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Combatting Terrorism Only?

The Government in India, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, had refused to explain to the Parliament and the Supreme Court (SC, the Apex Court of India) as to why it did purchase the Pegasus spyware from Israel in 2017. However, The New York Times recently reported that India had bought the spyware as a part of Defence Deal with Israel in order to track the phone calls of its citizens!

It has been mentioned in the NYT article, titled The Battle for the World’s Most Powerful Cyberweapon, that India signed an agreement, worth USD 2 billion, with Israel, during Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the West Asian nation in July 2017, mainly to purchase defence and intelligence surveillance equipment. Apart from Israeli missiles, New Delhi acquired the spyware from Jerusalem as a part of the deal. In 2020, it was alleged that the Government of India used the spyware to intercept the phones of members of various parties in Opposition, including the Indian National Congress (INC).

The US daily has also reported that the Israeli cyber-arms company, NSO Group, has been developing and covertly installing Pegasus on mobile phones, running most versions of iOS and Android, for the last 10 years. Benjamin Netanyahu, the then Israeli Prime Minister, had arrived in India a few months after PM Modi’s visit to Jerusalem. Incidentally, India backed Israel during the UN Economic and Social Council vote a few days later. Going against India’s decades-old Foreign Policy, the Modi Administration opposed the UN Economic and Social Council’s proposal to make Palestine an observer state.

The Opposition parties in India wanted to know whether the Modi Government had purchased the Pegasus spyware to intercept the phone calls of them, or to strengthen National Security. Although the Government of India issued a statement in the Parliament on the Pegasus Scam, it did not mention the purpose of purchasing the spyware. During a hearing of the Pegasus Snooping Case on January 7, 2022, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, the Counsel of the Government of India, told the Supreme Court that the matter could not be left to just anyone, and it’s a matter of cross-border terrorism. “This cannot be a subject matter for public debate,” stressed Mehta, saying that the software could be used, and “we have nothing to hide. Which is used or not used is essentially a matter of National Security“. The Solicitor General was further heard mentioning: “It is the Government’s view that such statements cannot be made… we cannot let terrorists know what software is being used…

However, a SC Bench, headed by Chief Justice of India (CJI) Nuthalapati Venkata Ramana, rejected the Government’s argument, stating that National Security could not be the bugbear that the Judiciary shies away from, by just mentioning the same. Quoting George Orwell, CJI Ramana stressed: “If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.” He also said: “We issued notice to the Government. We gave ample opportunity to the Government to give details of all action taken by it. But despite repeated chances, they gave limited affidavit that does not give clarity. If they had clarified, they would have reduced the burden on us. But that does not mean State gets a free pass every time National Security is raised.” The Apex Court also appointed a committee of experts to inquire into the alleged use of Israeli spyware for surveillance of Indian citizens.

After the publication of the report in the NYT, the Indian Opposition parties have claimed that the Government of India misled not only the Parliament, but also the Supreme Court. Furthermore, PM Modi had lied to his countrymen. Prime Minister Modi’s Cabinet member V K Singh labelled the New York Times as ‘Supari (hired for a hit job) Media’, although he did not deny the allegations against the Government on Pegasus issue.

Prime Minister Modi

In response to Singh’s comment, Opposition leader and senior Congress leader Palaniappan Chidambaram stated: “The PM said that it is the best time to set new goals in the India-Israel relationship. Of course, it is the best time to ask Israel if they have any advanced version of the Pegasus spyware.” He added: “The last deal was for USD 2 billion. India can do better this time. If we get more sophisticated spyware ahead of the 2024 elections, we can give them even USD 4 billion.” The former Home Minister of India further said: “Minister V K Singh has called the New York Times ‘supari media’. Was he not the one who called Indian media ‘presstitutes’? I wonder if he has ever read newspapers, like the New York Times or Washington Post. I doubt if he knows the role played by the two newspapers in exposing the Watergate Scandal and the Pentagon Papers. If he does not wish to read history, he can at least watch the movies!

P Chidambaram

According to political experts, it is quite expected from leaders, like PM Modi, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and others who belong to the same league, to lie to the people in order to serve their own interest. They are of the opinion that authoritarian leaders usually suppress the Oppositions, and dishonour the Democratic Values.

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