Snooping By State Agencies In Times When There Were No Mobile Phones

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Camil Parkhe

Pune, 29 July 2021: At The Navhind Times daily in Panjim in Goa, I covered crime and court beats. In many newspapers at that time in the 1980s, senior reporters used to get rid of these two beats as soon as a junior reporter was appointed in their dailies. Without a landline telephone at my home in Taleigaon, and a deadline of 8 pm to receive news for the newspaper’s inside pages, it was difficult and equally challenging to handle the crime beat without risking missing out any hard news of crimes and accidents in Panjim and nearby areas.

Goa was the only district in the Union Territory of Goa, Daman and Diu since the territory was liberated from the foreign Portuguese rule in December 1961. Twelve talukas made up the Goa district, including Daman and Diu, located near Gujarat some hundreds of miles from Goa. Daman and Diu were with Goa only because these three regions were under the Portuguese regime till 1961. The three regions had otherwise no similarities with each other in any ways. Inspector General of Police (IGP) was the seniormost police officer in the Union Territory with only one officer of the rank of Superintendent of Police (SP).

Although officers on deputation to the Union Territory appeared to be placed in higher posts, the officers of the ranks of IGP were appointed at much lower ranks when they were transferred to New Delhi or other big states in the country. The young officers arriving in Goa on probation were directly appointed as a director of any departments like education in the territory, their next post or promotion could even be as the district collector. I used to meet often an young officer serving as education department director, his next posting was as district collector. Only a few years back, JP Singh retired as the chief secretary of Goa State.

In 1983, Kiran Bedi, India’s first female IPS officer, was transferred to Goa a few months before the Commonwealth Heads of Governments Meet (CHOGM) Retreat and her post was Deputy Superintendent of Police (Traffic). I remember at that time, there was a Superintendent of Police who was a Goan and an IGP named Sharma.

During those days, the secretariat of Goa, Daman and Diu was housed in the medieval Adilshah Palace on the banks of the Mandovi which merged into the Arabian Sea two or three kilometers from there. There was a Press Room in a corner of this two-storeyed tiled roof structure. I started occupying a seat at the Press Room no sooner than I received an appointment letter as a staff reporter of The Navhind Times. Activists from all sorts of organizations, trade unions, student unions, political parties and social organizations would visit us journalists at the Press room and give press releases or memoranda submitted to ministers and government officials.

Often, these memoranda contained information about their demands, agitations and future moves. Most often the real and important information was given orally at the press conferences or during the meeting with reporters.

Soon it became a routine for me to sit at the Press Room which was located only a few meters away from the lifesize statue of Abe de Faria, the father of modern scientific Hypnotism. Incidentally the `Press Room’ board is still displayed at this room although the Goa Secretariat has moved away to its new, spacious premises in Porvorim many years ago.

Whenever we journalists met Goa Tourism Minister Dr. Wilfred D’Souza or Education Minister Harish Zantye, Power Minister Shaikh Hasan or other ministers on the first floor of the Secretariat, some people used to rush to meet some senior journalists as soon as we alighted from the red carpeted wooden staircase and headed for the press room. These persons’ body language and the way they spoke to the senior reporters intrigued me. These persons would also always wait on us journalists at the venues of some press conferences organised by political parties, trade unions or social organisations. They would have a word with some journalists before we headed for our newspaper offices.

Once or twice, there were not many senior journalists at a press conference. I understood their identity and their role when they contacted me directly.

These plainclothesmen were from the SIB (Subsidiary Intelligence Bureau) of the Union government and the Special Branch or the CID (Crime Investigation Department) of Goa Police.

Yes, I was shocked when I realized this.

These persons used to seek press notes, leaflets from journalists given to us at the press conferences, write down some points in their notebooks, ask for information given orally at press conferences.

It was only later that I learned that it was a job of the intelligence agencies of the Central and State governments to constantly collect information about disgruntled ministers, leaders and or MLAs of the ruling party, opposition leaders, various social and trade unions, student unions and all those who are likely to challenge the ruling administration.

All this was being done by the intelligence agencies to ensure that the leaders in power are aware of all the movements, incidents and statements that have been made before the news gets published in the newspapers or even information which may never be published in the newspapers.

It is noteworthy that although the personnel of the special branch, CID or the SIB was viewed with suspicion by some, but leaders of many social, labour and other organizations were very friendly with them. They understood that the SIB and CID personnel were only carrying out their duties and often came out to help them by issuing them directly their press notes and other statements.

I remember the prolonged agitations carried out by student unions in Goa to oppose opening of a private engineering college in Goa. Satish Sonak, a leader of the All Goa Students’ Union I(AGSU), Communist trade unionists George Vaz and Narayan Palekar and others used to give their press notes to the intelligence personnel themselves.

