‘Scary, shocking’: Varavara’s daughter, Thirumurugan Gandhi on Pegasus list

Over 300 people in India, including journalists, activists and their relatives, are believed to have been targeted by the Israeli NSO Group’s spyware Pegasus.
Thirumurugan Gandhi
Thirumurugan Gandhi

The explosive joint investigation led by France-based Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International, along with 16 other news international organisations including The Wire, revealed that over 300 people, including journalists and some activists, were believed to be targeted by Israeli spyware Pegasus. However, this was not limited to activists, their relatives too were targeted. Among them was activist and poet Varavara Rao’s elder daughter Pavana. Varavara Rao has been booked in the Elgar Parishad case.  The list of leaked contact numbers by Israel’s NSO Group, which created Pegasus the spyware, had listed the contact number of Pavana. 

Reacting to the revelation that she was a target of possible surveillance, she said, “It is really scary and really shocking, but our government is used to this. Surveillance on us is not new. It has been happening for a long time. But what’s new is that they are planting ‘evidence’ and making arrests based on them. This is what the Bhima Koregaon case shows.” The electronic devices of some of the activists arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case were allegedly compromised using the Israeli spyware and later, a report showed that ‘evidence’ was planted on their computers to arrest them.  

“The reason I was targeted is because they want to silence us. So that we won’t fight for the bail or release of my father. The timeline given by Amnesty shows that my phone was hacked when my father was under home arrest. They wanted to see if my father would communicate something to me, or whether I would. Their main intention seems to be to silence us,” Pavana said. 

The Wire team had approached Pavana a month ago, to examine the extent of compromise done to her phone. However, she did not consent to the forensics examination, as she was already aware that her device was compromised. 

Pavana was allegedly targeted through WhatsApp in 2019. She learnt about it in 2019 itself when WhatsApp had communicated to her that her device was attacked with malware. It was in 2019 that WhatsApp learnt that over 1,400 people across the world including 121 journalists and activists were being surveilled through their mobile application by the spyware Pegasus. The messaging application had subsequently sued NSO Group for violations. The messaging application had subsequently sued NSO Group for violations. 

Two other activists from south India who were named in the leaked database revealed on July 18 are activist Thirumurugan Gandhi from Tamil Nadu and Jaison Cooper from Kerala. 

Thirumurugan Gandhi, who is the founder of May 17 movement of civil rights, said, “The hacking and snooping shows that the government is very nervous about civil society voices and voices of dissent. They don’t want an open and democratic space to be available which is why a lot many journalists have been targeted, if you look at the list.” He added, “When I looked at the list, I realised that all the people who were targeted were those who exposed the BJP’s hate politics and anti-people agenda, their divisive views and the neoliberal economic policies of this government. They want to cripple these voices.”

Gandhi said that he was not surprised when he saw his name on the list. 

“For the last 3-4 years, I have been experiencing all sorts of harassment. In the social media space, there is a total surveillance on my activity and that of those like me. My Facebook was banned three times and last month when we started a new YouTube channel and put up a video of my speech, it was immediately taken down."

“I’ve also been slapped with sedition cases and booked in multiple cases, all for conducting protests with permission. Considering the clampdown and harassment from authorities, I’m not surprised that my name cropped up in the list,” he said.

Jaison, also named on the Pegasus list, said, “I am a small-time social worker involved in human rights issues. I don't know why I would be snooped upon.”

Jaison got to know that he was on the database when The Wire had contacted him a month ago. He was arrested in 2015 for an alleged Maoist connection. He has also been active in several protests against the government such as those against the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) and the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Jaison is also known to have been in touch with Anand Teltumbde, scholar and human rights activist, who has been in jail for over a year in connection with the Bhima Koregaon case. 

“I used to contact him, he is a dedicated human rights activist. I don't know why that should call for my surveillance.” Jaison doesn't know who else features in the list except what's been already published. The Wire had asked him if he knew another Kerala number they found on the list but couldn't trace. Jaison didn't know, he said.

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