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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 32, New Delhi, July 24, 2021

India’s Political Institutions Suffering From Trust Deficit in wake of the Pegasus spy operation | Arun Arivastava

Friday 23 July 2021


by Arun Arivastava

July 22, 2021

Former American president Richard Nixon would have been feeling much happier lying in his grave that the Watergate scandal which finished his career and pushed him to political oblivion had lesser intensity and implication that the expose of the Pegasus of Israel’s NSO.

The Watergate scandal focused at Nixon’s re-election. It began with the police apprehending five burglars for a break-in at the DNC headquarters in Washington DC on June 17, 1972. Four of the five were former CIA operatives and the fifth was part of the organisation working for Nixon’s re-election. Later, it transpired that there were parallel efforts to spy on the headquarters of the Democratic nominee for the presidential elections that year. What was revealed was extensive wire-tapping by the Nixon administration and the establishment of a money-laundering operation to fund its favoured Senate candidates.

The Pegasus “snoop” is making Nixon’s Watergate look like an amateur operation as far as the modus operandi is concerned. The only big “IF” is whether India will succeed in holding responsible the person or persons involved in the operation as America did by forcing Richard Nixon to give up the presidency. Nixon had used the full weight of his office — the most powerful in the free world — to fight the evidence against him. The collective effort to hold Nixon accountable succeeded because the media, judiciary and the legislature did their job.

The Washington Post had investigated Watergate disgrace it is also probing Pegasus scandal. In case of Pegasus it is part of a collective of media houses across the globe probing the use of the Israeli spyware by various governments. In the Watergate scandal, Nixon and his aides were found guilty of extensive wiretapping that involved breaking into the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) headquarters in the Watergate Office Building, Washington DC, to bug th e premises, and the President himself recording all the telephone conversations in his office.

But Pegasus was a spy operation carried out on around 300 Indians, which included Supreme Court judge, ministers, intellectuals, journalists, social activists and top politicians to find out their approach and attitude towards Modi and his government and what they have been contemplating about the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. But there is one difference between the Watergate and Delhigate and it is while the American media, particularly the Washington Times took the lead in exposing the scandal, the Indian media has been maintaining a passive attitude and they are too eager to subscribe to the government feed that it was exposed to malign and humiliate India.

The list of the potential Indian targets of a snooping operation that deploys Israeli spyware accessible only to government agencies covers citizens in every sphere, suggests information revealed on Monday by a media collective that includes The Wire news portal and The Washington Post and The Guardian newspapers.

There is no denying the fact that the Pegasus operation is an attack on the democratic foundations of the country. Trinamool leader Derek O’Brien has enough substance in his allegation; “Narendra Modi and Amit Shah are now converting the Gujarat model of 2002 into the India model of 2021.”

According to the NSO Group, as reported by The Wire, the leaked database is “not a list of numbers targeted by governments using Pegasus” and that it had “good reason to believe” the leaked data “may be part of a larger list of numbers that might have been used by NSO Group customers for other purposes”. On Monday evening, Rahul Gandhi tweeted: “Uske dar par hansi aati hai, yeh Bharatiya Jasoos Party hai.” (I can only laugh at their fear…this is Bharatiya Jasoos Party.)

According to the Communist Party of India (Marxist), “It is clear that this government has engaged NSO for surveillance against its own citizens. The central government must come clean on what is its engagement with NSO, what are the terms and how much our public funds have been paid for this.”

The Guardian, the UK newspaper that was part of the media alliance, reported that an examination by Amnesty’s Security Lab “found evidence of intrusion by Pegasus in April — in the midst of the election campaign — indicating Kishor’s phone calls, emails and messages were being monitored throughout the final weeks of the bitter contest”. The timing of the purported hacking of Kishor’s phone — in the middle of the Bengal Assembly elections — raises disturbing questions, especially whether the foulest form of electoral malpractice was committed by those who wanted to dislodge Mamata Banerjee from power.

According to The Wire, Amnesty’s forensic analysis found traces of infection on Kishor’s phone on April 28, just a day before the last of the eight phases of polling in Bengal. It added that traces of Pegasus on Kishor’s phone were also detected on 14 days in June 2021 and 12 days in July 2021, including July 13, the day he met Congress leaders Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra in Delhi.

The Washington Post on Tuesday published an article on the report of a US-based data forensics firm that found that Nagpur lawyer Surendra Gadling’s computer had been hacked with the NetWire malware in 2016 via email and a total of 14 documents had been planted between December 4, 2016, and October 22, 2017. One of the documents — on Maoist funding — that had allegedly been planted on Gadling’s computer in 2017 was the same as the one planted on Wilson’s computer around the same time, it said.

