A 29-year old prisoner of conscience, almost rendered stateless, waits at a Moscow airport. He is the subject of an extensive manhunt and his future is uncertain. His crime: holding power to account
“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centres of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
These lines are from a historic speech delivered by Robert F. Kennedy at the University of Cape Town, on June 6 1966. He was invited there by the National Union of South African Students, an anti-apartheid organisation.
In the last 35 days, we have seen, observed, marveled at and criticised acts of courage of one such man. One who stood up for freedom, right to privacy and transparency, essential fundamental rights that any democratic nation-state would have in its Constitution, not to mention the Sole Superpower.
However, instead of reflecting on the intelligence apparatus the State has ended up creating – one that jeopardises, rather than saves, the rights of a citizen – the superpower has chosen to demonise him for showing the State a mirror. In its ruthless pursuit to vilify the individual, the U.S. of A has co-opted its partners so that the conscience-keeper becomes a traitor in the international community’s eyes.
Edward Joseph Snowden, to call the man by his true name, is the person in news. However, the above-mentioned narrative – after accounting for some minor changes – could as well apply to other whistleblowers, journalists and conscience-keepers the U.S. has targeted in the past. And this is a country which prides calling itself ‘Land of the Free’, ‘Home of the Brave’, where freedom of expression is reported to be at its zenith. A country where fundamental rights are not just cherished, they are idolised and celebrated.
Now the tussle between constitutional idealism and political realism is an ongoing one. Invariably, realism proves to be more malleable and manipulable in the quest of its practitioners to achieve power and perquisites that come with it. National Security Agency (NSA) can be considered one such practitioner, creating a need for surveillance in the name of that abstract principle strategic analysts like to call national interest.
Compared to these realists, well-meaning idealists have to tread a thorny, lonely path, one whose destination is unknown. They have to walk through the dark tunnel without knowing if they would ever get to see light again.
However, it cannot be denied that their acts, their deeds, their writings, their overall contribution help humanity as a whole irrespective of the country they belong to.
Empathy for the heretic
Edward Snowden, sitting in an airport, looking for a country which could provide him ‘shelter from the storm’, is one such idealist.
While he wades through the storm, which in many analysts’ eyes is self-inflicted, one question that arises in an interested individual’s mind is “Would an offer for asylum depend on the benevolence of a nation or would it be Snowden’s right?”
The answer is: for heretics (intended as a term of endearment here) like him, the fundamental right to life applies with an added caveat, the right to seek asylum while facing undue persecution.
Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution,” with a caveat: “This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.”
Why did things come to such a pass? Snowden, having had access to the best security apparatus on earth, could have carried on with his surveillance operations, making a fortune out of his high-skilled work. At 29, he had much more to look forward to than the cramped transit zone of an airport.
However, he chose to stand up, alone. And he stood up for a cause, one clearly in public interest, certain to trigger debate in both the country that swears by its First and Fourth Amendments and in other countries which have any concern for free speech and transparency.
Even after choosing to blow the whistle on NSA’s PRISM-like programmes, with all their monstrous appetite for meta-data, he could have opted for anonymity, waiting for the most opportune moment to declassify his identity. And when the moment came, he could have written a book and made a fortune out of that.
Appeal of conscience
Then what made him, as the phrase goes, follow the dictates of his conscience? Why did he spend those unearthly hours sorting, sifting through information before making the most relevant one public? Knowing fully well he was alone, in contrast to, say, Julian Assange – who had a team to start with – was he acting naïve? Or, perhaps, hasty? Or, as the realists would argue, foolish?
These questions took my memory to final quarter of 2012, when I was doing some research for an article on Manjunath, a biopic on the life of another whistleblower, Shanmugam Manjunath, who was killed while trying to bring to book an oil adulteration racket. The film’s director as well as Manjunath’s family members were of the opinion that their hero was one such lodestar, one such heretic, who could have only acted the way he did. The director approached Manjunath’s mother with some scepticism as to whether Manjunath was acting naïve. Manjunath’s mother told him, in no uncertain terms:
“Please tell the world that my son was not stupid or naïve to do this. He was a brave boy who died doing the right thing – what we taught him.”
It was inspiring to see The Hindu taking Manjunath’s name in the same breath as Edward Snowden’s in its editorial, which also named Satyendra Dubey, Bradley Manning and Daniel Ellsberg.
Like Manjunath, Snowden chose to follow what he thought would be the right path. And having taken it, he did not seek asylum in the comfort of anonymity; rather, he chose to become a prisoner of conscience. Before making his identity public, he realised that he would not get a fair trial in his country – he must have observed how the ‘Home of the Brave’ chose to treat its Bravehearts in the past.
In the interview he gave to The Guardian’s investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald, he told that there were possibilities of him being perceived as an enemy of the nation, which he was clearly not. Subverting the power of government in secrecy would have been no different from what the government was doing -- subverting the power of the citizens, trying to exploit their good faith to its own sinister ends. Snowden was not doing anything against the ideals of the nation and hence did not want to give the government an opportunity to malign him.
He also made it clear that had he chosen, he could have leaked all the information to some other government – acting as a mole rather than as a whistleblower. He was honest, well-intentioned in his pursuits, hence chose to make an informed expose..
