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Divided the lawmakers stand


EXPOSED: Amar Singh petitioned the Supreme Court to stop further revelations on two grounds: one, that publication of his private conversations infringed on his right to privacy and, two, that the tapping of his phone was illegal

There was panic among politicians soon after CDs relating to former Samajwadi Party leader Amar Singh's private conversations were leaked in 2006. But the anxiety soon subsided and our netas have remained ambivalent on the issue, confused and divided regarding the scope and definition of privacy laws.

Lawmakers in India have remained impervious to the privacy issue largely because it has rarely touched them in their public lives. Former Samajwadi Party leader Amar Singh was the first to wake up to it when he was "stung" in 2006 by the leakage of CDs containing explosive recordings of his private phone conversations.

The publication of the contents of the controversial CDs came as a rude shock for a class that had been insulated from intrusive inspection of their money deals, live-in relationships and linkages with corporate barons and criminals. Amar Singh petitioned the Supreme Court to stop further revelations on two grounds: one, that publication of his private conversations infringed on his right to privacy and, two, that the tapping of his phone was illegal. The Supreme Court granted him a stay and held that the right to privacy was part of the right to life.

The panic soon subsided and today, even as Radiagate has shaken the corporate and media worlds and revived the right to privacy debate, lawmakers remain ambivalent on the issue. They agree it needs to be discussed, but they are deeply divided on the definition, scope and protection of the privacy of public figures.

Congress spokesperson Manish Tiwari, for instance, has come out aggressively in support of a slew of laws for data protection, interception of communications and safeguarding of information gathered for criminal or other investigations. "Technology has changed the way we gather information, " he says. "Service providers can now record any phone conversation they want. E-mails are like postcards because the back-end providers of services have access to them. We will have to look at the entire welter of private information available in the public domain and craft laws to protect it. "

Opposition leaders, on the other hand, feel that the debate on the right to privacy could become a convenient political tool to suppress the right to information. "The right to privacy cannot be used as a garb to cover up the implications of current developments (related to the leakage of the Radia tapes), " insists BJP leader Ravi Shankar Prasad. "If a private conversation seriously impinges on the polity of the country or on government functioning, then the privacy argument is irrelevant. "

CPM leader Sitaram Yechury agrees. While acknowledging the need to revisit the issue, he feels that privacy should not be seen in terms of an individual's private life. "The reforms process and the kind of economic deals that are being made today have changed all that. When something affects public policy, it cannot be protected by the privacy argument, " he says.

His party colleague Nilotpal Basu suggested that instead of discussing the need for a privacy law, the debate should revolve around a transparency law that would give immunity to people who access information that rightfully belongs in the public space even if it is private information. "The problem is that those who are concerned about their privacy are the elite who have never faced this kind of scrutiny before, " he laments. "Those who are now clamouring for a privacy law are those who are trying to withhold information that legitimately should be in the public space. "

Most lawmakers are concerned about arriving at a proper definition of privacy before going into the issue of enacting laws to protect it. BJP leader Arun Jaitley, for instance, believes that public figures can only take limited recourse to the right to privacy to shield themselves from scrutiny. This includes, he says, politicians, corporate leaders and media personalities who occupy the public space and influence public discourse.

The prevailing confusion among lawmakers was aptly summed up by Biju Janata Dal leader, Jay Panda, whose wife runs Orissa's biggest television network. He hesitated to comment on the issue, saying that it was a complex subject that deserves a thorough debate before arriving at a conclusion. "We should have a discussion in Parliament. We need to find the right balance between what is private and what should be in the public domain. I don't want to weigh in on any side without understanding the issues at stake, " he says.

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