Boston’s Arsenal Consulting, quoted by The Post, has been bringing out reports on the alleged plants. The report on human rights activist Wilson had been made public in February this year. Arsenal, a digital forensic consulting company, has been cited in court by the defence team of Wilson.

Gadling and Wilson are in jail since 2018 in the Bhima-Koregaon case. Sixteen rights activists, including Father Stan Swamy who passed away in judicial custody on Monday, have been jailed in connection with the investigation into alleged Maoist links to an Ambedkarite event on December 31, 2017, at Maharashtra’s Bhima-Koregaon that was followed by caste clashes the next day that claimed one life.

Arsenal’s third report says: “Arsenal’s analysis in this case has revealed that Surendra Gadling’s computer was compromised for just over 20 months by the same attacker identified in Reports I and II. The attacker responsible for compromising Mr Gadling’s computer had extensive resources (including time) and it is obvious that their primary goals were surveillance and incriminating document delivery.

Arsenal has effectively caught the attacker red handed, based on remnants of their activity left behind in file system transactions, application execution data, and otherwise. It is important to note that Arsenal has also recovered communications with the attacker’s command and control server from Mr Gadling’s computer.

Arsenal has connected the same attacker to a significant malware infrastructure which was deployed over the course of approximately four years to not only attack and compromise Mr Gadling’s computer for 20 months, but to attack his co-defendants in the Bhima-Koregaon case and defendants in other high-profile Indian cases as well.

In May, the National Investigation Agency had opposed Wilson’s plea to quash the case on the basis of Arsenal’s reports on a digital copy of electronic evidence seized from his home in Delhi.

In an affidavit to Bombay High Court, the NIA had said: “However, this report does not form part of the chargesheets which are filed by the NIA and the Pune police. It is a settled position of law that documents which are not part of the chargesheet cannot be relied upon by Mr Wilson and as such there is no question of looking into the report of Arsenal Consultancy and the entire petition deserves to be rejected.”

Revelations about the use of spying tools sold to governments by NSO Group has already sparked furious political rows across the world after evidence emerged to suggest the surveillance firm’s clients may have sought to target their political opponents. It is worth taking note that NSO claims its surveillance tools are sold to carefully vetted government clients who are only permitted to use them for legitimate investigations into crime and terrorism. In the backdrop of this explanation of NSO, Amit Shah as the home minister owes to the people of the country to clarify how the operation was carried out? Who is the person or the organisation?

In fact in 2019 itself the Modi government had admitted snooping via Pegasus in Parliament on November 28, 2019, contrary to Monday’s denial of spying by new information technology minister Ashwini Vaishnaw. On that day the then IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad had told the Rajya Sabha that the hacking of 121 telephones had been reported and a notice issued to NSO.

If the Modi government had really taken up the issue with the NSO, the latest cases of snooping of the phones of Abhishek Banerjee and Prashant Kishor, coinciding with holding of assembly election in Bengal, would not have taken place. It obviously implied that the operation are still being carried out under the watchful eyes of Modi and Amit Shah. Once the cat is out of bag, they are looking for a scapegoat. It is unfortunate that the current IT minister who has been a suspect in the eyes of these two leaders and whose phone was under surveillance, has been trying to defend them. The Wire reported that the phone number of IT minister Vaishnaw was among the potential targets between 2017 and 2019. Minister Prahlad Singh Patel’s name also figures in the list.

In fact former finance minister P. Chidambaram had contested Vaishnaw’s claim, made in the Lok Sabha on Monday, that illegal snooping was impossible in India. Chidambaram putting the fat straight said; “NSO Group, the owner of Pegasus, has said that NSO sells its technologies solely to law enforcement and intelligence agencies of vetted governments. It is unfortunate that minister Vaishnaw has started his innings on the wrong foot. “In his statement, the minister has omitted to quote the crucial part of Pegasus’s statement. The services that are ‘openly available to anyone, anywhere, and anytime’ refer to HLR Lookup services, not to Pegasus. The minister should answer a simple question: Did the government acquire the Pegasus software / spyware?”

While Indians are stretching and splitting their hair to make out the inference of home minister Amit Shah’s suggestion “chronology ko samjhiye” (understand the chronology), the international media is agog with the information that it was Narendra Modi during his first visit to Israel in 2017 had roped in NSO.

But the UK based leading newspaper The Guardian exposed that the Israel prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu had abetted government abuses by granting NSO an export licence to sell software to countries that use it to suppress dissent and “the selection of Indian numbers largely commenced around the time of Modi’s 2017 trip to Israel, the first visit to the country by an Indian Prime Minister” and a marker of the burgeoning bilateral relationship, including deals between Delhi and Israeli defence industries.

“Modi and the then Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, were pictured during the trip walking barefoot together on a beach. Days before, Indian targets had started being selected,” the UK newspaper said. Incidentally the picture was tweeted by Netanyahu in July 2017, showing him and Modi on the beach in Haifa. “There’s nothing like going to the beach with friends!” Netanyahu had tweeted.

