Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma on Tuesday demanded a ban on activities of human rights organisation Amnesty International in India in view of the reports about illegal surveillance using Pegasus spyware. He accused the organisation of being part of a conspiracy to defame India and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The Pegasus spyware is developed, marketed and licensed to governments around the world by the Israeli cyber intelligence company NSO Group. The company says that it licenses its software only to “vetted governments” and that Pegasus is meant to be targeted at criminals.
But a leaked list, featuring more than 50,000 phone numbers “concentrated in countries known to engage in surveillance of their citizens”, was accessed by Paris-based media nonprofit Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International, which shared it with 17 news organisations as part of the Pegasus Project.
The list includes phone numbers used by at least 40 Indian journalists, Opposition leaders including Congress MP Rahul Gandhi, two Union ministers and virologist Gagandeep Kang. Former Election Commissioner of India Ashok Lavasa and an ex-Supreme Court staffer who accused former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment also featured on the list.
“We all know the role of Amnesty...they are encouraging all along left-wing terrorism in India...,” Sarma alleged at a press conference on Tuesday. “This is a well-designed conspiracy to defame Narendra Modi, Indian parliamentary system...I will demand that Amnesty International’s activity should be immediately banned within India.”
Sarma also targeted the Washington Post, one of the 17 news organisations which is part of the consortium. The Assam chief minister questioned why the newspaper was “more interested” in Modi and the number of Covid-19 deaths in India, rather than the pandemic situation in the United States.
On Tuesday, the Washington Post reported that India’s Covid-19 toll could be in the range of 34 lakh to 47 lakh, much higher than the official count of 4.18 lakh. The article was based on a report published by India’s former Chief Economic Adviser Arvind Subramanian and two other researchers.
Sarma is not the only Bharatiya Janata Party leader to have alleged that the Pegasus row was a conspiracy to malign the central government. On Monday, Union Home Minister Amit Shah said it was “a report by the disrupters for the obstructers”.
Earlier that day, former Union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad had also accused Amnesty International of having an “anti-India agenda”. “When they [Amnesty International] were asked to disclose their funding pattern in India, they said they find it difficult to work here,” Prasad said at a press conference.
Prasad was referring to Amnesty International India’s decision to wind up its activities in the country after the Enforcement Directorate froze its bank accounts on allegations of violation of the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act.
On September 29, the organisation had accused the Centre of having frozen its bank accounts as punishment for speaking out about alleged rights abuses. The move was widely criticised by various organisations. The United States, the United Kingdom as well as the European Union have also raised concerns about the government’s investigation into Amnesty International India.
India, however, defended its decision, saying that other countries should not “condone contravention of Indian laws by any entity”.