On the evening of June 18 2021 The Wire reported that phone numbers of over 40 Indian journalists were on the hacking list of an unidentified agency using Israeli spyware Pegasus, sold by the NSO group which later claimed it sells the spyware only to ‘vetted governments’.
The journalists who were snooped were those working with Hindustan Times, The Hindu, The Wire, The Indian Express, News 18, and India Today.
The above report was published by The Wire in collaboration with 16 other international publications including Washington Post, Guardian, and Le Monde, as media partners to an investigation conducted by Paris-based media non-profit organization Forbidden Stories and rights group Amnesty International. The Wire’s analysis of the data showed that most of the journalists were targeted between 2018 and 2019, in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
Within a few minutes of the Wire publishing the report, the central government set about doing what it has mastered over years of governing India. It went on a denial mode. It contended that ‘the publication has no concrete basis’. ‘India is a robust democracy that is committed to ensuring right to privacy to all its citizens as a fundamental right’, the government insisted. ‘There has been no unauthorized interception by government agencies. Allegations regarding government surveillance on specific people has no concrete basis or truth associated with it whatsoever’, the government denial narrative went on. And on.
However, the government turned pale as the list of people surveiled using Pegasus grew like the queue observed before Beverages outlets in the Tripler Indian state of Kerala!
It was revealed that mobile phones of more than 300 Indians, including two Union Ministers, three opposition leaders, and scores of business persons and activists had been snooped by Pegasus. The explosive revelation included former Congress President Rahul Gandhi, election strategist, Prashant Kishor, Mamata Banerjee’s nephew Abhishek Banerjee, IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, Minister of State for Jal Shakthi Prahlad Singh Patel, personal Secretary to Vasundhare Raje Scindia, Officer on Special Duty for Smriti Irani, VHP leader Pravin Tagodia, phone numbers belonging to the Supreme Court staffer who accused former Chief justice of India Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment in April 2019 and many others were among the 300 verified Indian numbers listed as potential targets for surveillance during 2017-2019 by a client of the Israel-based NSO group, reported The Wire.
Amid reports of possible hacking of phones of over 300 Indians through Pegasus spyware, the Israel-based NSO group said allegations on it are false and misleading. ‘The report by Forbidden Stories is full of wrong assumptions and uncorroborated theories that raise serious doubts on the reliability and interests of the sources. It seems the unidentified sources have supplied information that lacks factual basis, are far from reality’, read the report by the NSO group. ‘In fact these allegations are so outrageous and far from reality that the company is considering a defamation lawsuit’, ranted NSO.
Meanwhile, back in India, the government stepped on its denial pedal even harder. Even as his name figured in the list, IT and Communications Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw dismissed media reports on the use of Pegasus software to snoop on Indians, saying the allegations leveled ahead of Monsoon session of Parliament are intended to malign Indian democracy’. ‘with several checks and balances in place, any sort of illegal surveillance by unauthorized persons is not possible in India’, the minister insisted.
The BJP on the back foot went into damage control too. It hit back at the Congress in opposition over its attack on the Pegasus issue. The party claimed that there wasn’t a shred of evidence to link neither it nor the Modi dispensation with the matter.
‘It’s a new low for a party that ruled India for more than 50 years’, cried former minister Ravi Shankar Prasad about the Congress at a news conference.
Home minister Amit Shah pained by the Congress’ demand for resignation of Prime Minister Modi for snooping on his citizens, called the Congress ‘rudderless’, as he is habit to. He, in his characteristic style reiterated his pet jargon ‘the Modi government’s priority is clear-National Welfare- and that it will continue working to achieve that, no matter what’!
Just as the cat and mouse game over Pegasus progressed in full steam in India, more skeletons fell out of the Pegasus cupboard.
Reports surfaced that the military-grade Pegasus spyware from Israeli group NSO Group has been used by governments around the world to snoop on around 50,000 people in 50 countries. An Amnesty International probe revealed that Pegasus compromised phones and routed data through commercial services like AWS and Amazon CloudFront.
The Pegasus Project, a purported expose by 17 news organizations showed that at least 10 governments were NSO customers. Reportedly, these countries are: Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Hungary, India, and the UAE. cellphones of the heads of state of France, Pakistan, South Africa, Iraq and Morocco wee also found to be snooped.
Investigation by 17 media organizations suggests widespread and continuing abuse of Pegasus, which NSO insists is only intended for use against criminals and terrorists.
As the Pegasus rumbles rolled over the rest of the world, India was in for more shocks over the spyware misuse.
The Wire reported that in the run-up to the toppling of the Congress-JDS government orchestrated by the BJP in July 2019, phone numbers of then Deputy Chief Minister G. Parameswara and personal secretaries of the then Chief Minister H.D. Kumaraswamy and former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah were selected as targets for snooping. It was around that time that 17 legislators belonging to the ruling Congress-JDS Alliance abruptly resigned in Karnataka to force a trust vote, which was won by the BJP, through one of the most glaring horse-tradings in modern times. More targets closer home included prominent political personalities from Assam, journalists, businessmen and politicians.
as more targets of Pegasus in India emerged, the BJP persisted with its charges of Pegasus story being ‘concocted’, ‘evidence-less’ and ‘fabricated’.
This when rightwing zealots with the blessings of the Modi dispensation in the centre were already peeping through the windowsills of kitchens of Indian homes to spy on what’s being cooked. Especially beef! As if it wasn’t enough for the BJP-led ‘Hindutvs’ to have indulged in bad manners playing peeping Toms, came the charges of the party and the government it leads indulge in bad manners of eavesdropping into personal phones of its own citizens, most shamelessly and audaciously. Disrespectful for privacy of its the targets!
The BJP-led NDA dispensation governing India with the blessings of its sister concerns and connivance of central agencies had stooped to a new low. It resembled a shrew that badly needed to be tamed of numerous bad manners it had assimilated in the process of its skewed brand of governance.
The ‘taming of the shrew’ act once more was undertaken by the Indian Judiciary captained by the Supreme Court. The court chose to promptly take on that responsibility before it could rest after a similar exercise of rapping the BJP-led NDA and UP governments and over the violence at Lakhimpur Kheri related to the ongoing farmers’ stir.
Ruling on a batch of 12 petitions seeking an independent probe into the Pegasus quagmire, the apex court ordered an independent probe into allegations of snooping using the Pegasus spyware by a three-member technical committee constituted by the Court, and overseen by Justice R.V. Raveendran a retired Supreme Court judge. The committee has been directed to submit its report expeditiously before its next hearing after eight weeks.
‘the state cannot get a free pass every time the spectre of “national security” is raised’ the court observed, serving yet another rap on the knuckles of a central government that was becoming more errant and wayward by the day.
India is indeed lucky to have at least one of the three pillars of its famed democracy- the judiciary function effectively to cleanse bad manners that had become the habit of the present government in power in New Delhi!