West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee on Monday formed a two-member committee to investigate growing allegations that the Pegasus spyware was used by central government agencies to spy on politicians, journalists and activists in the country, reported The Hindu.
The members of the commission are retired Supreme Court judge Madan Lokur and former Chief Justice of Calcutta High Court Jyotirmoy Bhattacharya.
The spyware is licensed to governments around the world by the Israeli cyber intelligence company NSO Group. The company insists that it licences its software only to “vetted governments” with good human-rights records and that Pegasus is intended to target 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. It became the basis of a global investigation called the Pegasus Project in which 17 media organisations collaborated.
Indian news website The Wire, which is among the participants in the project, reported that Trinamool Congress MP and chief minister’s nephew Abhishek Banerjee’s number was found in the database.
Traces of Pegasus was also found in elections strategist Prashant Kishore’s phone in 14 days in June 2021 and 12 days in July 2021, including as recently as July 13, according to digital forensics conducted by Amnesty International’s Security Lab.
Kishore had recently worked with the ruling Trinamool Congress during the West Bengal Assembly elections. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, former Election Commissioner Ashok Lavasa and Industrialist Anil Ambani were among the other potential surveillance targets.
On Monday, Mamata Banerjee said that the panel has been formed under the Inquiry Act, 1951, reported ANI. She said it will look into matters such as illegal hacking, monitoring, surveillance and recording of mobile phones.
“We had hoped that Centre will start an inquiry in the Pegasus row under the supervision of the Supreme Court,” the chief minister said. “But this government did nothing even when Parliament is on, therefore before going to Delhi, we have taken the decision to set up an inquiry commission at a Cabinet meeting today.”
Banerjee will go to Delhi later in the day to meet Opposition party leaders, including Congress chief Sonia Gandhi.
She alleged that the phones of many residents of West Bengal have been tapped. “I hope this small step will wake up others,” Banerjee said, according to NDTV. “We want it [the inquiry] to start as soon as possible.”
Banerjee also claimed that West Bengal is the first state to investigate the surveillance allegations.
However, Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel had said on July 21 that his government has formed a committee to investigate the spyware allegations. Baghel had claimed he has information that officials from NSO Group had met former Chief Minister Raman Singh. The panel will investigate who the NSO representatives met and what deal they struck with the Bharatiya Janata Party government led by Singh, reported The Hindu.
On July 21, Banerjee had accused the BJP of trying to turn India from a democracy into a “surveillance state”. “Three things make democracy – media, judiciary and the Election Commission – and Pegasus has captured all three,” the chief minister had said.
Last week, Communist Party of India (Marxist) Rajya Sabha MP John Brittas and an advocate, ML Sharma, moved the Supreme Court separately seeking a court-monitored inquiry into the alleged surveillance.