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SC’s ‘comprehensive order’ next week may well lead to blowing lid off conspiracy to deploy Pegasus in India

SC has taken note of Centre’s tactics in avoiding answering the simple question of whether any central agency hired Israeli company NSO Group for Pegasus software and if so, which one

Representative Image
Representative Image

Nitya Chakraborty

The Supreme Court’s observation on Wednesday that the two judge bench headed by the Chief Justice of India N V Ramanna will be issuing a ‘comprehensive order’ on the petitions challenging the use of the Israeli Pegasus spyware for snooping is of great significance and may well impact the political situation in the state assembly elections due in 2022.

The significance of the comment by the CJI lies in the fact that the bench has taken note of the tactics of the Centre, through Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, in avoiding answering the real issue which is at the core of the main petitions. The simple question is: Did any central agency hire the Israeli company NSO Group for this software and if so, which one.

Any national government has every right to hire a foreign organisation for security purposes, especially in relation to deal with terror and intelligence gathering. Modi Government is also entitled to do that, but in case of this Pegasus use, it was not for information gathering from anti-India outfits but from the country’s own politicians, activists and journalists.

The Defence Ministry has strongly denied any such deal. That may well be so, but what about the other agencies reporting to the Home Ministry or the NSA’s office? There has been no denial on this. In fact, the Home Minister is refusing to comment on the issue.

The Government has also ruled out the setting up of any joint parliamentary committee to probe the issue. The monsoon session of Parliament came to an abrupt end on the Pegasus issue and now the Supreme Court remains the only forum which can do justice in clearing the mystery over the use of the spyware.

The learned judges may note that India has expanded relations with Israel during the last seven years of the Narendra Modi regime and there have been many agreements with the Israeli Government headed by former Prime Minister Netanyahu who had friendly relations with Narendra Modi. Only few months ago, Israel got a new Prime Minister who may probably accede to a formal request to help investigate the role of the NSO Group in India.

It may be recalled that India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval visited Israel in March 2017 prior to Prime Minister Modi’s visit in July that year. He had comprehensive talks with Israeli authorities on Israeli assistance for strengthening the security system in India. The NSA has every right to do that in the country’s security interests as part of fighting potential terror threats to India. India is one of the biggest customers of weaponry and security devices from Israel and NSO Group is a leading security services equipment provider including high-grade software for surveillance.

The Pegasus spyware’s use is not just a case of violation of privacy, or illegal surveillance or snooping by security agencies. It is much more than that. Pegasus is a military grade spyware which takes surveillance and hacking to a new level altogether. If it was used by the central agencies on opposition leaders and human rights activists, apart from journalists, the approval for the same would have come from the highest political authorities. As such, the buck stops with the PMO and the Home Ministry.

The NSO Group itself has stated on its official website that the company “licenses its products only to government intelligence and law enforcement agencies for the sole purpose of preventing terror and serious crime”. It is also known that the licenses are given under the supervision of the Defense Export Control Agency of the Israeli Ministry of Defence. Such transactions are done only at the inter-governmental level, Just as Prime Minister Modi signed a deal on Rafale planes with the French President as a part of an inter-government agreement. So the obvious question here is: was such an inter-government agreement done during PM’s visit to Israel in July 2017?

The Mexican government has acknowledged that the Pegasus spyware was acquired in 2011 first by its defence ministry and later by its National Security Intelligence Service and other state security forces. But the Indian govt adamantly refuses to give a straight answer on such a critical issue.

More information has been coming from other countries about the role of the controversial Pegasus spyware in snooping on prominent individuals. All these details will be of much importance to the learned judges in arriving at their decision. Media reports said that the phone numbers of fifteen French ministers were picked by Morocco for probable infection by the Pegasus spyware, according to Radio France, one of the members of the Pegasus Project international consortium of media organisations.

Apart from French President Emmanuel Macron, the numbers of then Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, his wife, one of his assistants, his adviser Gilles Boyer; the Keeper of the Seals, the Interior Minister, the Minister of the Economy, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Minister of Education, the Agriculture Minister, the Minister of Budget, the Minister of Territorial Cohesion, the Minister of Relations with Parliament, the Minister of Overseas Territories, the Culture Minister, the Housing Minister, the Minister for Ecological Transition, and the Minister of Local Authorities were present in the alleged target list.

Both the French Government and the Mexican Government have initiated proper investigations. It is high time that in view of the refusal of the Indian Government to come clean on the issue, the Supreme Court moves on its own and sets up a SIT to be monitored by the court to probe the Pegasus issue. It is hoped that the SC’s ‘comprehensive order’ next week will help in demystifying the role of Pegasus spyware in India.

(IPA Service)

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