IANS & iNDICA NEWS BUREAU
The Pegasus spying case unveiled by an international reporting consortium of media publications is fast blowing up to be perhaps the biggest scandal the government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been accused of.
It refers to leaked records of 50,000 phone numbers, first accessed by France-based journalism non-profit Forbidden Stories and shared with 16 other media partners including The Washington Post, that the reporting consortium believes have been marked as potential targets of surveillance — via a military-grade spying software called Pegasus — by clients of the Israel-based NSO Group since 2016.
Ashok Lavasa, the only member of the 3-person Election Commission of India to rule that Prime Minister Modi had violated the Model Code of Conduct of elections while campaigning for the 2019 federall election, was selected as a potential candidate for surveillance just weeks after his dissent, according to the leaked records of phone numbers that The Wire, an independent online Indian publication that was part of the consortium, has seen.
Election Commissioners are constitutional functionaries in India, whose independence from government is guaranteed by statute and is considered crucial for the free and fair conduct of elections.
Also on the list are three phone numbers belonging to the Supreme Court staffer who had accused former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment in April 2019.
The numbers were selected as potential targets for surveillance by an official — but unidentified — Indian agency that is a customer of the Israel-based-NSO Group, The Wire reported.
The staffer, whose name is being withheld, was dismissed from service in December 2018, weeks after she said she rebuffed the judge’s advances. 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 Forbidden Stories revealed.
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 Wire said.
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 said her presence in the list, and the timing of her selection, suggest that the reason she and her family became persons of interest is because she went public with serious allegations against the sitting Chief Justice of India.
Soon after her complaint, the young woman appeared before a specially constituted in-house committee in what was meant to be a confidential process. If indeed her phones were successfully compromised, this means the agency involved would have had the ability to eavesdrop on privileged conversations with her lawyers.
The Wire said the affidavit, which the woman sent to 22 sitting judges of the Supreme Court, documented what she claimed was the deliberate and drawn-out victimization of her husband and other family members after she spurned “unsolicited” sexual advances by Justice Gogoi.
The woman’s husband and brother-in-law both worked for Delhi police at the time of her alleged sexual harassment and were suspended in January 2019, soon after her dismissal, as part of what she alleged was a vendetta against her.
This vendetta, she had said, included being charged and arrested on the basis of a fabricated criminal complaint that was eventually dropped for the lack of evidence, the report added.
At least two mobile phone accounts used by Modi’s challenger and Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi were among 300 verified Indian numbers listed as potential targets by an official Indian client of the NSO Group, The Wire reported.
Such was the apparent interest in Gandhi that the numbers of five of his social friends and acquaintances were also placed on the list of potential targets. None of the five plays any role in politics or public affairs, the report said.
Also on the surveillance list were many others including Opposition politicians and those accused of conspiring against the Indian government in cahoots with Maoist guerrillas in the Bhima Koregaon case, according to the reports.
India’s Information and Technology Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, while replying on behalf of the government to questions raised by the Opposition in Parliament, rubbished the reports.
“In India, there’s a well-established procedure through which lawful interception of electronic communication is carried out for the purpose of national security. With checks and balances in place, illegal surveillance is not possible,” he said.