Edward Snowden’s revelations about the extent of Internet surveillance in US government programme PRISM as well as later exposes about a similar initiative, called Tempora, by UK intelligence agencies have made matters worse for governments already working overtime to deal with cyber security issues. Trying to elude US authorities, Snowden is currently holed up in Moscow and has asked for asylum from a number of countries including India. The Indian embassy in Moscow considered Snowden’s request before denying it. But did Snowden deserve better from India?
No luck from India (Image Credits: AP)
Yes, morally India should have granted asylum. The US has pulled out all stops to show that it is right. No establishment will agree that the US government’s methods for safeguarding its interests have any grey areas. With words like criminal and traitor peppering the airwaves, it clearly seems like the idea of “innocent until proven guilty” plays no part here. These claims cannot be made until the US government can prove in court that Snowden has broken any of its laws by talking about a clandestine surveillance programme.
By vilifying Snowden, the US has repeated what it did when WikiLeaks first came out in the open. It effectively shifted the public’s focus from the matter at hand, to a massive international “manhunt” that has many parallels to what happened to Julian Assange a few years ago.
India, as a country, has not been known to be any different from the US when it comes to safeguarding the privacy and information of its own citizens. Using the usual “security is paramount” argument, the Indian government has routinely disregarded the privacy of its citizens while using the Central Monitoring System. Taking this into account, it would be hypocritical for the country to claim any form of moral high ground over the US.
But the rationale behind turning Snowden’s request down is the core of the problem. India took the easier political option by not getting into the matter. The thought of going head-to-head with one of the world’s most powerful nations for the deeds of one person may seem ludicrous to some. The idea of jeopardising India’s alliance with the “leader of the free world” may seem equally ridiculous. And India has echoed that thought process. But it should not be forgotten that India is the world’s largest democracy. And a pragmatic view on the situation, while logical, is not always the right one.
One would think that given we were the fifth-most monitored country in the PRISM list, we'd have the courage to stand up for ourselves and in an act of absolute indignation and defiance, would have given Snowden asylum. On the other hand, if we have received information of terrorist activities because of similar monitoring, then we have no choice but to save face and deny Snowden asylum. US President Barack Obama saying that asylum to Snowden would "carry costs", doesn't make the decision any easier. While morally the correct thing would be to grant the man asylum, it would be a classic case of hypocrisy given we've spent crores on a Central Monitoring System of our own, which really does put us in the same league as the US. Given that our problems – civic and economic – are not few, having the US breathing down our necks over Snowden doesn't seem like a problem we want to have right now.
Yes, India should have accepted Snowden’s asylum request, but the poor guy never stood a chance.
Snowden’s revelations confirmed some of our biggest fears. And only if he is found to have broken US law will he become a criminal. At the moment, he is not guilty. At the moment, he is just a whistleblower. At the moment, Snowden is simply on the run from an authority he thinks has violated fundamental human rights. So did the Dalai Lama and Bengali writer Taslima Nasrin, both of whom asked India to accommodate them and were accepted in. The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that more than 1.8 lakh people have been given asylum in India. So, why not Snowden?
For one, Snowden does not matter to India. For the Indian government, which already has a Rs 400 crore Central Monitoring System in place, surveillance of all Internet activity is no flagrant violation, but a necessary compromise for the greater good. In this regard, the US and India are on the same team. It could even be said that Snowden’s revelations are more damaging to the Indian CMS efforts.
Secondly, we are already besieged with problems from within and without. The terrible state of civic security, the fragile inter-party relationships and the falling price of the rupee have given us enough troubles to deal with lately. Accepting Snowden’s request would have been yet another challenge that could have proven beyond our leadership. And this is no cop-out; nearly all countries asked by Snowden turned down the request. President Vladimir Putin asked Snowden to stop leaking more information that damages Russia’s “American partners” if he hopes to find asylum in the country. Those were the least reassuring words Snowden could have heard. Would India have been able to pull away from its US apron strings? I think not.