In his inaugural address as the 35th President of the United States America on January 20, 1961, John F Kennedy spoke these famous words, “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”. This was the call by a charismatic leader for public action. Kennedy appealed to Americans to think beyond themselves for a larger cause. In India too, we remember the appeal of Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri who appealed to fellow Indians, to give up one meal a week, considering national shortages and food inflation. In response to that appeal, thousands, or millions of Indians indeed spontaneously responded, and to this day there are people who observe a weekly fast, in remembrance of that noble appeal. President A P J Abdul Kalam too launched an anti-corruption movement especially for the youth, called “what can I give” campaign. This too was an appeal to ethical values, and the spirit of giving, rather than taking. Prime Minister Narendra Modi too often exhorts people of India, to work collectively toward national development, in a spirit of self-sacrifice and volunteerism. One of his well known campaigns was an appeal to give up LPG subsidy, especially by those who can afford to pay full market prices. This was to enable the government to provide up to 80 million free cooking gas connections to households from the lower income strata, providing considerable health benefits and empowerment, especially to women. Rather than depend only on aggregate tax collections to pay for this social scheme, the PM asked his fellow Indians who could afford, to join the enterprise. In fact the scheme also had a feature, that the donor could see where the subsidy that he or she willingly gave up, had been directed. In that sense the appeal for donations for Covid relief to the PM Cares Fund too garnered significant amounts. That fund will now be used to pay for the vaccinations, as reported by the Union Health Minister. However, that fund is not subject to scrutiny under the right to information.
Of course the modern state cannot simply function based on appeals to the ethical and moral values of citizens. It must adequately provide finances that can fund various social sector programs that are aimed for the benefit of the vulnerable and the downtrodden. Philanthropy, charity, sacrifice and volunteerism can coexist, but cannot be at the cost of replacing or reducing the obligation of the State.
The State’s functions and obligations are even more critical in the areas of law and order. For instance, as the saying goes, “you cannot take the law into your own hands”. Nor can the State enlist private citizens to discharge functions that relate to enforcing law and order. This is a very dicey proposition. In Maharashtra there has been an experiment to enlist cleanliness marshals who are authorised to impose a fine on the spot for littering and spitting etc. At the other extreme is the case of Salwa Judum, a private militia deployed for anti-insurgency movement against Naxalites, with the blessing, backing and training by the State. The Supreme Court passed an order in 2011, essentially outlawing the outfit. From cleanliness marshals to private militia is a long road but that road is slippery.
It is in this context that one must view and express concern about a recent initiative of the Home Ministry. Its cybercrime cell has started a new program under which citizens can participate as volunteers to identify, flag and report to the government illegal and unlawful content including child pornography, rape, terrorism, radicalisation and anti-national activities. This is a pilot project which is being launched only in Jammu and Kashmir, and Tripura and then may be later extended to other States. This cyber volunteer project is a far cry from the spirit of volunteerism asked by Kennedy described in the paragraph above. This enlistment can potentially grant extraordinary destructive powers to these so-called cyber volunteers who can become a vigilante force. There seems to be no accountability for their actions and they can end up being secret police reporting and ratting on the people. Such enlistment takes the notion of a “surveillance state” into a dark territory. It is undoubtedly true that the social media has been excessively infected with hate speech, and speech which can incite violence, bigotry and cause disorder. But it is up to the State to set up mechanisms to regulate content on social media, and indeed this is the way things are evolving in many countries. Also it is up to the State to identify those responsible for criminal offenses on social media and cannot ask volunteers to do this job. Moreover curtailing hate speech is always a dicey proposition as it should not end up infringing on the fundamental right to free speech. Hence it cannot be left to private citizens who may have an incentive to wrongfully implicate others.
Another related development is a recent facility launched by the income tax department. This allows people to provide a tip-off about undisclosed foreign assets, benami properties, or tax evasion. There is now a link on the e-filing portal of the department and it also allows the informer to remain anonymous. A unique complaint number is generated. This too has shades of a surveillance state going down a slippery road. Is it not again a case of the State passing on its function of chasing tax- evaders to informers who may be motivated by malice?
Asking citizens to volunteer in the giant enterprise of national development by making individual sacrifices or through positive actions like donations is one thing. But asking volunteers to secretly or anonymously spy on fellow citizens, become de-facto vigilantes and help in law-enforcement without any accountability, is quite another. It will lead to greater distrust and fear. The very foundation of a robustly functioning democracy is a high degree of social capital and trust. Let us not jeopardise that.
(Dr.Ajit Ranade is an economist and Senior Fellow, Takshashila Institution) (Syndicate: The Billion Press)