Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla on Thursday said he was not happy with the manner in which the Opposition parties protested in the House while moving an adjournment motion to discuss the Pegasus surveillance controversy. The Speaker cautioned “habitual offenders” and said he might take action against them.

On Wednesday, both Houses of Parliament were adjourned as MPs of the Congress and Left parties tore papers related to business of the House and threw them towards the officers’ table and the Speaker’s chair. Trinamool Congress MP shouted their now-popular slogan of “khela hobe [game on]”.

The MPs also held a banner that read: “Pegasus snoopgate – we demand Supreme Court-monitored judicial probe.”

Birla on Thursday called the protests “very painful”, and said that the demonstrations were against the norms of Parliament.

“Whatever happened yesterday was against the basic ethics of the House,” Birla said at the beginning of the proceedings on Thursday. “If there are any complaints, then they should come to my chamber with the issues.”

The Speaker reminded the members of the House that they were representatives of the public and were therefore accountable to them. “We have to decide how to improve the dignity and respect of the House,” he added.

The Monsoon Session of Parliament has had several disruptions over the past week as the Union 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.


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Proceedings on Thursday

The Parliament on Thursday too saw multiple adjournments as the Opposition protests continued.

The Lok Sabha passed the Airports Economic Regulatory Authority of India (Amendment) Bill, 2021 and The Inland Vessels Bill, 2021, without a debate. The Speaker also initiated the Question Hour and central ministers replied to some queries amid the uproar, reported The Indian Express.

When implemented, the Airports Economic Regulatory Authority of India (Amendment) Bill, 2021 will allow the Centre to group airports and notify them as a major airport. The Inland Vessels Bill, 2021, proposes a uniform regulatory framework for navigation across India.

The Rajya Sabha also saw adjournments repeatedly and only the Factoring Regulation (Amendment) Bill was passed in the House as Opposition leaders shouted slogans. The proposed amendment seeks to widen the purview of entities that can engage in factoring business.

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.

Meanwhile, the Standing Committee on Information Technology was on Wednesday unable to discuss the allegations against the Centre for using the Pegasus software to spy on citizens as Bharatiya Janata Party MPs reportedly refused to participate in the talks.

Pegasus spyware

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 July 18, 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.