Questions were raised at that time about the urgency of Modi’s visit, but government refused to come out with a categorical reply. However an attempt was made by a section of the media to correlate the anti-Muslim stand of the two leaders.

Ever since Modi came to power he has been abusing Congress to present himself as a clean and pious politician though he is not tired of claiming to create a Congress mukta bharat. In the wake of the Pegasus expose Modi has been accusing Congress. Only on Tuesday he said the Congress had been reduced to being in power in just “two-three states” but had a misplaced sense of “entitlement”. Shockingly instead of clearing the air on the Pegasus snoop scandal, why Pegasus snooped on Indians and whether his government was involved, he has shown his ultra-concern for covid at the meeting of his MPs and leaders. This obviously implies that he lacks moral power and conviction to confess that he was behind the scam and it was at his bidding NSO has carried out the operation.

Ever since he became the prime minister, he in association with Amit Shah has been resorting to criminalisation of the politics. Beneath the veneer of abusing Nehru and other Congress leaders he has been patronising the criminal elements to pursue is divisive politics.

Amit Shah as usual was raising his accusing finger towards the opposition, especially the Congress, for raising the issue of Pegasus and hampering the functioning of the parliament. Shah treats the people of this country as fools and idiots else he would not have dared to divert the issue. Under attack he called the Pegasus report “by the disrupters for the obstructers”. He questioned the timing of the leak and said it was done to create disruptions on the first day of the monsoon session of Parliament. When the people are protesting against intrusion into their privacy and government spying on them, he was surprisingly presenting it as a trivial issue, an attempt by the opposition to disrupt parliament session.

For hiding the crime he even moved one step forward and said; “Disrupters are global organisations which do not like India to progress. Obstructers are political players in India who do not want India to progress. People of India are very good at understanding this chronology and connection”. If he is sure that there are some disrupters behind the move who intend to humiliate India, then why is he not ordering a JPC probe as is being demanded by the opposition? Why is he opposing this demand?

Though the issue has yet not been mentioned through a petition to the Supreme Court, it can intervene suo motu as the revelation has smeared the public image and credibility of the judiciary. Damage has already been inflicted on the highest office of the judiciary though not so glaringly. Yet another factor must attract the attention of the apex court is, languishing of 16 intellectuals in the jail for simply satisfying the ego and pride of Modi and Shah.

The apex court is aware of the fact that how the rulers have been misusing and distorting the provisions of the sedition law. Though the law has been in the statute book for decades, during the reign of Modi it has been used against 700 persons. The framing of the such huge number of people under sedition raises one important question; why so many of people have turned anti national during the rule of Modi?

The Editors’ Guild of India has approached the Supreme Court to initiate independent inquiry into these snooping charges. According to Guild “the inquiry committee should include people of impeccable credibility from different walks of life—including journalists and civil society—so that it can independently investigate facts around the extent and intent of snooping using the services of Pegasus".

It is an open secret that Modi and his colleagues are out to subvert the Indian Constitution. How they have been destroying the democratic institutions is known to everybody. The common people of the country cannot dare to oppose the tyranny and oppression let lose by the government machinery. In this backdrop the only hope is the judiciary and the Supreme Court must assert its right to protect the sanctity of the Constitution and sovereignty of the country.

Entire government machinery has been activated and put in service to protect Modi and his government. They are scared that this may blow on their faces as the people have turned sceptical and are not willing to subscribe to their explanations. Paradoxical indeed, some supporters of Modi nurse the view that Amit Shah has made the life of Modi hell and he has been primarily responsible for all these criminal acts.

Nevertheless if they are not involved or have not permitted for this operation it is their duty and moral responsibility to unearth the largest spy operation in the Independent India. No government worth credibility could allow this situation to persist. It attains huge nature of seriousness for the reason that it involves name of the former CJI and two ministerial colleagues of Modi. One would certainly like to know why has been feeling nervous.

Pegasus spy operation exposes the obnoxious aspect of the politics being practiced by the Modi and RSS in India. It is also confirmed that the Bhima Koregaon conspiracy case in which 16 intellectuals and academics who have been falsely implicated is part of the nasty design of the Pegasus operation. It is now established that the NIA framed these people in the false case at the instruction of the rulers of the country having a criminal mind set.

The Congress leaders Mallikarjun Kharage and Adhir Ranjan Choudhary have rightly demanded that Amit Shah should be sacked forthwith if the government had any pretensions to morality. The role of Modi also need to be investigated. On Monday, the Congress released a report by Cert-In, a department under the IT ministry, that had on May 17, 2019, said: “A vulnerability has been reported in WhatsApp which could be exploited by a remote attacker to execute arbitrary code on the affected system.”

