Congress leader and head of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology Shashi Tharoor has written to Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla, asking him to take action against three representatives of Union ministries for their “last-minute refusal” to attend the panel’s Wednesday meeting, PTI reported on Friday.

The IT panel, which was going to discuss the allegations against the Centre for using the Pegasus software to spy on citizens, had called officials of the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, Ministry of Home Affairs, and Department of Telecommunication on the subject “Citizens’ Data Security and Privacy”.

The meeting, however, could not take place as Bharatiya Janata Party MPs reportedly refused to participate in the talks. The panel, comprising 21 members from the Lok Sabha and 10 from the Rajya Sabha, needs the attendance of 10 members to take up matters for discussion.

On Wednesday, the panel only had nine members left after the BJP MPs did not sign attendance registers, according to The Indian Express. Out of the 31 members in the panel, 15 are from the BJP.

In his letter to Birla, Tharoor said that the ministry officials notified about their inability to attend the meeting within minutes of each other. The Congress leader pointed out that the officials concerned were informed about the meeting as early as July 20 and they had confirmed their participation.

“However, just before the sitting was about to take place, I was informed by the Committee Branch of the Secretariat that email communications have been received in the afternoon around 3 pm on July 28 from the three Ministries/Department informing that their representative will not be able to appear before the Committee,” he wrote.

Giving a sequence of events, Tharoor said that the Union Ministry of Home Affairs sent an e-mail at 2.33 pm, “seeking an exemption from attending the meeting on account of urgent and pressing commitments related to the… Parliament session”.

This was followed by a mail from the IT ministry at 2.42 pm, which also sought exemption from appearance for the officer concerned. The mail stated that the Joint Committee on Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019, the chairperson wanted to have an urgent meeting with the secretary and other senior officers of the ministry for discussion and clarification on Bill at 3.45 pm.

Similarly, at 2.52 pm, the Department of Telecommunication mailed, saying that “it will not be possible for [the] secretary, DoT, to appear before the committee due to urgent Parliament related matters relating to Parliament questions listed for July 29,” Tharoor said.

The Congress leader cited direction 59(1) of the Directions by Speaker, which says that a ministry or department should be represented by the secretary or its head if required to give evidence before a committee on any matter. Using this, Tharoor told Birla that as chairperson, he did not excuse these officials from attendance.

“The last-minute refusal of the ministries/department to appear before the Committee has been unprecedented and clearly constitutes breach of parliamentary privilege and contempt of the House,” Tharoor said. “Besides, this has undermined the authority of a Parliamentary Committee. I hope you will take serious cognizance of this matter and undertake action as deemed appropriate under the rules.”

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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.

The alleged misuse of the spyware came to light earlier in July when Paris-based media nonprofit Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International accessed a database featuring more than 50,000 phone numbers “concentrated in countries known to engage in surveillance of their citizens”.

Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International shared the list with Indian news website The Wire and 16 other media organisations across the world, who did extensive reporting on the matter. Their investigation is called the Pegasus Project.

The India list features over 40 journalists, two Union ministers, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, former Election Commissioner of India Ashok Lavasa and a former Supreme Court staffer who accused former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment. Industrialist Anil Ambani and former Central Bureau of Investigation Director Alok Verma were also among the potential targets of the spyware.