“It is not actually snooping,” was External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid’s response in July when the Guardian, based on Edward Snowden’s leak of U.S. National Security Agency documents, reported how the Indian Embassy in Washington D.C. had been spied on by the United States. Then, the Indian government mouthed the U.S. position that monitoring “patterns of communication” through the Internet did not amount to espionage. In the past few days, The Hindu has revealed how the NSA systematically tapped conversations between Indian government officials and elected representatives, whether it be through phone calls, e-mail, texts, chat or Skype videos. The Snowden files also reveal Indian embassies in Washington and New York were bugged, facilitating the NSA’s easy access to confidential and classified information on India’s military secrets, negotiating positions, and overseas commercial ventures. As many as four different electronic devices were used to eavesdrop on our diplomatic outposts in the U.S., some of which could copy entire hard drives from computers. Our revelations cut through the express assurance offered by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that raw data — such as individual e-mails or telephone conversations — is not monitored.
During the long journey from New Delhi to Washington, presumably his last as the chief executive of this government, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would have had ample opportunity to mull over India’s ties with the U.S. There is no denying the fact that the “natural alliance” has run into choppy waters. The main reason for this is that the U.S. believes it has the right to collect economic and strategic rent from India in return for the lifting it did on the nuclear deal between 2005 and 2008. In the face of relentless American demands, the Indian government has yielded ground across a wide range of issues, from civil nuclear energy, the Montreal Protocol, and greater intellectual property protection, to defence purchases, NATO’s intervention in Libya, and sanctions on Iran. In return, Washington has only intensified its effort to spy on India, suggesting this relationship is a one-way street. In his meeting with Barack Obama, and then in his speech at the U.N., the Prime Minister will have an opportunity to air publicly, for the first time, India’s protest against the NSA’s outrageous surveillance programmes. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has led the way, calling U.S. actions a “breach of international law.” If there was ever a talking line on NSA snooping that the government could parrot, it is Brazil’s: that the U.S. cannot carry on with its illegal activities and pretend everything is normal by simply endorsing India as its strategic partner.