The agitations by Ramponkars in Goa, fishermen who used to fish in traditional manner using fishing nets or the `Rampon’ and not the mechanised boats, had posed a serious challenge for chief minister Shashikala Kakodkar and later Chief Minister Pratapsinh Rane. At that time, Ramponkar leaders Mathani Saldhana and Christopher Fonseca had a team of government intelligence personnel constantly keeping watch on their movements. These members of the state and central Intelligence agencies used to crawl around while these leaders were talking to the journalists, then they would reach out to us journalists and ask for details of the conversations.

If there was any explosive information like agitation, resignation of a political bigwig or secret meetings of ruling party’s dissident leaders, the information would be passed on to senior officers and then to the Chief Minister before even the journalists reached out to their respective newspaper offices. It often turned out that the seasoned government intelligence persons often had more detailed and reliable information than the journalists!

Pratapsinh Rane, who to this date holds the record of being the Chief Minister of Goa for a longest period, had a firm grip on his saddle in the 1980s. At that time, Dr. Wilfred D’Souza, who always eyed the chief minister’s seat and some other ministers in the cabinet used to constantly try to destablise chief minister Rane.

During this period, journalists and intelligence agencies people used to keep an eye on the secret meetings Dr. Willie and other disgruntled ministers and MLAs, their frequent Delhi visits to meet the ruling party Congress High Command as well as meetings and interactions of the visiting Congress party observers RL Bhatia, G K Moopnar and Ravi Wyler in Goa.

It was not possible to single-handedly collect information on what had transpired at some secret meetings, on what was cooking at the dissidents’ camp, the lashing the party observers gave at the ruling party legislators’ meeting, or who is tipped to be the new chief minister and so on.

Often, there would be meetings between journalists and intelligence personnel where notes were often exchanged. Thus both journalists and the government spies used to come each other’s aid.

Deputy Superintendent of Police (DYSP) Barde served as Goa Police’s Public Relations Officer (PRO). Sitting on the first floor of the grand police headquarters in front of the Azad Maidan in Panjim, Barde used to look after the Crime Branch and the Special Branch or the CID.

Every day by afternoon, Barde would get reports of main crimes and accidents from Panjim, Mapusa, Margaon, Vasco, Canacona, Quepem and other police stations in Goa and based on that, he would make a one or two-page cyclostyle (photocopy, pre-Xerox incarnation) press note for the journalists. The press note contained brief notes on murders, fatal or serious accidents, robberies, frauds, and so forth, it was adequate enough for the crime beat journalists to cover routine news.

As a crime reporter, I would arrive at PRO Barde’s cabin at around 5 pm, when his press note would be ready. Barde would then make me sit me there for 15 to 20 minutes and grill me on what was happening in the city, on happenings related to my contacts, on activities in the college students unions.

Initially, I gave him this information innocently with the hope that during the conversation, I would also get some tip-offs of news from him, a few leads of news scoops. Soon I realised that our conversation was only one-sided, and that after wasting those 15 or 20 minutes, I would get nothing from Barde except a cup of tea and that daily crime press release. The crime press note was delivered to all newspaper offices each evening.

Soon I came to the conclusion that the post of Public Relations Officer is often just like a scare-crow. The PRO is rarely equipped to share any vital information with journalists or others nor has the authority to share the information. It was during this time that I realized that this post is created everywhere just to tell journalists and the public in general what their establishment wants to share, not necessarily the facts.

Barde would often drop in at our ‘Navhind Times’ office sometime in the morning or after his office-hours to meet our news editor M. M. Mudliar. The two who were in their late 40s or early 50s, used to chat for half an hour on various topics. Later I learned from Mudaliar that it was part of Barde’s job to keep abreast of the political and other developments in Goa and so these meetings with senor journalists and others.

Barde once took me into confidence and inquired about the various habits and hobbies of my college student friends. While working as a reporter, I had also enrolled for MA post-graduation course of the Bombay University and was regularly attending lectures at the Post-Graduation Centre on the 18th June Road in Panjim. I also smoked in the presence of Barde. He suggested to me that I collect information from some smoker students, about cigarette selling kiosks and other shops from where they get narcotic drugs, marijuana, etc.

That evening I casually told News Editor Mudaliar what Barde had suggested to me. Mudaliar was shocked. He then explained to me Barde’s role as a senior police officer and also as in-charge of the Special CID Branch.

He said that the entire police department and the CID had knowledge of all the drug peddlers, shops and other dens that regularly supply drugs in Goa. He added that the police authorities keep updating this information with the latest news provided by their informers from time to time.
“Hence, they don’t need services from a reporter like you. From now on, be careful while talking and interacting with Barde,” Mudaliar told me.

Since then I always remained on guard while conversing with Barde. Mudaliar’s tips helped me to maintain safe distance not only from friendly police officers but also from other government officials. Just maintain professional relations, don’t try to be too friendly with your news sources, was the mantra I followed thereafter.

