A new political storm erupted over an investigation by the New York Times that said the Indian government had purchased Israeli NSO group’s Pegasus software in July 2017 in order to carry out targeted surveillance on citizens, claiming that high-level visits by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and former Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and even a U.N. vote on a Palestinian organisation was part of a larger backroom deal.
The revelations that come just two days before the Budget Session of Parliament has provided fresh ammunition to the opposition parties to corner the government on the issue. The opposition parties attacked the government, accusing it of “misleading” parliament and the Supreme Court on the issue on Saturday after the NYT report was published, while the Congress party said the alleged use of spyware on opposition leaders, Supreme Court judges, journalists and activists was an “act of treason”, and said they would raise the issue in the upcoming budget session as well.
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In the report published on January 28, the New York times said that ties between PM Modi and PM Netanyahu had “warmed” because of their agreement for the sale of “a package of sophisticated weapons and intelligence gear worth roughly $2 billion — with Pegasus and a missile system as the center-pieces”. The NYT did not divulge sources for the claim that India had in fact bought the Pegasus system, and did not respond to an email from The Hindu asking for any details used to verify the story. In their detailed investigation, NYT ’s reporters named several countries including India, UAE, Hungary, Poland and Mexico on the list of those who had purchased the spying software, and said that they had not just strengthened ties with the Netanyahu government, but had shifted on support to Palestine and muted opposition to Israel at the United Nations.
“In June 2019, India voted in support of Israel at the U.N.’s Economic and Social Council to deny observer status to a Palestinian human rights organization, a first for the nation,” it added. India’s Ambassador to the UN at the time Syed Akbaruddin denied the last claim however. “The vote was a decision taken by me locally (as UN Permanent Representative in New York). No one talked to me about it before or after,” Mr. Akbaruddin, now retired, said in response to a query from The Hindu , adding that “The NYT seems to have wrongly made an insinuation.”
The government, including the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of External Affairs did not respond to the NYT report. In August 2021, after the original revelations of the extent of Pegasus spyware found on thousands of telephones worldwide were published by The Wire and other international news agencies, the Ministry of Defence had said in parliament that the “Ministry of Defence has not had any transaction with NSO group technologies.” Launching an attack on the US newspaper for the latest report, Minister of State for Road Transport & Highways and Civil Aviation Gen (Retd) V.K.Singh called the New York Times a “supari” (hit-job) newspaper.
The investigation over whether the Modi government bought the Pegasus spyware, and used it to hack the phones of a number of citizens not wanted in any criminal cases and carry out illegal surveillance on them is now with the Supreme Court, which appointed a special committee headed by Justice (Retd) RT Raveendran on October 27, and scheduled another hearing “after eight weeks”, which has not been listed at present.
In a press conference on Saturday, the Congress party said that the NYT investigation confirmed the government had indeed purchased the spyware. “The buck stops at the Prime Minister's door. The BJP duped the Parliament and misled the Supreme Court. They used public money to spy and snoop upon their own people…..This is an act of treason,” Congress General Secretary Randeep Surjewala said.
“Modi government misled the Supreme Court which directly questioned it on the purchase and use of the questionable software. In its sworn affidavit, the government (represented through the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology) claimed to “unequivocally deny any and all of the allegations made against the Government,” Mr Surjewala said.
In a tweet from its official account Trinamool Congress called the Pegasus report proof of “State sponsored Surveillance” that “blatantly abused the rights of Indians”.
The latest NYT investigation comes just two days before the upcoming Budget session of Parliament. Congress leader in parliament Mallikarjun Kharge said that they will be speaking to the other opposition parties and will come up with a cohesive strategy on the issue.
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In Parliament during the last session, IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, who himself is also on the list of citizens whose phone was allegedly hacked, had said that reports of India's Pegasus use were "baseless" and “highly sensational”.
The CPI(M) also joined the chorus. General Secretary Sitaram Yechury said,”Spying on the Election Commission, political leaders, Supreme Court and Officers conducting sensitive investigations is a serious subversion of democracy. Unacceptable. This govt must go.”