Shhh…Big Brother is listening!

I do not know why there is so much fuss over telephone tapping. As a journalist, I came very early to the knowledge that there are certain sections of people whose phones are tapped as a matter of routine and that politicians and journalists are among the regulars.

I had a rather high-profile aunt (no more, God bless her soul) who was rather well-connected, both socially and politically, in Bombay. She took me in when I first came to the metropolis more than two decades ago and just as I was graduating from a rookie to a professional journalist, I was thrown into the thick of things simply because of my association with her.

I had met an American posted at the US consulate in Bombay at one of her famed parties. I had retired early that night, I recall, as I had an early morning flight the next day – I was leaving for the Naxal-infested forests of Andhra Pradesh on assignment.

“If I don’t see you in the morning, I will see you when you return. When are you back?” my aunt asked as I wished her and the others a good night.

I was startled when this American gentleman called me at her number the weekend after I got back (I didn’t have a phone to my name at the time and it was the era before mobile telephony). He was a bit flirtatious, quite confusing me because I had met him just once the evening of my aunt’s party, somewhat indulgent in his tone (I was rather young and gauche and that threw me further), telling me he had begun life as a stringer somewhere in the US, he had loved being a journalist, longed for those days again and so took the opportunity to interact with any and every journalist he came across.

“So how did it go in the jungles?” he asked, after a while.

I was reticent in my reply only because I was working for an agency then and sensitive to the fact that if I spoke about my stories before they were on the wires, I risked other reporters working for newspapers being tipped off about them and losing my exclusivity altogether.

So I did not say much and I could sense he was a little disappointed. But he was too clever to let it show. I recall Durga Pooja was approaching then and he told me he had had an invitation from my aunt to attend some of the celebrations at her pandal. “I will come for you and we shall go together. All right?” he said.

I croaked out an awkward ‘ok’ — I just could not understand why he should be so interested in chatting me up and was thrown by the fact that he wanted to take me out to boot!

I knew why a short while later. My aunt, being well-connected, was on the radar of the intelligence agencies, too. And one of these officers, who was her friend, casually walked into her home a few days later, without any rhyme or reason.

After some idle chit-chat, he said, “So are you serious about going out with that American?”

I almost dropped my teacup in shock. “How did you know?” I asked.

“You were lucky that I was listening to that conversation,” he said. “I am breaking protocol here but let me tell you, he’s not interested in you for you. He is interested only in how much he can get out of you as a reporter, your proximity to the high-fliers and any sensitive information you might let drop. He’s one of their lower-level intelligence officers posted at the Consulate and we are watching him closely. Be careful or else you will be getting a dossier on yourself.”

My aunt was outraged that her phones were being tapped but this officer said, “Actually, we were tapping him, not you. That’s how we picked up this conversation. Your kind of activities do attract our attention but you are not on our hot list,” he told my aunt.

Of course, I never went to the pooja with that American and I turned down all his later invitations to dinners and events. But this intelligence officer, my aunt’s friend, now retired, ended up as my friend, too and let me in on a lot of the modus operandi of foreign and Indian spies and how intelligence officers world-over get information out for their governments without the sources even having a clue. He claimed he had got Ram Jethmalani’s ten questions daily for Rajiv Gandhi in the mid-Eighties long before they were published by the Indian Express – apparently he just inveigled himself into Jethmalani’s good books through an elaborate charade and charmed the list out of this formidable lawyer. Even today I do not know whether to believe that story or if it was simply a boast — I continue to take those claims with a healthy dose of salt.

But this intelligence officer is responsible for a lot of the caution that I bring to my dealings with others and it almost became my second nature to part with as little information as possible to strangers and sometimes even friends. It took years and a very good friend to break that bubble of suspicion that I had lived in ever since that American spy caught me in his radar.

But its not just me. Politicians, police officers and fellow journalists in Bombay I have been close friends with have always prefaced their telephone conversations with, “Someone might be listening. So lets say as little on the phone as possible,” whenever I have had to seek sensitive details from them. We have chosen to meet and talk rather than talk on the phone.

And since the advent of mobile phones, we choose to call each other from our landlines on our landlines because we all know that cell phones are easier targets than the landlines which require more elaborate systemic procedures if they have to be tapped.

The need to be cautious on the phone was also reinforced to me while I was working on a match-fixing story during the Hansie Cronje scandal in the late Nineties. A top cop I went to for information showed me several transcripts and, when I expressed my shock that the authorities had been tapping the phones of so many cricketers, he said, “We were not tapping cricketers. We had no reason to. We were tapping the goons. Cricketers came onto our radar only when they called or were called by the goons. After that they were easy to follow…we had to follow.”

Since then, presuming any one would be interested in my conversations in the first place, I have made sure that at least I am very difficult to follow. If anyone is listening in to my phones, all that they will get is juicy details of my occasional fights with my sisters. And some colourful, quite un-ladylike, names we call each other from time to time!

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