Manish Tewari, a spokesperson of the Congress party
Sweta Ranjan | February 12, 2013
The supreme court on Monday sought the centre's response on a PIL demanding a regulatory mechanism and accountability for IB, RAW and NTRO. In this respect, we reproduce an interview with Manish Tewari, who in 2011 introduced a private member's bill with similar aims. This interview was conducted in June 2011.
Manish Tewari, the MP from Ludhiana and a Congress spokesperson, recently made a unique move. In his capacity as MP, he prepared a private member’s bill to regulate the functioning of the intelligence agencies. If passed, it would lift the veil of secrecy behind which these agencies operate, allowing a parliamentary scrutiny of their working. Tewari spoke with Sweta Ranjan about the genesis of the bill and answered criticism of it. Edited excerpts of the interview:
You, as a private member, have moved the Intelligence Services and Power and Regulation Bill. What does it seek to achieve?
I had asked a series of questions in parliament over the last couple of sessions about the legal basis or the legal architecture that underpins our intelligence services. I received a variety of answers, some of them essentially pointing out that there was legislative competence to create or enact a bill to (regulate) our intelligence services. Others said there was no legal basis, but there were certain charters which the government had laid down. Along with that there was a considerable amount of discussion for a while in the strategic community that there is a need (for legal basis). So we collected a bunch of people who are professionals and have worked in these organisations, some strategic experts, some who have working knowledge of the entire geostrategic space in which India operates. We worked on it for two years. In the Observer Research Foundation there was a parallel and a concurrent effort being made and at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) also because they were doing a report on reforming the intelligence services. So as a result of all these initiatives, a bill was prepared which I was supposed to move in parliament. It was circulated but as parliament was adjourned I could not present it.
A private member’s bill is rarely passed in parliament. How do you plan to take the bill to the logical end?
Why do you really bring a legislative enactment called a private member’s bill within the domain of parliament? The reason is that there can be an informed discussion on the subject. Ultimately, what happens is that in various instances the government itself gives an undertaking on the floor of the house that it would consider the bill as it is, consult within the government and then come up with its own enactment – a government bill. We will have to wait and see how this initiative expands. But, the important thing is, it is an idea whose time has come.
What precisely does the bill aim to achieve?
The aims are multifold. The first objective is to set these organisations on a proper legal basis because any organisation which has the capacity to deal with the issues of life and liberty (of citizens) should do so within the parameters of the constitution. The second aspect is that these organisations need to have a very clearly defined mandate as to what is and what is not expected of them. Thirdly, there is a semblance of oversight which is very essential. Just because intelligence operations require secrecy it does not mean that intelligence per say should become a taboo.
The bill says that the director of the intelligence bureau (IB) or the secretary of the research and analysis wing (R&AW) or the chairman of the national technical research organisation (NTRO) cannot be pressed to disclose some information that the prime minister says should not be disclosed or the information is sensitive according to the agency head. Don’t you think this contradicts the aim of the bill?
The fear expressed by people who have headed or worked in these organisations is that if you have an oversight mechanism, it may start asking questions which may jeopardise their operational efficiency. So a need was felt for a stipulation to preserve their operational sanctity. By putting this firewall it allows the prime minister to exercise his discretion about what would or may jeopardise the operation aspects of an agency’s functioning.
Critics say even relevant and non-sensitive information too can be kept secret by terming it sensitive.
That is why we proposed an oversight committee at the level of the senior most functionaries in the government and in the legislative structure. The oversight committee consists of the vice president of India, the speaker of the house of people (Lok Sabha), the prime minister, the home minister and the leaders of opposition of both houses. While exercising an oversight function they would be very careful that they do not question anything which undermines objectives of such organisations.
Don’t you feel that if this bill is passed many skeletons would come out of the cupboard?
The intention is not to embarrass or not to disempower the intelligence structure. It is an attempt to empower it further by giving it a clearly defined legislative mandate because all those people who were involved in the drafting of the bill were acutely aware of the geopolitical environment. But at the same time we need to graduate from that Victorian syndrome… Unfortunately, there was a British convention which we inherited that in the field of intelligence even parliament musts completely cede its discretion to the executive. That covenant may have been true in the early part of the 20th century. But even those countries which coined these covenants have given them a decent burial as times have changed.
Why this bill was not presented by the government?
Well, on a large number of issues there is a sort of bureaucratic inertia because – and this has nothing to do with political party A or political party B – government by its very nature tends to be insulated in its character. So whenever you try and do something which cracks the opaque skull of governance you do run into these problems. I think it was Justice Frankfurter who said that the sunlight is the best antiseptic. The more light that you allow to come in, the more transparent would be the organs of the state.
Does you party support your move?
Let me make it very clear that this is an initiative which I have taken in my capacity as a member of parliament. I don’t want this to be confused with my role as the spokesperson of the party. They are on two different footings altogether.
Have you talked to the home ministry about this? What was the response?
I have explained (to the ministry) the entire process as to what went into the formulation of this bill. I have used my prerogative and privilege as a member of parliament. The response of the government would be known as and when the government decides to reply to the bill when it comes up for discussion.
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