The entire edifice on which the Pegasus story was structured was based on some ‘potential’ possibilities and not conclusive evidence. Raking up of the controversy, its timing, and the actors behind it raise many disturbing questions
Screening of motion pictures usually start with an important disclaimer or caveat which reads as following, “all the characters and incidents in this film are imaginary, resemblance to any person dead or alive is purely coincidental”. On July 18, 2021, a day before the crucial monsoon session of Parliament was to start, something similar happened. News portal named The Wire, known for its ‘shoot and scoot’ kind of journalism, tendency of making outrageous claims, and rabid hatred for the Modi Government, came out with a series of articles on what they have named as ‘Pegasus Project’ to claim quite despicably that a considerable number of Indian journalists, activists, Opposition leaders and even ministers have been spied upon through their phones. Surprisingly, even though their attempted allegations are no doubt directed towards the Modi Government, yet the articles came with an important caveat, much on the lines of disclaimers on movies.
The Wire states the following
‘The mere presence of a phone number in the leaked data does alone not reveal whether a device was infected. Indeed, it is not possible to know whether their phones were targeted by Pegasus spyware – the Tel Aviv-based firm’s flagship product, which allows operators of the tool to gain unauthorised access to a user’s mobile device and functions – without digital forensic analysis.’
So much for investigative journalism!
Not just that, the title of some of the articles read like these. The first one states: ‘Pegasus Project: How Phones of Journalists, Ministers, Activists May Have Been Used to Spy On Them’
Another one has a title which reads the following: ‘Leaked Data Shows Surveillance Net in Elgar Parishad Case May Have Crossed a Line’
In both cases, what is critical is the stress on the word ‘may’ which vindicates that the articles have been published without any conclusive evidence of any kind of snooping. While The Wire has attempted much to project itself as a key member of the so-called collaborative project ambitiously titled ‘ Pegasus Project’, in reality it is a mere courier or carrier of report while the original content of the story belonged to Amnesty International, which in itself raises much suspicion.
Old Wine in New Bottle?
In essence, the sensationalism created by a section of media is nothing new. Stories around Pegasus were circulated by the usual suspects in 2019 as well. Even then fingers were pointed towards the Modi Government but it did not get any traction and the story died down. The same story has now been revived again. It is more like ‘old wine in new bottle’ or rather to be honest, poorly brewed wine in a low-priced bottle.
The most important aspect of this attempted creation of controversy is the timing of the release of the report which coincides with the beginning of the monsoon session of Indian Parliament. The country having weathered a catastrophic second wave of coronavirus, has successfully been able to bring the situation under reasonable control. While efforts are being made to make sure that the COVID-hit economy is given the necessary support system to trigger growth and revive normalcy, the country simultaneously, under the aegis of Prime Minister Modi has undertaken the world’s biggest vaccination drive to inoculate more than 100 crore people along with taking contingency measures for a possible third wave.
The States and Opposition parties after a spate of making tall claims realised that it is beyond their ability to accomplish the task (to vaccinate a billion people with COVID vaccines), which in reality is not just about vaccinating alone but about coordinating with vaccine-makers to have seamless production of vaccines in India enough for a billion plus populace, work with concerned authorities for approval of new vaccine candidates, helping potential contract manufacturers of vaccine to ramp up their facilities and safety protocols, develop the logistical architecture for shipment of vaccines from production hub up to the last mile vaccination centres spread across the length and breadth of the entire geographical landscape of India, and making sure that fund is never a problem. With more than 40 crore doses vaccinations having already been completed, the Modi Government has displayed that it means business and it knows how to accomplish challenging tasks in spite of critics and naysayers creating obstacles at every front.
Preventing Passage of Key Bills
In the midst of the massive task of vaccinating a billion-plus population, the Modi Government has also been undertaking a series of reform initiatives that are aimed at triggering the next generation growth in India, create self-sufficiency in supply chains and production of critical products, save valuable resources by preventing wastage and pilferage through enhanced competition in market, and by investing massively in infrastructure projects.
