Don't beat around the bush, SC judges tell Centre on Pegasus row

Deccan Chronicle.  | Parmod Kumar

Nation, Current Affairs

The Centre said it will constitute a committee of 'domain experts' to go into the entire matter

Chief Justice N.V. Ramana reiterated it will not put in the public domain by stating on affidavit whether or not it used the Pegasus spyware. (Photo: PTI/File)

New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Monday, while reserving its interim order on a batch of petitions seeking an independent probe into the alleged snooping of the mobile phones of key political leaders, Supreme Court judges, top mediapersons and other eminent people told the Centre “not to beat around the bush” on the issue as it would not take it anywhere.

The Centre, while refusing to file a detailed affidavit addressing the issues raised in the petitions before the court, said it will constitute a committee of “domain experts” to go into the entire matter and submit the report to the court. The government told the court that the domain experts will be independent of the government and not connected with it in any way or having any monetary connection with it.

Chief Justice N.V. Ramana, heading a bench which also comprised Justices Surya Kant and Hima Kohli, reserved its interim order as the Centre, invoking national security and the fight against terrorism, reiterated it will not put in the public domain by stating on affidavit whether or not it used the Pegasus spyware, with the petitioners insisting that the government should state in “Yes” or “No” terms whether it used the Israeli firm’s spyware to snoop on citizens, invading their privacy.

Telling solicitor general Tushar Mehta, the second highest ranking Central government lawyer, that they will pass an interim order in two to three days, CJI Ramana said if the government, in the meantime, wanted to provide details to the court, it could do so.

After the solicitor general informed the court of the government’s stand that it will not state on affidavit whether or not citizens were snooped upon using the Pegasus spyware and insisting on forming a committee of domain experts, CJI Ramana said they had given the government a “reasonable and fair opportunity” to file a detailed affidavit on the issue but since the government refused, they (court) will hear the petitioners and pass the appropriate orders.

Making it clear that at no stage of the hearing had the court sought any
information on snooping that has a bearing on national security or the fight against terrorism, Chief Justice Ramana, referring to the Centre’s statement in Parliament, said that they are seeking information whether the snooping on citizens had been done or not.

Referring to the earlier hearings where the government had flagged the
issue of national security or the fight against terrorism getting blunted if it made a public disclosure by stating on affidavit whether or not it had used the Pegasus spyware for snooping, CJI Ramana said: “When the matter came up a few days back and national security arose, we said that no one is interested in disclosing anything which compromises internal or external national integrity. We were only expecting a limited affidavit since there are petitioners before us who say their rights, including the right to privacy, has been infringed by A or B agency. You (Centre) had to say whether it was done lawfully or unlawfully.”

Referring to an earlier Supreme Court ruling, senior lawyer Kapil Sibal said when the issue before the court is the violation of the right to privacy of citizens, the government can’t be seen to be stonewalling the information sought by the court.

“It is unbelievable that the Government of India tells the Supreme Court that it will not provide information. (The government is saying) that you (court) shut your eyes, let us (government) do what we are doing,” Mr Sibal, who was appearing for top journalist N. Ram, told the court, in a jibe over its stand.

As the solicitor general sought to clarify that the Government of India was not hiding anything from the court and it only wanted the matter to be first examined by a committee of domain experts, who in turn will submit their report to the court, CJI Ramana said: “Don’t beat around the bush”, adding that it will not take the matter anywhere.

Senior lawyer Shyam Divan, appearing for another veteran journalist, told the court to ask the Cabinet Secretary to the Government of India to file an affidavit stating whether the government or its agencies used the Pegasus spyware to snoop on citizens. He referred to several court judgments in which it had asked top bureaucrats of the Centre or states to file an affidavit on the issues before it.