AASU, Ulfa leaders also on Pegasus list
Phone numbers of All Assam Students Union chief advisor Samujjal Bhattacharya and leader of the pro-talks faction of the banned United Liberation Front of Asom (Ulfa), Anup Chetia apart from a Manipur writer were potentially targeted for surveillance in 2018-19 using Israeli firm NSO’s Pegasus software, an investigative consortium reported on Wednesday.
Bhattacharya’s phone number was included as a possible target for hacking by the software less than a month before the Union ministry of home affairs (MHA) announced the reconstitution of a high-level committee to implement a clause of the Assam Accord on July 16, 2019, according to a report by online news portal, The Wire, which is part of a 17-member media consortium.
Bhattacharya, who was made a member in this committee, could not be reached for his comment despite multiple attempts. The agreement, signed by AASU and the central government in 1985, forms the basis for notifying March 24, 1971 as the cut-off date to grant citizenship in the state.
Anup Cheta said he wasn’t surprised that his name figured in this list. “As a former member of ULFA, we once indulged in anti-India activities. So, I am not surprised that my name has come up in that list. I am sure my phones are being tracked all the time,” Chetia said.
He, however, stressed that he hadn’t “indulged in any anti-national or criminal activities” in 18 years. “Because of my past, it is natural that I could be under surveillance. But I’m not bothered about it,” he said.
The Wire said Chetia’s number was selected for possible surveillance in late 2018. In November 2018, Chetia warned the Centre against pushing the Citizenship Amendment Bill that was eventually passed the following month.
To be sure, the presence of a number does not indicate the individual’s phone was hacked — just that it was of interest.
The third person in the list, as reported by The Wire, has been identified as a Manipuri writer based in Delhi, Malem Ningthouja. The news portal said that his number was selected sometime in 2019 for possible surveillance.
The numbers were part of a global database accessed by the French non-profit Forbidden Stories and shared with a 17-member media consortium, including The Guardian, Le Monde, The Washington Post and the Wire. Previous reports said the Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, former election commissioner Ashok Lavasa and two sitting union ministers were on the list of potential targets, as were 38 Indian journalists, including three current Hindustan Times staffers and one from sister publication Mint.