breasted, now, shall they atone, 

For shameless interventions in our history. 

The power of our convictions, 

Shall not afford them amnesty. 

And when sinful realization, 

Has been thrashed out from within, 

They shall join us in our war cry, 

Or trace knife blades beneath their chins.


Noumaan Anwer is a student of History at St. Stephen’s College, University of Delhi. He has previously written for The Citizen and for The Indian Express