In July last year, it was revealed that the Government of India was using a military grade surveillance software to spy on its citizens. The citizens included journalists, key Opposition figures and a sexual harassment survivor. The report was on the basis of technical research and verification by the global human rights group Amnesty International (of which I am a part).
India was not the only country to have been exposed as using the software, called Pegasus, which is made by a company in Israel and only sold to sovereign governments. Pegasus can infect iPhones and be delivered remotely without requiring any action from the target, like clicking a link or notification. Once Pegasus enters a phone, it allows the hacker full access. After it was revealed that American diplomats had been targeted, the United States government had blacklisted the Israeli company, called the NSO Group.
Worried that the British government would do the same, in October last year NSO recoded its software to ensure that it could never hack into any numbers beginning with +44 (the British international code). Also, in October, the Israelis went to France to assure them that no French individual would hereafter be spied on using Pegasus after the French intelligence agency confirmed that it had been used on their citizens by a foreign government.
What has been India’s response so far? The first response was to entirely discredit the story. Union ministers were sent out to say that since it was Amnesty, the report must be false. Then they were sent out to say that Amnesty International had itself withdrawn the claim (which was a lie). In Parliament, the government said that no “unauthorised” surveillance was done, which was not really an answer. Under what law was “authorised” spying happening on the Opposition by the ruling party? This was not revealed. Astonishingly, Amnesty revealed that the minister defending the Narendra Modi government in Parliament (Ashwini Vaishnaw) was himself spied on. The facts which Amnesty has revealed have not been disputed. These facts are: That several Indian citizens, including journalists, sexual harassment victims, the judiciary and the media are being spied on. Second, that they are being attacked by a military grade software that is only sold to governments. Third, that this software costs hundreds of crores of rupees to purchase and maintain. This is a criminal act, but no action has been taken against anyone for it.
Most disappointingly, the Supreme Court could not get the government to confirm or deny that it was using Pegasus. The court tried, but the government just refused to file an affidavit on this. Absurdly, the government said it would form a committee to find out if the government had indeed used Pegasus.
The logical response should have been for the nation’s highest court to hold the government or its officers in contempt. This it chose not to do. Instead, it accepted the government’s position and set up a committee. The job of this committee is to find out whether the Modi government has used Pegasus on Indian citizens. This is a question the court itself could have found the answer to, but now has given, in the manner of the game we played in school, a kho to someone else.
This committee has been on the task for five months now. It submitted an “interim” report in February (why an interim report is required for a question to which the answer is either “yes” or “no” is unclear). But we Indians know what happens to committees after they are formed.
Let us examine another aspect of this, which is how casually our democracy has taken this compared to the others like the United States, France or Britain. Of course, the fact is that Indians generally make light of privacy issues, particularly when it concerns others. “What is there to hide?” is the strange reaction produced when issues relating to privacy and dignity are raised. Forget the fact that Indian law says that the right to privacy is a fundamental right, meaning one enjoying a high degree of protection from encroachment by the State.
But the larger point is that a criminal action by the ruling party against its opponents and the media is not being taken seriously enough to become a political issue. It is just assumed that this abuse of power is not only normal, but expected and even legitimate. This is worrying portent for the future of our democracy.
The second worrying factor is the inability and apparent unwillingness of the judiciary to use its authority to hold the State to account. For a long time now, under this government, we have found that what seems to be true on paper in terms of separation of powers and accountability has remained on paper. This is also a worrying sign because it seems a strong leader can bend the polity to his or her (as was the case in the 1970s) will.
We will see what the conclusion of the Pegasus findings will be, but it will be surprising, and even shocking to many of us, if the system can indeed hold the Narendra Modi government to account....