Soon I learnt about Barde’s unique and very important role in the Goa police department. Besides compiling daily crime news press notes for Goan newspapers and others, Barde would also compile a separate, highly classified, confidential reports for two of his senior officers, the Crime Superintendent of Police and the IGP. These notes briefly summarized the major developments in politics and other areas of life that occurred during the preceding 24 hours.

The Home Minister and the Chief Minister of Goa received the classified notes every night. Goa chief minister Pratapsinh Rane had also retained the home portfolio. The note prepared by Dy SP Barde used to be a capsule information available about most recent developments in Goa. It had notes on what then dissident ministers said to journalists, to whom disgruntled ministers or MLAs met with, and who has rushed to meet the party high command in New Delhi.

The Navhind Times in 1986 deputed me to undergo a journalism course organised by the Indian Federation of Working Journalists (IFWJ) in association with the Left-leaning International Organisation of Journalists (ILO), first at Lucknow and later in Bulgaria. This involved a short visit to the then Union of Soviet Socialist Republics or the USSR.

Little did I know then that I was visiting Moscow, the capital of not only the Soviet Union, during the last few years of the Cold War and also the communist regime in Eastern Europe.

These East European nations, also referred to as USSR satellite nations included Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and East Germany.

I have experienced the heat and the unseen presence of the `Big Brother watching’ while undergoing scrutiny of my passport at the Moscow airport and also while moving in Moscow. Our interpreter in Moscow had also ignored the question when during visit to the Kremlin and the famous Red Square, a colleague journalist sought to know where was the official residence of the USSR head of the state, – Communist party General Secretary Mikhael Gorbachev.

The interpreters at our journalism course in Sofia in Bulgaria were also careful in not exceeding their ‘brief’ of translation and not commenting on political and other sensitive matters even in private conversations. The fear of being watched over by someone was always there.

The Cold War era was famous for the espionage activities by the two rival agencies, the CIA of the USA and the KGB of the USSR. There were many books and also movies on the tug of war between the American intelligence agency CIA and the Russian agency, the KGB.

The CIA, it was said, had its hand in almost all assassinations, coups, civil war or political tensions in various anti-USA nations all over the world. India too did not escape from the CIA’s radar and many political leaders were also accused of being CIA agents.

Pulitzer prize winning journalist Seymour Hersh in his book published in 1983 had alleged that former prime minister Morarji Desai was a CIA agent. Desai had filed a libel suit in the US court but lost the case on technicalities some years later.

Independent, an English newspaper published from Mumbai and edited by Vinod Mehta, had to tender an apology in 1988 when the newspaper hinted at former Deputy Prime Minister and first chief minister of Maharashtra Y.B. Chavan as being a CIA agent. The row created after the publication of the news cost Mehta his job and his newspaper its existence.

To this date I remember `The Independent’s eight column page one story of Chavan being a CIA agent very clearly because this newspaper in a way had shaped my own destiny.

During those days, I was a reporter at Lokmat Times in 1988. My colleague Mustafa Alam had applied to `The Independent’ for its Aurangabad correspondent’s post and also for a reporter’s post in Pune edition of Indian Express. Mustafa was appointed as Aurangabad correspondent of Independent and soon he received an offer for a reporter’s post in Pune Indian Express as well. Mustafa however opted to be Independent correspondent in Aurangabad.

He, and Indian Express Special Correspondent in Aurangabad Arif Shaikh then coaxed me to apply for the reporter’s post at the Indian Express in Pune. Unwillingly, I gave my bio-data to Arif Shaikh who immediately sent it on teleprinter to Pune Resident Editor Prakash Kardaley. Prompt came a reply, asking me to immediately visit Indian Express office in Pune. Kardaley gave me the reporter’s job in Pune and at least for me, the rest, as they say, is history. This brought me to Pune, to national newspapers and turned Pune as my home for the next 40 years to this date.

In 1990, two Haryana police constables were arrested by Delhi police for spying on the residence of former prime minister and Congress president Rajiv Gandhi. As a result, the Congress withdrew its support to Prime Minister Chandrasekhar, and his government collapsed.

Richard Nixon employed government machinery to monitor opposition leaders when he sought second term during the 1972 US election. After this Watergate Scandal, Nixon was impeached and was forced to resign.

The political rulers with the help of the entire government machinery at their disposal monitor the movements of leaders of their own party leaders as well as those of the opposition. Espionage on ruling party leaders, legislators or the opposition parties leaders and those critical of the government administration is not at all new.

Political rulers attempt to retain their power and position using the government intelligence systems. Both the ruling and opposition parties are aware of this. Leaders in opposition parties too do the same when they gain power.

Knowing this reality, all politicians and other people under the likely radar of the intelligence agencies follow necessary precautions to minimise their surveillance. With the highly advanced technology, however, this now seems very difficult.

(The author is a senior journalist)Camil Parkhe