Further, the Government also had to simultaneously deal with an unreliable China and its intransigence, and for which the Modi Government, even in the midst of the pandemic has been spending enormous amount of money for shoring up border infrastructure along with acquisition of critical weapons systems, both tactical and strategic in nature. Add to that the deteriorating geopolitical scenario in Afghanistan, the changing dimension of asymmetric warfare, emergence of new types of threats including use of drones by non-State actors, there are therefore a whole host of challenges that, Government of India has been dealing with and patiently making India more resilient from within. Even for something as ubiquitous as setting up oxygen plants in hospital premises, it is the Modi Government which has been taking the initiative to set up 1500 oxygen plants even when health is a State subject.
The monsoon session was meant for discussion on all these, for passage of crucial Bills and for deliberations on future course of action on a variety of issues. But sadly, for some of India’s Opposition parties and lobbies, these issues are not that important. What is more important for them, and unfortunately so, is creating ruckus in the parliament and disrupt the proceedings on the pretext an inconclusive report. It was as if the whole thing was orchestrated beforehand so that the release of the report coincides with start of parliamentary proceedings. It is because of this that the Union Home Minister stated, ‘Aap Chronology Samjhiye’ (please understand the chronology).
Wired to Lie
One of the articles in The Wire titled ‘Leaked Data Shows Surveillance Net in Elgar Parishad Case May Have Crossed a Line’ tried to claim that the activists of Elgar Parishad who have been arrested, had their phone numbers were under surveillance. What The Wire and its cohorts did not state is that the so-called human rights activists or civil rights activists, who have been arrested, were not put behind bars for their opposition to the Modi Government but for accusations of heinous conspiracies, instigation to violence, call for waging of wars, for being members of banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) and even conspiring to assassinate the Prime Minister of India. These are stuff which can be safely deduced as acts of terror and the tag of ‘human rights activist’ that many of them prefix before their names is a mere window dressing. The best efforts made by the lobbies and the powerful syndicates to get them bail by appointing the best of lawyers, did not work out as judiciary time and again denied bail to most because of the gravity of charges. One should simply apply logic to ask oneself if Umar Khalid is an activist or a mastermind of riots. A person who played a key role in masterminding the Delhi riots, can that person be merely called an activist?
In such a scenario, lecturing about privacy of such people is a bogus logic and law enforcement agencies are well within their rights to take action against those who conspire to wage war against the state.
Interestingly, even as this article was being drafted cybersecurity journalist Kim Zetter tweeted the following
Amnesty Distancing itself from Claims?
Therefore, most shockingly, the entire edifice on which the Pegasus story was structured, sadly was based on some ‘potential’ possibilities and not conclusive evidence. And ironically, based on that, the Opposition parties have been trying to take Parliament to ransom. Or else why did Amnesty reportedly state, "Amnesty, and the investigative journalists and media outlets they work with have made clear from the outset in very clear language that this is a list of numbers marked as numbers of interest to NSO customers, meaning they are the kind of people NSO clients might like to spy on."? Is it same as saying ‘definitely snooped upon’? Certainly not.
One is then compelled to wonder as to why this sensationalism was created. While disruption of Parliament can be one reason, it cannot merely be for that alone. Was the larger agenda of those behind the dangerous spins that were given to an otherwise stale story, to corner the Government and force it do away with all kind of intelligence gathering against those who are surreptitiously attempting to subvert the sovereign state and frequently trying to trigger Arab Spring kind of civil-war like situation and weaken the state?
Herein it is also important to understand as to how the dimensions of warfare are changing and conventional as well as asymmetric warfare, such as militancy, is increasingly giving more space to Arab Spring type orchestration of civil war type situation which is spearheaded by those who carry the air of ‘intellectualism’, fluently speak English, have an outwardly mind and courteous nature, and yet deep inside carry diabolical plans to devastate nations like India through triggering armed violence, lawlessness and large scare turmoil. The problem for them is not Pegasus, for whatever that entity might be, but the fact that their efforts to create caste wars through Bhima Koregaon type of incidents, or their efforts to burn down the nation through anti-CAA or Republic Day riots, their efforts to strengthen the Maoist movement and uproot democratically elected governments through violent means, their efforts to iconize Islamist terrorists like Burhan Wani have failed time and again. Their problem is how could the agencies either preempt their plans or contain violence shortly after they have erupted. In other words, do they just want the Government to shut down intelligence agencies? Their problem is also that people of India, by and large, cutting across caste, creed, religion and region, still have deep faith in democratic institutions, elected Governments and their sense of nationalism remains rock solid.
