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India’s top court on Wednesday appointed an independent committee to probe the allegations that prime minister Narendra Modi’s government used the Israeli military-grade spyware Pegasus to snoop on sitting members of parliament, judges, journalists, and activists.
The Supreme Court order came in response to multiple petitions filed by journalists, rights activists and opposition politicians who sought an investigation into accusations of illegal surveillance by the government.
The court slammed the Modi government on Wednesday for using national security as an excuse to not divulge information, and also declined the government’s request to set up a panel of experts, saying it would “violate the settled judicial principle against bias”.
“Violation of the right to privacy, freedom of speech, as alleged in pleas, needs to be examined,” said NV Ramana, the chief justice of India. “The state cannot get a free pass every time by raising national security concerns. National security cannot be the bugbear that the judiciary shies away from, by virtue of its mere mentioning.”
While the Modi government had “unequivocally” denied all allegations of illegal surveillance in July, the government, in its affidavit submitted to court, did not categorically say whether it used the Israeli equipment for spying, citing national security.
The court said that it has given Mr Modi’s government “ample time to disclose all information” regarding these allegations since 2019. “However, only a limited affidavit was filed, throwing no light,” said Justice Ramana.
The judge was referring to WhatsApp’s revelation in 2019 that journalists and activists in India were targeted using the Pegasus spyware. The government had dismissed the allegations at the time, too.
The court-appointed committee will be headed by retired Supreme Court judge RV Raveendran and will comprise three cybersecurity experts. It has been directed to submit its report by the end of the year.
The committee has also been directed to include if the government or its agencies acquired the Pegasus spyware and used it on Indian citizens for surveillance-related purposes. It must also make recommendations on enacting laws and procedures to protect the privacy of Indian citizens and suggest ways to raise grievances on suspicions of snooping.
In July, an investigation by an international media consortium found that more than 50,000 phones were targeted using Pegasus.
According to website The Wire, which focused on the Indian portion of the list, the database included 300 verified Indian mobile telephone numbers, including those of ministers, opposition leaders, a sitting judge and more than 40 journalists, activists and business persons.
While Israeli firm NSO Group said it sold the software only to “vetted government agencies” for surveillance on terrorists, it did not reveal whether India was a client.
The Indian government has neither confirmed nor denied that it is an NSO Group client but ministers have rejected the allegations of snooping. On 19 July, IT minister Ashwini Vaishnaw told the Indian parliament that illegal surveillance was not possible in India. These allegations had “no concrete basis or truth associated with it”, he said.
Rahul Gandhi, a leader of the opposition Congress party, welcomed the court order on Wednesday. Mr Gandhi, whose number had also appeared on the list of people reportedly under surveillance, said the opposition felt “vindicated” by the order.
“We protested, but no reply. We stopped parliament, but we still did not get a reply. Now our stand is vindicated. So, our questions remain the same,” said Mr Gandhi.
He added that the opposition will push for a debate again in the Indian parliament. “Surely the BJP will not want that discussion, but we will push for it. The matter is in court now and the court will take it forward, but we will push for a debate in parliament.”
The Pegasus row had rocked the Indian parliament during proceedings when the news was first published, where MPs from opposition parties tore papers and raised slogans demanding answers from Mr Modi’s government.
A huge vindication of #PegasusProject which @thewire_in, @FbdnStories and our global media partners jointly reported!
Modi govt chose path of noncooperation in the face of court's questions. CJI's bench drew the right inference.
Let the inquiry begin!https://t.co/Ipw31XKOi2
— Siddharth (@svaradarajan) October 27, 2021
Siddharth Varadarajan, the founder-editor of The Wire, also welcomed the government’s decision.
“A huge vindication of Pegasus Project, which The Wire, Forbidden Stories and our global media partners jointly reported!” he tweeted. “Modi govt [government] chose path of noncooperation in the face of court’s questions. CJI’s bench drew the right inference. Let the inquiry begin!”
Additional reporting by agencies