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Treat it as a tip-off

Is it any surprise that Congress ministers have dismissed the WikiLeaks papers as “speculative and unverifiable communication” that should not be “dignified”? Ashok Malik writes.

india Updated: Sep 10, 2011 19:44 IST
Ashok Malik

Is it any surprise that Congress ministers have dismissed the WikiLeaks papers as “speculative and unverifiable communication” that should not be “dignified”? This was the political mind-set that in 2005 actually argued the Mitrokhin Archive was not a repository of KGB papers but ‘fiction’.

Somnath Chatterjee, then Speaker of the Lok Sabha, agreed with the Congress claim that the book was ‘fiction’ and stonewalled a discussion in Parliament. When it came to the ‘cash for votes’ affair, he did his best to obfuscate matters.

As such, when Chatterjee appears on television today, all injured innocence, it is difficult to sympathise with him. He has been part of serial cover-up operations.

To be fair, Chatterjee is only incidental to the story. The real issue is: how should a mature democracy use the WikiLeaks exposé? In the normal course, these diplomatic cables should not have come into the public domain. Yet the fact is they have. The information they offer comes in a context. There have been other, independent allegations of bribery before the July 2008 vote of confidence. The inquiry into those allegations has been suggestive but inconclusive. As such, wouldn’t it be in order that the account of events as reported in the WikiLeaks cables also be considered?

It is nobody’s case American diplomats (or even staff members of the US embassy who may be Indian citizens) be asked to give evidence or describe what they saw. Diplomatic immunity and the right to privacy any sovereign government and its mission have will prevent any of that. What comes in the way, however, of a questioning of the other individuals mentioned in the cables? If a police case cannot be built on the basis on ‘unverified leaks’, how about interrogation by a special parliamentary committee?

Mechanisms can be found if there is will. Unfortunately, that will is entirely absent. The Mitrokhin precedent is particularly telling. As is well known, the Mitrokhin papers are the largest repository of KGB documents ever removed from the Soviet Union/Russia. In 1992, Vasili Mitrokhin, a senior archivist at the KGB who had copied and pilfered thousands of top secret files over the years, defected to Britain with his treasure.

The Mitrokhin Archive is in the custody of MI6, the British external intelligence agency. A small, extremely sanitised portion of the KGB papers was published after vetting by London’s intelligence and political establishment as the Mitrokhin Archive I (1999) and the Mitrokhin Archive II (2005).

The second book devoted two chapters to India, which it called “the third world country on which the KGB eventually concentrated most operational effort during the Cold War”. It told some truly bizarre stories, including of suitcases of money being transferred through car windows on a busy New Delhi street.

The KGB, Mitrokhin Archive II alleged, routinely bribed Left and Congress politicians. It bought secrets and paid retainers. The KGB funded election campaigns of chosen candidates and parties and operated through a network of recruits in the intelligentsia, the media and the civil services, in addition to political proxies. The Mitrokhin books were careful not to use too many proper nouns, largely restricting themselves to naming people who were dead, or referring to KGB code names and broad descriptions of individuals and institutions. However, the chapters on India offer tantalising clues and often mention some names in other contexts, as if pointing the reader in the right direction.

What was published was a teaser trailer, all that was allowed to be shared with lay readers. MI6 and the British Foreign Office have made it clear that friendly countries and intelligence agencies are free to request access to the Mitrokhin papers, at least to sections and dossiers that concern them.

The foreword to Mitrokhin Archive II says: “A report by the all-party British Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) reveals that a series of other Western intelligence agencies have also proved ‘extremely grateful’ for the numerous CI [counterintelligence] leads provided by Mitrokhin’s material.” Aside from Britain, the US, Germany and Italy are among the countries that have used the KGB papers to uncover spies. Why not India?

Admittedly, not every criminal incident can leave behind enough evidence to ensure a conviction. However, the truth can still be reached and the guilty shamed.

Take cricket’s match-fixing scandal. In 2000, it became clear some Indian cricketers had taken money from corrupt bookmakers to tailor their performances. There was a money trail; there were details of meetings and phone transcripts. However, technically the cricketers had broken no law. Also it was impossible to prove that, for example, a batsman had got out first ball because he had received money and not because he had been genuinely beaten by the bowler.

How did cricket authorities react? They appointed a former Central Bureau of Investigation joint director, K Madhavan, as a one-man inquiry committee. He interviewed and posed hard questions in one-to-one meetings with each of the cricketers mentioned in the police investigations and media reports. His professional rigour ferreted out hitherto unknown details and caused at least a few cricketers to break down and confess. Nobody went to prison, but the cricketers were blackballed. Will any politician ever be?

Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based political commentator n The views expressed by the author are personal.