The Union government has maintained that there is no shred of evidence for the allegations and has accused the Opposition parties and media organisations.

A collage of Amit Shah IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw Ravi Shanker PrasadImage Courtesy: PTI
news Pegasus Row Tuesday, July 20, 2021 - 19:11

On Sunday, July 18, an international media consortium, the Pegasus Project, reported that more than 300 verified mobile phone numbers — including two serving ministers, over 40 journalists, three opposition leaders and one sitting judge besides scores of businesspersons and activists in India — could have been targeted for surveillance or hacking through the Israeli spyware, Pegasus, which is sold only to “vetted governments.” Soon after the first investigative report in the series was published, the Union government went on the defensive, calling it a “fishing expedition.”

“The allegations regarding government surveillance on specific people have no concrete basis or truth associated with it whatsoever,” said the Union government, neither denying nor admitting to any attempt at illegal surveillance. As the issue gained momentum on social media and in the news, political heat rose over allegations linked to the Pegasus snooping row. On Monday, July 19, as the Monsoon session of the Parliament commenced, the Union government brushed off these allegations as attempts to "malign" the Indian democracy even as Congress and the BJP sparred in the Lok Sabha. 

Even as two more reports on the Pegasus ‘snoopgate’ have been released, the Union government has still not shown any signs of launching an investigation into these allegations or to find if a foreign government hacked into the phones of its citizens and leaders. Instead, the BJP leaders have spieled off the same accusations against media organisations that carried out the investigation and those whose phone numbers were hacked or attempted to hack. 

Attempt to malign Indian democracy: IT Minister

On the first day of the Monsoon session, the snooping row echoed in Parliament with the opposition demanding answers from the Union government. In a suo motu statement in the Lok Sabha, the new IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw asserted that illegal surveillance was not possible with checks and balances in the country's laws following allegations of snooping on politicians, journalists and others using Pegasus software. Vaishanaw stressed there is "no substance" behind sensationalism. "The press reports of July 18, 2021, appear to be an attempt to malign the Indian democracy and its well-established institutions," Vaishnaw said in his first statement in Parliament as a minister. 

Ironically, Ashwini Vaishnaw’s name featured in the list of possible targets of surveillance using Pegasus. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and poll strategist Prashant Kishor, are among other names in the second report in the Pegasus Project, released on Monday.

Vaishnaw, however, did not specify whether the Indian government was using Pegasus spyware developed by Israeli company NSO. Vaishnaw said many "over the top" allegations have been around the highly sensational story published by a web portal.

"The press reports have appeared a day before the Monsoon Session of the Parliament. This cannot be a coincidence. In the past, similar claims were made regarding the use of Pegasus on Whatsapp," he said.

Those reports, he said, had no factual basis and were categorically denied by all parties, including in the Supreme Court. The NSO, the company which owns the technology, has also "clearly rubbished the claims in the report," the minister said. The NSO had said that the list of countries shown using Pegasus in the report was incorrect and many countries mentioned were not even the clients of the company, he added.

India, the minister said, has an "established protocol when it comes to surveillance... any form of illegal surveillance is not possible with the checks and balances in our laws and our robust institutions."

Attempt to humiliate India: Home Minister Amit Shah

Union Home Minister Amit Shah released a statement in which he attacked the Congress and various international organisations for levelling allegations of snooping. Amit Shah said that such "obstructers" and "disrupters" were only aiming to humiliate India on the world stage.

He also asserted that such forces will not be able to derail India's development trajectory with their conspiracies. Shah, in a hard-hitting statement, said, “People have often associated this phrase with me in lighter vein but today I want to seriously say, the timing of the selective leaks, the disruptions: Aap Chronology Samajhiye! (understand the chronology)."

The Home Minister said those against India's progress are peddling the same old narratives about the country. "This is a report by the disrupters for the obstructers. Disrupters are global organisations that do not like India to progress. Obstructers are political players in India who do not want India to progress. People of India are very good at understanding this chronology and connection," he said.

"To see the rudderless Congress, jump on to this bandwagon is not unexpected. They have a good past experience in trampling over democracy and with their own house not in order, they are now trying to derail anything progressive that comes up in Parliament," he added.

Amit Shah's reaction to the Pegasus reports came after the Congress demanded his sacking and an independent judicial or parliamentary committee probe.

The Home Minister said when the Prime Minister rose in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha to introduce his Council of Ministers, which is a well-established norm, the Congress-led opposition was in the Well of both Houses. "Is this their respect for Parliamentary norms? The same behaviour continued when the IT Minister was speaking about the issue," he said.

Not a shred of evidence: Ravi Shankar Prasad

The BJP on Monday hit out at the Congress over its attack on the Union government over the Pegasus snooping row, and claimed that there is not a "shred of evidence" to link either the ruling party or the Modi dispensation with the matter.

Addressing a press conference, senior BJP leader Ravi Shankar Prasad also questioned the credentials of those behind the story, alleging that the news portal The Wire, which broke the story in India, had been earlier associated with stories that have been found to be "incorrect".

“Those who broke the story themselves said that the presence of a particular number in the database does not confirm that it is infected with Pegasus,” he said while questioning the timing of the story coming as it did a day before Parliament's Monsoon session began on Monday. Paris-based media non-profit organisation Forbidden Stories and rights group Amnesty International conducted an investigation into a leaked list of over 50,000 phone numbers from around the world. They reported that many numbers could have been a target of surveillance but it could not be confirmed due to lack of sufficient digital traces as many had changed their phones over a period of time. 

Noting that Congress leader Rahul Gandhi is also being mentioned as a target of the alleged snooping, Prasad sarcastically said that his every comment is on Twitter every day. "He keeps sharing his wisdom with the country. Is there any need to know anything more?" the BJP leader said.

He also brushed aside a question on the Congress' demands for Home Minister Amit Shah's resignation and probe against Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and accused the opposition party of hitting a "new low" in making baseless allegations in a manner that was bereft of any political propriety.

(With PTI inputs)

READ: What is Pegasus, how to protect against it and other FAQs answered

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