The interview was given in Hong Kong, part of China though having more freedoms compared to the Chinese mainland. It looked ironical, considering that Chinese dissidents have sought asylum in the U.S. in the past, one prominent name being Chen Guangcheng. Even Wang Lijun, police chief and ex-protégé of disgraced Chinese leader Bo Xilai, chose to seek protection in the U.S. embassy before acting as a witness against his boss. So an American whistleblower choosing to reveal his identity sitting in what could be considered Chinese soil – the wheel had come full circle!
Once he left Hongkong, Snowden would have expected to be embraced by some independent nation-state with idealism as a component in its foreign policy. This made him apply to 21 countries. However, the responses from many, including India proved that there is no scope for his kind of idealism in the 21st century.
Apart from Latin American countries – which were treated as a backyard by the Big Bully for decades before being able to formulate an independent foreign policy – few others have shown the gumption to stand up to the blatant invasion of privacy carried out by the NSA. This, even though, many of them have been at the receiving end of such bugging.
Allies, thou shalt not displease the Big Brother
India has been no exception. Gone are the days when we had aspirations of pursuing a foreign policy which would contribute to the well being of all. The lofty principles of Non Alignment and Panchsheel died with the death of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, about 50 years ago. Gone are the days when we willingly embraced the Dalai Lama and were bold enough to announce it in Parliament. His presence in our country would later go on to earn us the goodwill of millions of Tibetans around the world.
Contrast the way Pandit Nehru handled pointed questions from journalists after Dalai Lama was given asylum with the curt and pussyfooted response from our current External Affairs Ministry while handling the Snowden-asylum episode.
In aligning with the U.S. and rejecting Snowden’s asylum petition instantly, India has lost an opportunity to display it spirit of atithi devo bhava (‘Guest is equivalent to the Divine’), which we otherwise declaim while promoting our tourism industry under "Incredible India". As Shashi Tharoor stated when New Delhi warmed up to the generals in Myanmar, we may have scored high in realpolitik but we have "lost a little bit of our soul".
The national-interest lobby in the U.S., always looking for cannon fodder to build on the principles of U.S. exceptionalism, always turns a blind eye to the fact that the superpower has time and again sheltered dissidents and criminals, many convicted for serious offences. This includes the accused in the Cuban Airliner bombing that took place on October 6 1976: Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada Carriles.
This apart, its propping up of nabobs and caudillos in countries where it perceives its strategic interests to lie, most importantly those in the West Asian and North African regions, is too obvious to need elaboration.
Do they make it any more exceptional? Or do they make its acts execrable?
Article 4 of the U.N. Declaration, when read with article 3, assures life, liberty and security for all. This indicates that Snowden is not just deserving of protection, he is also entitled to it, too. He has forced us to engage in debate regarding how to define secrecy and privacy in an information age.
And debate there needs to be, including in the U.S. Congress, on the need for facilities like those of NSA, having the ability to subsume the political entity called State under a creature called Big Surveillance. Sooner or later, this has the potential to metamorphose into a Frankenstein monster, capable of mass destruction.
For these and many other reasons, Snowden needs protection. He is an auto didact; he blongs to the rare breed of highly-skilled conscientous objectors, Whichever country brings him out of his ‘Terminal’ predicament would be in a better position to assert its moral authority in the international arena on the ground of “show of compassion”; this, compared to than “show of strength”, on which the Big Bully has the monopoly. Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia have offered him asylum. It needs to be seen if Caracas, Managua or Sucre are able to take the offer to its logical conclusion.
Among the countries to which Snowden applied, 13 have already rejected his request, most of which otherwise take pride in their democratic credentials.
Grit amidst adversity
An appreciative father echoed Robert Kennedy’s words when he stated: “The history of civilization is a history of brave men and women refusing to bow to government wrongdoing or injustice, and exalting knowledge, virtue, wisdom, and selflessness over creature comforts as the North Star of life. We believe your actions fall within that honorable tradition, a conviction we believe is shared by many.”
Clearly the EU governments that rejected Snowden’s application are not among those ‘many’. Despite German Chancellor Angela Merkel having rejected Snowden’s asylum request, ex-German Environment MInisterJurgen Trittin said:
“Above all, the messenger for all this should not be blamed. Snowden blew the whistle on activities that threaten the very freedom our democracies are built on. If ever a case demonstrated why we need the protection of whistleblowers, this is it.”
He could not have been clearer. A universal legislation to protect whistleblowers is urgently needed. However, as pointed out by Snowden in the interview to Greenweld, there are some even more urgent questions we need to ask ourselves to avoid compromising on the fundamental rights of future generations.
They include, “Do we wish to pass on a Surveillance State rather than a Knowledge State?” “One where future generations have to practise self-censorship, wittingly or unwittingly?” “Where the supposed champions of transparency in positions of power come across as guardians of secrecy? Where a deafening silence replaces the messy Babel arising out of noisy communication?”
Edward Snowden was perhaps contemplating the possibility of such a future sitting in his NSA cubicle. Perhaps in an Orwellian dystopia such a Surveillance State would create, whistleblowers like him would be forced to carry an effigy of Guy Fawkes with the message, “Human mind is anything but free... Long live the chains!”
Keywords: Snowden; asylum; Nehru; Dalai Lama