Congress MP Shashi Tharoor on Sunday categorically blamed members of the Bharatiya Janata Party for scuttling a parliamentary panel meeting last month, which was supposed to discuss the alleged surveillance of phones using Pegasus spyware, The Indian Express reported.
The meeting, which was scheduled to take place on July 28, could not be held due to lack of quorum. The panel, comprising 21 members from the Lok Sabha and 10 from the Rajya Sabha, needs the attendance of at least 10 members to take up matters for discussion.
Tharoor said that representatives of three ministries also refused to attend the meeting at the last moment.
The Congress leader has written to Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla asking him to take “serious cognisance” of the matter. In his letter, he said that the conduct of the officials was “unprecedented” and amounted to “breach of parliamentary privilege” and “contempt of the House”.
“It is no secret that the committee’s meeting on its established agenda was disrupted by BJP members who did not want Pegasus to be discussed,” Tharoor told The Indian Express. Tharoor is the chairman of the Standing Committee on Information Technology.
“It was unprecedented for 10 members [of the BJP] to attend and to refuse to sign the register in order to prevent a discussion,” Tharoor said. “Three officials who were supposed to testify that day appear to have been instructed not to attend, making last-minute excuses, which is a grievous assault on the prerogatives of parliamentary committees to summon witnesses.”
The Pegasus surveillance row has led to an impasse, with the Opposition demanding a discussion during the Parliament’s Monsoon Session on allegations that the spyware was used to spy on several politicians, journalists and activists in India. The government has, however, refused to discuss the matter.
Tharoor also reiterated the Opposition’s demand for a Supreme Court-monitored inquiry into the allegations, according to The Indian Express. He expressed the hope that the topic would come up for a discussion in the parliamentary committee “going forward”.
“The IT panel might still discuss it because the topics remain on the agenda and we have to write a report on [it] but there is no doubt on my mind that if you really want some answers, the judiciary can get more searching answers,” Tharoor said.
Pegasus surveillance allegations
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”.
The list of potential targets in India includes over 40 journalists, two Union ministers, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, former Election Commissioner of India Ashok Lavasa and a former Supreme Court staffer who had accused former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment.
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.
Responding to the allegations of spying, Information Technology Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, who himself happens to be on the list of potential targets of the spyware, told Parliament on July 19 that illegal surveillance was not possible in India. However, the Centre has not yet categorically denied that it used the Pegasus spyware.