Both Houses of the Parliament were adjourned on Wednesday amid protests by Opposition MPs seeking a discussion on reports of alleged surveillance using the Pegasus spyware, PTI reported.
MPs of the Congress and Left parties tore papers related to business of the House and threw them at the officers’ table and the Speaker’s chair, The Indian Express reported. MPs of the Trinamool Congress chanted their now popular slogan of “khela hobe” (it’s game on).
The MPs held a banner that read: “Pegasus snoopgate – we demand Supreme Court-monitored judicial probe.”
The Monsoon Session of Parliament has seen several disruptions over the past week as the government and the Opposition have reached an impasse over discussion into allegations that the Pegasus spyware was used to spy on politicians, journalists and activists in India. The government has refused to hold discussions on the matter, while the Opposition has insisted on it.
The Pegasus row has become a rallying point for Opposition parties against the central government. On Wednesday too, at least 10 Opposition parties met to plan how they would question the Centre in Parliament.
Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Congress MP Rahul Gandhi demanded answers. “Has the government of India bought Pegasus? Yes or No,” Gandhi said. He added that the alleged use of Pegasus software was a concern as it “is a matter related to nationalism and treason”.
Later in the day, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee also demanded discussion on Pegasus in the Parliament, ANI reported. She was speaking to reporters after meeting Gandhi and Congress President Sonia Gandhi at their home.
“Why is the government not replying to Pegasus?” she asked. “If policy decisions are not made in Parliament, if discussions are not held there, where will it take place? This is not done at tea stalls.”
Meanwhile, Union minister Anurag Thakur blamed Opposition MPs of “running away from discussions” by disrupting the House proceedings.
“They threw papers on Speaker, ministers and even at media gallery and showed placards,” Thakur said. “Why is the Opposition [getting] involved in such objectionable acts? Doesn’t the Opposition have enough issues for discussions? Is the Opposition trying to defame India across the world?”
Outside the House too, the government and the Opposition seem to be in a deadlock on the matter.
A meeting of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology could not be held on Wednesday due to absence of quorum as Bharatiya Janata Party MPs did not participate, according to ANI.
The panel, led by Congress MP Shashi Tharoor had summoned officials of the home ministry, telecommunications department and the electronics and information technology ministry for talks on “citizens’ data security and privacy”. The panel was expected to discuss Pegasus spyware allegations.
Meanwhile, BJP MP Nishikant Dubey moved a privilege motion seeking Tharoor’s removal as the panel chief. He claimed that 17 of the 30 members of the committee have written to the Speaker stating that they no longer trust the Congress leaders.
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.
On Sunday, a leaked list of 50,000 potential targets of the spyware, “concentrated in countries known to engage in surveillance of their citizens” was released. The list 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.
Responding to allegations of snooping, Information and Technology Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, who himself happens to be on the list, said that illegal surveillance was not possible in India. The government, however, has not yet categorically denied using the Pegasus spyware on Indian citizens.