New York Times report on Pegasus brings Narendra Modi near his ‘Watergate moment’

A New York Times report claiming that the Union Government purchased the Pegasus spyware, allegedly used to carry out seemingly unauthorised surveillance of several Indian, in 2017 could have grave ramifications for the government and Prime Minister Modi, writes NITYA CHAKRABORTY.

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THE New York Times has finally put the Narendra Modi-led Government on the dock. India officially bought Israeli spyware Pegasus as a part of the composite defence deal during the visit of Prime Minister [PM] Modi to Israel in July 2017. For the last six months, since the report about the surveillance by the spyware on Indians including politicians, journalists and human rights workers appeared in the media, the centre consistently denied the involvement of its agencies. The civil society activists including the journalists had to finally seek the intervention of the Supreme Court to probe this highly sensitive issue affecting the rights and privacy of the individuals. The apex court finally agreed to set up an expert commit in its order of October 27 last year.
The observations made by the learned bench of Supreme Court, led by the Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana prima facie confirmed what the petitioners said in their allegations that the ruling administration at the centre is stonewalling any probe into the allegations which are hitting at the fundamental rights of the citizens, including politicians, journalists, human rights activists and even the senior officials of the Centre.
Also read: Pegasus interim order: a victory for Indian democracy
 The probe panel set up by the bench is scheduled to submit its report to the Supreme Court after getting the statements of the affected persons. It is likely by March this year and then the hearing will be taking place. The NYT report, which is based on one long year of investigations, will be a major document to be considered by the apex court. The report confirmed what the petitioners were alleging, that the entire operations of Pegasus was sponsored by the Centre. 

The report confirmed what the petitioners were alleging, that the entire operations of Pegasus was sponsored by the Centre. … The NYT report now shows how the Government continuously told lies to the media and the people.

In 1972, the Watergate scandal led to huge controversy in the United States politics, culminating with President Richard Nixon’s resignation from Presidency. That also had relationship with spying on the opposition and tampering with the official documents. Two leading journalists of the U.S. papers pursued the scandal, and finally there was no escape route for the President. If the probe panel after going into the all documents connected to the engagement of Pegasus software can come to the conclusion that there was deliberate attempt by the top government people to encourage espionage on citizens of the country that had nothing to do with national security, that will be an attack on the fundamental rights of the citizens and the Supreme Court can take action on that.
Also read: Is it the Last Flight for Pegasus? [Part-I]

Did the union government lie to the nation?

 As regards the Pegasus issue, the entire focus is on the PM, the PM’s Office and the National Security Adviser. It is not so much to do with the Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP] as a party but it is to do with the PM and the agencies on which he has full control. The Supreme Court observations meant that the judges had no belief in what the Government lawyers told them about denying a detailed affidavit to the Court on the plea of national security. The NYT report now shows how the Government continuously told lies to the media and the people.
In July last year, at the peak of this Pegasus controversy in Parliament when most of the days, the PM was not present in the house, the Union Information Technology Minister said that the report on Pegasus surveillance on Indians at the instance of a government agency was a sensational attempt to malign Indian democracy and its well established institutions. He then made the point that the Israeli company NSO rubbished the reports in Indian press. But the fact is that NSO officials, even at that time, said that their services are utilised at government levels only.
Also read: Bhima Koregaon accused and their counsel write to SC’s Pegasus technical committee alleging snooping 
In 1989, the BJP was the main party which carried a ceaseless campaign against the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi before the Lok Sabha elections at the end of the year on the issue of Bofors pay off, which was nothing compared to the present Pegasus scandal. That was an amount of Rs. 64 crore, which could not be proved in court while after 32 years, this Pegasus snoopgate is something which deals with the government bid to trample the provisions of the Constitution regarding personal freedom and fundamental rights. 
In the name of national security, the Modi government has arrested a number of rights activists, and they are suffering in jail for months and years. The UAPA [Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act] provisions are being imposed on anyone who challenges the present government. Criticism of the government is being taken as the criticism of the nation. In this milieu, the Supreme Court, through this Pegasus order has come out strongly against the Modi Government’s continuing stance on privacy issues by citing national security. 
Also read: #BhimaKoregaonArrests: UAPA is writing the obituary for Indian democracy by curbing dissent and must be repealed
The CJI observed on October 27 “The state cannot get free pass every time by raising national security concerns. No omnibus prohibition can be called against judicial review. Centre should have justified its stand here and not render the court a mute spectator.”
In its order at that time, the SC underlined the importance of privacy and technology, saying that while technology can be used to improve the lives of people, it can also be used to invade privacy. It said certain limitations exist when it comes to privacy, but the restrictions have to pass constitutional muster.

If the Government has the guts, let it officially deny that there was no such Pegasus inclusion in the defence deal. The country has the right to know.

 The budget session of Parliament is beginning on January 31. It will end in the first week of April. The opposition parties led by the Indian National Congress, Left and others have to focus decisively on the Pegasus issue and expose how the bid for curtailing individual privacy of Indian citizens has been made a part of a US$ 2 billion defence deal with Israel, and all these at the whims of PM Modi. Modi has to be made answerable in the House this time. If the Government has the guts, let it officially deny that there was no such Pegasus inclusion in the defence deal. The country has the right to know it from Modi. (IPA Service)
(Nitya Chakraborty is a veteran journalist and the editor-in-chief of India Press Agency. The views expressed are personal.)
 

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