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OP-ED: McCarthyism and India’s moment of truth

  • Published at 10:08 pm July 23rd, 2021
A stand of the Israeli firm known for its Pegasus spyware, at the annual European Police Congress in Berlin, Germany REUTERS

India’s knee-jerk reaction to the Pegasus Project speaks volumes

Sometimes, all it takes to change the course of history is a single act of conscience. 

That’s what happened on June 9, 1954 in the US, during yet another inquisitorial public hearing in Joseph McCarthy’s persecution of innocent Americans as anti-national communists, an inherently unfair process where -- as the Harvard law dean Ervin Griswold aptly summarized -- the senator from Wisconsin was “judge, jury, prosecutor, castigator, and press agent, all in one.”

On that day, McCarthy still towered at the height of his notoriety and reach, but all that came crashing down after the Boston lawyer Joseph Welch (he was representing the army) responded spontaneously to the accusation that one of the young members of his own team was communist: “Until this moment, senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness. Let us not assassinate this lad further, senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency?”

That sincere, homespun appeal stunned the national television audience, and McCarthy’s popularity evaporated to nothingness overnight. In short order, he was censured by his colleagues, then ostracized by his own Republican Party. Just three years later in 1957, he died at 48, still confused about where he had gone wrong.

Who and what is going to make the difference in India in 2021, where the convenient routine is now to label any criticism of the ruling party as emanating from “Urban Naxals” who are thereby rendered fair game to face the menacing arsenal of the state? 

It’s impossible to predict with any degree of accuracy -- just like no one quite anticipated the rapid demise of McCarthy’s reign of terror -- but there are many indications that we might have arrived at an important tipping point for India’s own cynical alarmists. Just like the American drama that played out nearly 70 years ago, overreach will be their comeuppance.

This entire, widely developing scenario is nicely encapsulated by the furore that erupted this week over revelations that many Indians -- journalists, politicians, and a range of others -- have been targeted by sophisticated spyware surveillance that its Israeli manufacturer has attested is only sold to “vetted” state actors (which implies the user is the intelligence apparatus in New Delhi).

As has been splashed all over global media: “The Pegasus Project is a ground-breaking collaboration by more than 80 journalists from 17 media organizations in 10 countries coordinated by Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based media non-profit, with the technical support of Amnesty International, who conducted cutting-edge forensic tests on mobile phones to identify traces of the spyware.”

Many governments have responded angrily to the revelations, but it is only in India that the knee-jerk response yet again invoked a fanciful “Red Scare.” This was the Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, who made himself an instant social media laughing stock by holding a press conference to declare: “We all know the role of Amnesty. They are encouraging left-wing terrorism in India. This is a well-designed conspiracy to defame Narendra Modi, and the Indian parliamentary system. I will demand that Amnesty International’s activity should be immediately banned.”

Immediately afterwards, the eager politician tweeted: “Amesty International is infamous for its long history of hatching conspiracies against India’s democratic fabric & its leadership. I strongly condemn this conspiracy and demand ban on activities of such organizations which are hell bent on defaming & harming our nation.”

Sarma’s grandstanding ignores the reality that India is only one of the countries identified as a likely NSO client (the others are Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Togo, and the UAE). But assertions like that are one bedrock characteristic of McCarthyism: It requires no due process. Just allegations are enough, and the process is punishment in full. 

In its editorial immediately following the Pegasus revelations, The Indian Express noted: “The new minister for information technology, Ashwini Vaishnaw, has said that the outing of the list is a bid to ‘malign Indian democracy and its well-established institutions’ [and] Home Minister Amit Shah has spoken darkly of ‘disruptors’ and ‘obstructors’ and recycled his own disturbing formulation from an earlier time, ‘aap chronology samajhiye …’” 

But this time, the editorial continued: “The ministers cannot point the finger away by invoking worn spectres. The growing impression [is] that red lines have been breached, for government or its agencies to target political opponents, dissidents, and activists. This is about the constitutionally guaranteed right to privacy of individuals, and also about more than that. The Pegasus allegations have cast a shadow on the integrity of institutions.”

They concluded: “The Pegasus allegations are debilitating in their potential effect on the trust that underpins the pact between government and people trying to snoop unlawfully is what maligns Indian democracy. For the sake of national security, the department of dirty tricks needs to come clean.”

Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.

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