Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar on Monday called for an inquiry into the allegations that the Pegasus spyware was used to spy on politicians, journalists and activists in India, NDTV reported. The Janata Dal (United) leader is the first ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party to have raised this demand.
“Indeed it should be done,” Kumar told reporters when asked if there should be an investigation into the matter. “For so many days, there has been talks of telephone tapping...it should definitely be discussed.”
Kumar acknowledged that the Opposition has been constantly raising the matter in Parliament. “Whatever we know about the matter is because it is being raised in the Parliament and from the news reports,” the chief minister said. “But the entire thing should be made public...there should definitely be an investigation when people are discussing the matter for so long.”
The Monsoon Session of Parliament has seen several disruptions as the government and the Opposition have reached an impasse over discussion into the surveillance allegations.
The Opposition has been demanding a discussion and an independent investigation led by a Supreme Court judge into the matter. But, the government has refused to hold discussions on the matter in Parliament.
The alleged misuse of the spyware came to light earlier this month 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”.
Responding to the allegations, Information Technology Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, who himself happens to be on the list of potential targets of the spyware, told the Parliament on July 19 that illegal surveillance was not possible in India. However, the Centre has not yet categorically denied having used the Pegasus spyware.
Outside the Parliament too, the BJP has been reluctant on discussions on the matter.
On July 28, BJP MPs refused to participate in a meeting of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology. The panel was scheduled to discuss the subject of “citizens’ data security and privacy”. However, 15 of the 31 panel members belonging to the BJP, did not sign attendance registers during the meeting.
The panel needs the attendance of at least 10 members to take up matters for discussion.
The potential list of targets in India include 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.
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.
Pointing this out, the Opposition has demanded that the government should come clean on whether it indeed used the spyware on the country’ citizens.
“Has the government of India bought Pegasus? Yes or No,” Rahul Gandhi said in a joint media briefing of Opposition parties on July 28. “Did the government use Pegasus weapon against its own people?”.