The Congress has rightly accused Modi’s government of being the “deployer and executor” of a “spying racket” its surveillance of critics and opponents through the spyware as ’treason’ and an ’inexcusable breach of national security’. It has also described the Israeli spyware operation as “treason” and an “inexcusable breach of national security”, and demanded the immediate sacking of home minister Amit Shah and an independent investigation into the role of Narendra Modi.

The questions which haunts the people of the country are; “Who in the Government of India purchased and deployed the illegal spyware Pegasus? Who authorised the purchase? How many hundred or thousand crores were spent?” The Congress has however described as a “lie” the government’s claim that it had not snooped on anyone, after the media reports suggested surveillance of Opposition leaders like Rahul, a few BJP politicians who are now central ministers, journalists and activists.

The Congress also sought to know “Who in the Government of India purchased and deployed the illegal spyware Pegasus from NSO? Who — the Prime Minister or the Home Minister — authorised the purchase of Pegasus? How many hundred or thousand crores were spent? If the government was aware of the illegal purchase and deployment of the Pegasus spyware since April-May, 2019, why did it choose to stay mum?”

Senior Congress leader Manish Tewari has demanded two investigations, one by a JPC to look at violation of privacy and the question of parliamentary oversight over intelligence agencies, and another by a sitting judge of the Supreme Court to fix criminal culpability of those responsible.

On the woman who accused Justice Gogoi of sexual harassment, The Wire reported that she “recorded her allegations in a sworn affidavit on April 20, 2019, and was marked as a person of interest just days after this, an analysis of a leaked list of phone numbers accessed by French media non-profit Forbidden Stories reveals”. The leaked records show that eight other phone numbers belonging to her husband and two of his brothers were also marked as possible candidates for surveillance in the same week, when her allegations against the CJI were first reported, the portal said.

“All told, a total of 11 numbers associated with the complainant and her family were selected, making them among the largest cluster of associated phone numbers in the India-leg of the Pegasus Project, a special investigation coordinated by Forbidden Stories and 16 international media partners with the assistance of Amnesty International’s technical team,” The Wire added.

The Wire reported that unsuccessful attempts to initiate a Pegasus attack were made on Kishor’s phone in 2018. Traces of Pegasus were also detected on his phone in April, when the Assembly elections in Bengal were underway, and then in June and July. Kishor said, “Those who did this wanted to take undue advantage of their position of power with the help of illegal snooping.”

Among the surveillance targets named by the exposé are academics Hany Babu MT, Vernon Gonsalves, Anand Teltumbde and Shoma Sen, activists Gautam Navlakha (in pic), and lawyers Arun Ferreira and Sudha Bharadwaj. The families of the Elgaar Parishad-Maoist links detainees and one of their lawyers have said the new revelations about targeted surveillance have vindicated their stand that the prolonged imprisonment of the 15 surviving accused is unjust.

Launching a blistering attack on the BJP over the Pegasus Project reports, West Bengal Chief Minister and TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee on Wednesday alleged that the saffron party wants to “turn India into a surveillance state instead of keeping it a democratic country”. “Our phones are tapped. Pegasus is dangerous and ferocious. I cannot talk to anyone. You are paying too much money for spying. I have plastered my phone. We should also plaster the Centre, otherwise, our country will get destroyed. BJP has bulldozed federal structure,” CM Mamata said while speaking at the Martyrs’ Day programme in Kolkata.

Little doubt the Pegasus scandal is a matter of grave concern for Indian democracy. The malicious and indiscreet use of surveillance is a crime. Though India allows surveillance, it cannot be undertaken without the sanction and permission of the authorised person. In this case it has been an arbitrary action. What is really shocking is snooping has been going on but no one is willing to take responsibility. The Supreme Court must initiate the probe and find out who has been ultimate beneficiary of the operation. Who dared to shred the democratic fibres? This has endangered the democratic institution.

Significantly Trinamul’s MP Mahua Moitra has asked nine questions from Modi, or Shah, or Union IT minister Ashwini Vaishnaw. The questions are:

  • Has any ministry or department or agency of the Centre purchased or used Pegasus software at all, and since when?
  • Is the Pegasus software still used?
  • Who are the people on whom spying happened?
  • What is the duration during which the data were collected on these individuals?
  • Are the data collected still being retained by these agencies? If so, for what purpose? -* Under what laws did the spying happen on these people?
  • Which individuals and agencies requested data collection?
  • Which individuals had to provide authorisation for the data to be collected? And
  • What are the agencies and individuals with whom the collected data had been shared — whether formally or informally?

French newspaper Le Monde which is part of the media collective that investigated the matter reported that several diplomats based in Delhi are on the list of potential targets for phone hacking using the Pegasus spyware.

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