In an earlier article, titled George Soros Network, Democracy & the Toolkit of Instigating Violence, it was vividly explained as to what is the real agenda of some of the global NGOs and their Indian cohorts can be
To quote from that
‘In fact, an excerpt from the book ‘Globalization’ by George Soros, as quoted in an article in medium.com by Paul Austin Murphy, titled, ‘George Soros Explains What He Means By “Open Society”’ gives an indication of what the powerful philanthropist, supporting many a dissent, think of nations. He writes, “The member states of the EU have gone quite far in surrendering their sovereignty. The future of the EU will show how far it is possible to go along that avenue.”Does George Soros want every country to give up its sovereignty? Is that even a plausible idea? In fact, as per Bloomberg, “Billionaire George Soros said he will commit $1 billion to start a global university to fight authoritarian governments and climate change, calling them twin challenges that threaten the survival of our civilization.” Is India among those at the receiving end of this maleficent generosity? In that case, it is time for India and its 1.3 billion people to fight back.’
One has to remember that it is these kinds of global NGOs and their maleficent generosity aimed at destroying nations from within, that countries like India are fighting on a daily basis even while keeping democratic values intact.
Some Claims Simply Don’t Add Up
Another outrageous claim that is has been made is that several journalist and politicians from opposition parties have also been put on surveillance. Frankly, some of the so-called journalists whose names have been claimed by The Wire, are not even worth snooping upon. A glance at their random, ad-hoc tweets are good enough to know what they are up to. Nothing more is needed.
The Wire had also claimed the following
In the midst of the heated West Bengal assembly election, the phone of poll strategist Prashant Kishor was broken into using NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware, according to digital forensics conducted by Amnesty International’s Security Lab and shared with The Wire.
In addition, the mobile number of Abhishek Banerjee, the powerful Trinamool Congress MP who is nephew of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee and a key party strategist, was also selected as a potential target for surveillance by a government client of NSO Group, an investigation of leaked data by The Wire and its media partners on the Pegasus Project has shown. Also on the list is Banerjee’s personal secretary.
The article in The Wire co-authored by none other than Siddharth Varadarajan, while claiming that ‘the phone of poll strategist Prashant Kishor was broken into using NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware’, also surprisingly, rather schizophrenically states in the very next paragraph, ‘Their phones, and the phone of a close aide to Kishor, were not immediately available for forensic investigation, making it impossible to say definitively whether an attempt to hack them was made.’
How can a publication in the same article claim something appalling having severe political ramifications, and then in the very next sentence state that it is impossible to say definitely whether an attempt to hack was indeed made?
In fact, one is left to wonder that if at all Prashant Kishor’s phone was put on surveillance, as claimed by The Wire, and given the efficacy of Pegasus to extract all kinds of information, as is being claimed by media, then how come BJP lost the Bengal election in spite of having Prashant Kishor’s strategies in its fingertips? Is this not contradictory?
Let us Rewind to the UPA Era
While much noise is being made by Congress on this story, one is compelled to remind the Grand Old Party about some incidents during the UPA era. Has the country forgotten about the Nira Radia tape cases? As per reports, CBI had then informed Supreme Court that it was in possession of 5851 call recordings of corporate lobbyist Nira Radia who was ‘accused of fixing mobile bandwidth licences on behalf of some corporate houses’. Were those authorisation for tapping that invariably came from higher authorities, infringement of privacy or within the defined limits of Government of India? Has anyone forgotten about the bugs planted for eavesdropping in 2010-11 in the office of the-then Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee? Was it possible for such planting to happen without authorisation, official or unofficial, from higher echelons in Government? These questions deserve an answer.
Foreign News Channels Giving a Dangerous Spin to the Fake Saga
The more shocking aspect of the entire saga is how some foreign news channels known for their disdain for the nationalist Indian Government gave deplorable spin to the story even though the story’s veracity has been in doubt from beginning.
