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Friday, January 28, 2022

Pegasus stalls Parliament again, TMC MP tears denial statement of IT minister

The afternoon session of the Upper House witnessed some charged moments as Opposition MPs led by Trinamool MP Santanu Sen rushed to the well of the House and tore the minister's statement.

Written by Esha Roy | New Delhi |
Updated: July 23, 2021 11:14:21 am
Information Technology Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw during his speech at the Rajya Sabha. (Video screengrab)

The Pegasus row continued to rock Parliament with Union Information Technology Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw on Thursday making a statement in the Rajya Sabha denouncing reports that the spyware could have been used to snoop on Opposition leaders, activists and others, and the Opposition forcing repeated adjournments of the House.

The afternoon session of the Upper House witnessed some charged moments as Opposition MPs led by Trinamool MP Santanu Sen rushed to the well of the House and tore the minister’s statement.

When the House met at 2 pm, after two earlier adjournments, Deputy Chairman Harivansh called for the IT Minister to present his statement before the Rajya Sabha. As Vaishnaw rose to speak, the House erupted in slogans of “Jasoosi band karo, band karo (stop spying)’’.

While the slogan shouting intensified, TMC’s Sen, accompanied by several other members of his party, entered the well of the House and tore up the minister’s statement, even as the Deputy Chairman called for calm.

Amid the din, Vaishnaw read out from the statement — nearly identical to the one he made on July 19, a day after digital news platform The Wire, as part of a global collaborative investigation, reported that 300 Indian numbers were on a list of potential targets of the Pegasus spyware.

“A highly sensational story was published by a web portal on July 18, 2021. Many over-the-top allegations were made around this story. The press report appeared a day before the Monsoon session of Parliament. This can’t be a coincidence,’’ he said.

“In the past, similar claims were made regarding the use of Pegasus on WhatsApp. Those reports had no factual basis and were categorically denied by all parties, including in the Supreme Court. The press reports of 18 July, 2021, are also an attempt to malign the Indian democracy with its well established institutions. We cannot fault those who haven’t read the story in detail, and I request all honourable members to examine the issue on facts and logic,’’ the Minister added.

IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw during the Monsoon Session of Parliament on Thursday. (PTI)

In October 2019, The Indian Express had reported that WhatsApp had confirmed use of Pegasus to target journalists and human rights activists in India. WhatsApp had made the disclosure in a lawsuit it had filed in a court in the US.

Whatsapp CEO Will Cathcart had then called on governments to restrict this “dangerous use of spyware’’. WhatsApp had sued NSO, alleging that the latter planted its Pegasus spyware in the devices of 1,400 WhatsApp users worldwide.

As Vaishnaw read out the statement, Opposition members continued to raise slogans against the government, forcing the Deputy Chairman to adjourn the House for the day.

In his statement on Thursday, which was tabled and considered as read amidst the ruckus, Vaishnaw said, “Let us examine what NSO, the company which owns the technology has said. It said: ‘NSO Group believes that claims that you have been provided with, are based on misleading interpretation of leaked data from basic information, such as HLR Lookup services, which have no bearing on the list of the customers’ targets of Pegasus or any other NSO products. Such services are openly available to anyone, anywhere, and anytime, and are commonly used by governmental agencies as well as by private companies worldwide. It is also beyond dispute that the data has nothing to do with surveillance or with NSO, so there can be no factual basis to suggest that a use of the data somehow equates to surveillance.’ …It is evident that NSO has also clearly rubbished the claims in the report.”

In a statement to The Indian Express, NSO had denied any link between the 50,000 numbers and the group or Pegasus. However, NSO added that it “will continue to investigate all credible claims of misuse and take appropriate action based on the results of these investigations.”

Barely a fortnight before the global expose, the NSO Group, in an internal policy document, had also acknowledged that “the customers for Pegasus are states and state agencies” who may be “tempted to limit fundamental freedoms”.

Though Vasihnaw in his statement pointed out the elaborate processes of law in India which prevents illegal surveillance, he did not specify, just like his predecessor Ravi Shankar Prasad, whether the Government has used Pegasus.

Reacting to today’s proceedings, sources in the government said action would be sought against the Trinamool MPs who tore the minister’s statement. “There will be some action from the government side and privilege motion is one of the options. The government will finalise it by tomorrow,” a source said.

Hitting out at the TMC, BJP president J P Nadda said, “Today the way the TMC MPs behaved with @AshwaniVaishnaw was against democratic values and are to be condemned. TMC has a long history of working against the dignity of Parliament. Shouting inside the House and tearing paper have been their culture.  BJP strongly opposes it.”

Nadda tweeted, “Indian Parliament is the glorious temple of democracy, where every moment is dedicated to the service and progress of the people in the country. But the opposition is creating obstacles in the development journey of the country by continuously disrupting the functioning of  Parliament just to protect their political existence. This is an insult to democracy.”

Addressing a press conference, BJP leader and Union Minister Meenakshi Lekhi said, “The Congress and the TMC have stooped to a new low.”

Shantanu Sen, the TMC MP at the centre of the controversy, said he was summoned by Union Minister Hardeep Singh Puri in a “bad manner”. “I still went to him… and was almost gheraoed,” he said.

Party leader in the Rajya Sabha Derek O Brien said that the government owed the country a straightforward answer on Pegasus. “The government has to give us a simple, straightforward answer. Did you use Pegasus…yes or no? We want a structured discussion. This is beyond the IT minister. The Prime Minister of the country and the Home Minister of the country have to answer,” he said.

On the possibility of the treasury benches moving a privilege motion, Rajya Sabha MP and spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi Singhvi called the ruckus in the Upper House “a closed matter” and that the government was trying to “divert and digress from real issues”.

“I was also in the House at that time and everything subsided and ended reasonably soon. However, if for ulterior motives, to divert, to digress, to confuse, to take away the focus from major issues like snooping, surveillance and fundamental assaults on freedom of press, the government wants to create this thing by reviving a closed issue, then I think, everybody will see through it, because they don’t want the focus to remain on the real issues,” he told The Indian Express.

With Liz Mathew, Manoj C G, Dipankar Ghose in New Delhi

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