As the head of Rediff.com, which also offers a very popular email service, Ajit Balakrishnan’s company often has to deal with jealous spouses wanting access to their partner’s email accounts, organisations wanting to read an employee’s mail-and police requests. In this column for the Business Standard, he explains why the Indian government gets away with asking to read your mail:

We were quite content to play this routine out—the police inspector sending us a list of names and email IDs to track, us politely asking for the Home Secretary’s authorisation, which would come a few weeks later with some names dropped from the original list. Till, one day, on the list of names the government wanted watched was the name of a nationally known social activist and writer….

(Babu’s note: This should be pretty easy to guess, people.)

Balakrishnan and his colleagues at Rediff consulted a retired judge for advice and were told:

“You see, the law that governs this kind of case, the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, was enacted with the shadow of the 1857 ‘mutiny’ still over the Raj government, and is really an instrument to control such events rather than to govern the evolution of an industry. There is nothing you can do but comply if the request comes with the proper authorisation.”
As we left his chambers, the issues started to become clearer in my mind. For the hundred years from 1885, the year that the British Raj introduced the telegraph system in India, it was seen primarily as an instrument for keeping colonial control. And I guess from Independence till the mid 1990s, the post-colonial government continued this perspective and added to this the function of spying on political opponents. All that a politician or a bureaucrat had to do was call up the posts and telegraphs department and tapping would commence unhindered, with no one to raise legal or civil rights issues.

Read the column to see how Rediff handled this specific situation, but Balakrishnan’s experience explains a great deal about censorship in India. It may not be prevalent, or even the norm, but the government–and to a great extent, the average Indian citizen–assumes that the rights of the state will always outweigh the citizen’s right to privacy.