Al Jazeera for example, came out with an article on July 20, titled, ‘India’s PM Modi accused of ‘treason’ over Pegasus spyware scandal’. Treason? Is that the right word for a Prime Minister who has done so much to bolster India’s national security in the last seven years? Ideally, the Government of India should file a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against Al Jazeera and ban it from being aired in India. That is the only kind of language Al Jazeera kind of entities, known for their sympathy for certain Islamist terror groups, understand. Al Jazeera’s alleged support for extremist organization Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the stand taken by Egyptian Government against Al Jazeera is well known. The owner of Al Jazeera, i.e. Government of Qatar have often been accused of giving some or the other form of assistance to radical extremist organisations like Taliban, Hamas or Muslim Brotherhood. Both Egyptian Government and Saudi Government had taken strict action against Al Jazeera in the past and forced its shutters down in the respective countries. No one should forget how time and again many of these western or middle east-based news channels have mocked India’s technological achievements and played down India’s befitting reply to Pakistan post Pulwama attack.
Solidarity with the Centre
The Modi Government has taken the right decision of not caving in to the demand of some of the Opposition parties and self-proclaimed champions of free speech and privacy. While the ‘Pegasus Project’ story is having a premature death with Amnesty quietly distancing itself from the claims made earlier, it is time for the Government of India remain firm because it is well within its rights given by the Constitution of India to use means at its disposal to keep India secure from all kinds of subversive activities through preemptive actions against rabble rousers and conspirators.
In the last seven years more than a thousand dreaded terrorists have been neutralised in J&K. Likewise, hundreds of terror modules have been busted by intelligence agencies across India and several Maoist operatives masquerading as ‘intellectuals’ have been prosecuted and put behind bars. With terror organisations becoming more sophisticated and using newer means of encrypted communications to evade surveillance, the onus is on the Government of India to use the best technologies available across the world to keep India’s sovereignty safe and secure.
It is interesting to see how some of the political parties who were jumping around for the last few days on Pegasus issue, have suddenly shifted gears and focusing more on farmer issue, knowing well perhaps that the Pegasus Project is now a fiasco and is fast losing traction. Also, it did at all alter perception of people of India against the Modi Government is considered. Most did not bother. Surprising that none of the rabble rousers are willing to go to the court to fight it out legally, knowing well perhaps that this would never stand the scrutiny of law.
The thing that amuses the most is the thread that binds those who have been supporting anti-CAA riots, Republic Day Riots to the hilt, have spent enormous time to create hesitancy on vaccination as well as in questioning the efficacy of Indian vaccines and now latching on to the Pegasus issue like last straw. It is the same set of portals who never spare an opportunity to question Uttar Pradesh Government but remain silent when the Kerala Government continues with its mishandling of COVID.
Time to Regulate News Portals with Questionable Source of Funding
While everyone in a democratic set-up has the right to ask questions, participate in constructive criticism, the Centre should do well to investigate the funding patterns of some of the standalone news-portals and their questionable revenue model, in spite of which they continue to thrive. Where exactly is the money coming for them to continue with their ‘shoot and scoot’ journalism? Have some of these portals become front for foreign NGOs to silently create disruption and vitiate environment inside the country?
At a time when India in spite of the devastating second wave, has turned around and is poised to rise again, are there elements who continue to attempt to create fissures and fault lines? If earlier this year it was the Republic Day riot, followed by raking the needless Central Vista controversy, which too failed, and then deliberate attempts to trigger communal tension through a concocted video of an elderly person being thrashed by a group of people could be witnessed, then now it is Pegasus. A few days down the line, Pegasus would be forgotten. It would then be something else. But the saga of attempts to trigger mayhem, tension, confusion, distrust inside the country would continue. It is time therefore, for the Government to draw the redlines for such portals and make them come clear on their funding.
The revelations on the funding of Newsclick and allegations of pumping in of money by foreign based Neville Roy Singham, from whom the portal allegedly got Rs 38 crore form 2018-21, and his alleged association with the propaganda arm of the Communist Party of China, raises serious doubts about the ulterior motive of these portals. Certainly, Newsclick is not a billion-dollar worth unicorn start-up that it would get such funding. Certainly, the objective is apparently portentous and an indication of how new age hybrid war is being waged. Just like the Government of India has introduced a well-defined set of rules for social media intermediaries to put a lid on the disinformation war being waged through social media platforms, something similar is needed regulate these news portals as well. India is not a laissez faire free-for-all banana republic. For far too long, India’s democracy has been misused by those who have utter disdain for democratically elected Governments. It is time regulation is brought on such portals.
(The writer is a research consultant on strategic, defence & security affairs)
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