Indians See a Gift in NSA Leaks

Snowden gets respect in India.

A month after the first revelations by the former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, the affair continues to resonate around the world. To the list of 38 countries whose diplomatic missions in the U.S. were, according to documents leaked by Snowden, targeted for surveillance by the NSA, one can now add a second list, almost as long. These are the countries in Asia, Europe and Latin America that in the last week have received requests from Snowden for asylum and that risk running afoul of the U.S. government. India is on both lists, and the response of its government to both developments has been as insipid as a random sample of Internet debris.

Last week, India's Ministry of External Affairs confirmed that its mission in Moscow had received a letter from Snowden, and that his request for asylum had been turned down. There was nothing very surprising about this, as India has no clear policy on asylum-seekers and, other than the Dalai Lama, currently hosts no prominent political fugitives. What was most upsetting to many Indians, however, was their government's passivity and lack of indignation when it came to taking a stance on this latest episode of -- to borrow the title of Tim Weiner's recent article -- "A Long History of Untruthiness by U.S. Intelligence."

Over the past month, many Indians have come to see Snowden as a hero who has forced all democracies to reassess the trade-offs between national security and individual liberty, and supplied a revealing glimpse of a dystopian future in which Big Brother is always watching. In answering the call of his conscience, Snowden has given his countrymen the means with which to press their government for an intelligence service more circumscribed in its reach and capabilities and more accountable to the institutions of democracy. This is something that the other countries of the world -- even American allies outraged by the revelations -- wouldn't have been able to accomplish.

Agreed, there's an irony in Snowden seeking asylum in countries with a much worse record on freedom of speech and individual liberty than the government with which he has broken. But that irony is leveled out by that of the U.S. administration declaring that his motives are suspect because of "the protectors he has potentially chosen: China, Russia, Cuba, Venezuela, and Ecuador," even as it continues to look past human-rights abuses perpetrated by some of those countries. When it comes to the view that espionage is a reality of the modern state system and that the surveillance that Snowden exposed is "a universally practiced tool of the trade," many would side rather with the argument made by David Bromwich in the London Review of Books last week, measuring allegedly desirable ends against first principles:

Nothing like this system was anticipated or could possibly have been admired by the framers of the constitutional democracies of the United States and Europe. The system, as Snowden plainly recognised, is incompatible with 'the democratic model,' and can only be practised or accepted by people who have given up on every element of liberal democracy except the ideas of common defence and general welfare.

Many of the moral issues raised by the Snowden revelations were summarized by the Indian political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta in an essay in the Financial Times:

America, like all states, has often let fear of the enemy immobilise other rights. And states will often use spying and surveillance. But two things are disappointing about this conjuncture. The first is how weak the institutional safeguards for which the US is famous have proved in demanding more robust justification for indiscriminate surveillance. The second is the muted political opposition to this surveillance. We have excused in US President Barack Obama what we condemned in George W Bush.

Last week, India's foreign minister, Salman Khurshid, was roundly criticized for his view of the Snowden affair. Khurshid said that he had raised the matter with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, and had come to an understanding that the secret surveillance was "only computer analysis of patterns of calls and emails that are being sent. It is not actually snooping on specifically on content of anybody's message or conversation." Khurshid was berated by the academic Vijay Prashad, who wrote in the Hindu:

India's response to the Snowden affair is both shoddy and undignified. At the very least, the External Affairs Minister should have taken the same kind of tack as adopted by the Europeans, arguably closer allies to the U.S. than India. India is also a signatory of the 1961 Vienna Convention. To be so cavalier about the implications of espionage shows that India, like the U.S., has become cynical about international law. This is a walk-down from the high ground that India once occupied.

Indeed, it was curious that Khurshid would so blithely buy the U.S. position on the matter. In response, the sociologist Shiv Visvanathan raised a pertinent question in a column: "Did our government submit because it too is assembling equivalent systems of surveillance to watch our own people?" This year, India has rolled out its own wide-ranging surveillance program, the ominously titled Central Monitoring System, which will allow government to bypass both parliament and courts in monitoring telephone and Internet usage. The Snowden affair has given Indians a taste of what could go wrong when their own government has access to vast troves of information about their lives.

A couple of decades into the digital age, it's clear we need a new kind of global contract about the limits of cyber surveillance (whether by the big Internet-based companies such as Google Inc. and Facebook Inc., or by governments) and about the rights of powerful states to exercise new forms of the double-standard that Bhanu Mehta calls geographical morality. Thinking about these issues in the Economic Times, Pranesh Prakash, one of India's most sage voices on Internet issues, wrote:

The outrage in the US has to do with the fact that much of the data the NSA has been granted access to by the court relates to communications between US citizens, something the NSA is not authorised to gain access to. What should be of concern to Indians is that the US government refuses to acknowledge non-Americans as people who also have a fundamental right to privacy, if not under US law, then at least under international laws like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the ICCPR.

The Snowden revelations have been deeply embarrassing for the U.S., but good for the world -- and probably the U.S., too, in the long run -- because, as the Guardian's editor Alan Rusbridger points out in this Bloomberg interview, the disclosures clearly serve the public interest, showing Americans that they are not far from a surveillance system "that has no happy precedents in history." In India, a country that knows that its whistle-blowers will routinely be persecuted or killed in cold blood, there's plenty of respect for the gumption of Edward Snowden.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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