Pegasus-Maharashtra connection? State starts inquiry into 2019 Israel tour of officials
Maharashtra government’s director-general of information and publicity (DGIPR) has started an inquiry into the tour of five of its senior officials to Israel in November 2019
Maharashtra government’s director-general of information and publicity (DGIPR) has started an inquiry into the tour of five of its senior officials to Israel in November 2019. The inquiry has begun on the heels of the demand by the ruling Congress to probe if the Pegasus reports have any Maharashtra connection. The department has issued notices to the officials, asking them to submit a report on the tour as a preliminary inquiry has found several violations of set rules related to foreign tours.
Five senior officials, including a director of the department, had toured Israel between November 15, 2019 and November 25, 2019, when the formation of the government after the Assembly polls was in full swing. The tour was chalked out hurriedly without taking any mandatory permission from the chief minister and the central government or the Election Commission of India (ECI). The team of officials did not submit a report on the tour even one-and-a-half years after it took place, the preliminary inquiry revealed.
“Notices have been served to the officials, asking them to submit details of the tour, including objective, itinerary, meetings that took place and efforts by them to ensure that the department benefited from the experience, among others. The account of the expenditure on tour has not been settled as yet, although more than ₹20 lakh was spent. The officials have been directed to submit their say as soon as possible,” said an official from the general administrative department.
“The officials had extended their tour by a few days, when the extension of any such official tour is not permitted. The permission from the chief minister of the state is mandatory for any such foreign tour, along with a few ministries of central government. Since the model code of conduct was in place when the tour was being chalked out, the permission from the ECI too was necessary. The DGIPR had taken the permission by the then chief secretary, but it was not sufficient. The rules also mandate for an official invitation from the government of the country they are visiting. In this case, the tour was planned on the basis of the letter given by the consul-general of Israel in Mumbai. We have found gross violation of the laid down rules related to foreign tours of officials,” another official from the government said.
Maharashtra Congress’s general secretary and spokesperson Sachin Sawant on Monday had demanded that the state government should probe if there is any links related to Maharashtra in the Pegasus leaks. The illegal and unauthorised phone tapping done by IPS officer Rashmi Shukla, who headed the state intelligence department during the Fadnavis government, is being probed and the truth will soon come to the fore. But there are also doubts if there are any Maharashtra links to Pegasus leaks and any IPS officer who was posted at Mantralaya was working on it? A few officials from the DGIPR of the state had visited Israel during the Lok Sabha elections in 2019. Questions, including if they got any training, by whose permission they had gone, did they submit any report to the government, how many times did they go to Israel, were there any scheduled meetings in Israel, had government had any correspondence with NSO or any presentation was made to the state government, need to be answered. A probe into the issue will throw light on these questions,” Sawant said.
In January 2020,former Madhya Pradesh CM and Rajya Sabha MP Digvijay Singh, in a series of tweets, said: “Is the @OfficeofUT going to give details in public that who was behind snooping and tapping in #maharashtra Who were the officers of Maharashtra Govt who went to #Israel to talk to#NS0 the brain behind malware #pegasus @PawarSpeaks.”
After the demand, the then home minister Anil Deshmukh had announced a committee of senior officials from the home department but the probe never took off. Leader of opposition and former chief minister Devendra Fadnavis said that the team of officers had gone to Israel but it was well after the Assembly polls ended. “The team had gone to study the farming and farm techniques in Israel. Maharashtra government during my tenure as the CM never had taken any services of the NSO. Let the government probe into the case.” The DGIPR is also checking about several Israel tours of a senior officer from DGIPR during the Fadanvis government. The department also has the information about the logistics support provided by a local agency in Israel. “The officials who went on tour may not have direct links with the alleged phone tapping controversy as none of them has any technical knowledge required. We believe that it was a leisure tour organised to oblige senior officials from the government,” a senior official from the GAD said.
When contacted, Dilip Pandharpatte, director-general of information and public relations, refused to speak on the issue. Aditi Tatkare, minister of state for general administration, said she was not aware of any probe. “The publicity department does take cognisance of the media reports related to the government. I am not aware if any such probe has been started and if there was any official complaint made by Sachin Sawant.”
Meanwhile, upping its ante against the Centre, the Shiv Sena on Tuesday demanded a probe by a Joint Parliamentary Committee in the Pegasus snooping controversy. Sena MPs wrote to Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla, making the demand, and handed over the letter to the Speaker.
Sena’s Lok Sabha group leader Vinayak Raut said, “The issue of phone tapping that has come out is extremely serious. The phones of several prominent people, including ministers who are now serving, have been tapped. Therefore, a probe must be done through JPC.”
Sena leader and chief spokesperson Sanjay Raut said that the incident is not just a “threat to freedom” but also “betrayal of the people” of this country. He further demanded that prime minister Narendra Modi or union home minister Amit Shah must speak on this matter. “Gradually more names will come forward and we are confident that names of political leaders from Maharashtra will also be there. We are sure that Information and Technology and such softwares have been used and possibly be in use to stop us. This is a big conspiracy and nobody can dare to do this without the support of the government,” Raut said in New Delhi.