Lok Sabha halted, Rajya Sabha disrupted over Pegasus snoop list
Protests over prominent politicians, journalists, constitutional authorities and even sitting ministers being allegedly targeted by Israeli spyware rocked Parliament on Tuesday with Opposition lawmakers repeatedly disrupting both Houses and demanding urgent debates on the subject.
The Lok Sabha failed to transact any business and the Rajya Sabha managed to hold a debate on the country’s Covid-19 situation later in the day.
The disruptions came a day after a global investigative consortium reported that Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, former election commissioner Ashok Lavasa, election strategist Prashant Kishor, Trinamool Congress (TMC) leader Abhishek Banerjee and two sitting Union ministers were among people potentially targeted by Israeli phone hacking software Pegasus.
“There are issues of concern. We should not read only in the newspapers or see it on the TV,” said Congress’s deputy leader in the Rajya Sabha, Anand Sharma, demanding a debate.
To be sure, the presence of a number does not indicate the individual’s phone was hacked — just that it was of interest. In the absence of digital forensics of specific devices, it is not possible to conclusively establish that the phones linked to these numbers were hacked.
Opposition leaders from the Congress and the TMC had given notice under Rule 267— to suspend other business and take up debate on the Pegasus controversy. YSR Congress also gave a similar notice to demand a special package for Andhra Pradesh. In the Lok Sabha, MPs rushed down to the Well of the House over the Pegasus row, oil price hike and farm laws.
As soon as the Lok Sabha assembled at 11am, Opposition members started shouting slogans and showing placards against the government. The House was adjourned within five minutes.
When it reassembled at 2pm, the protests resumed. One of the placards in Hindi said that while people are unemployed, the government was busy with “jasoosi” (spying).
Some Congress members held placards about Gandhi’s name appearing in the list of potential targets. TMC members shouted slogans against Banerjee’s phone number being in the list. Other parties such as Shiromani Akali Dal, YSR Congress and Aam Aadmi Party also protested over separate issues.
Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla urged the members to restore normalcy, reminding them that it is improper to raise issues from the Well. “You are all senior leaders. Don’t try to create a wrong precedent in the House,” Birla said.
The House was finally adjourned for the day at 3pm.
The Rajya Sabha was also disrupted in the morning but assembled for the Covid debate in the afternoon.
Amid the protests, Rajya Sabha chairman Venkaiah Naidu said that members had the right to raise important issues but “if 15 people today, 17 people yesterday, give notice under Rule 267 on a variety of issues, what is the way for the chairman to admit notices and then take the House forward?”
The TMC said it will continue to disrupt Parliament till the government comes clean on the issue.
“This is a serious issue and the TMC will not compromise on it. We will not let either House run till this government comes clean on the charges of snooping and surveillance. The government has spent millions to hack into phones at a time when the country is dealing with a pandemic,” TMC Rajya Sabha MP Derek O’Brien said.
Earlier in the day, some Opposition leaders in the Rajya Sabha held an informal meeting — the first such effort towards floor coordination — on how to balance between the two key issues: Pegasus controversy and the Covid-19 debate. The leaders decided that the Upper House won’t be allowed to run for anything else except the Covid-19 debate.
A highly invasive malware, Pegasus can switch on a target’s phone camera and microphone, as well as access data on the device, effectively turning a phone into a pocket spy. In some cases, it can be installed without the need to trick a user into initiating a download. In 2019, WhatsApp disclosed that 121 users from India were among those globally spied upon by unnamed entities using Pegasus.
The investigation is based on a data leak of around 50,000 numbers obtained by Amnesty International and Paris-based Forbidden Stories, a non-profit organisation. Amnesty International subsequently forensically investigated 67 of these phones, and found 23 hacked and 14 showing signs of attempted penetration. The Wire reported that 10 of the phones forensically examined in India showed they had either been hacked or signs of an attempted hacking.
Pegasus’s manufacturer, Israel-based NSO group, called the investigation “full of wrong assumptions and uncorroborated theories”, and said it sold its software “solely to law enforcement and intelligence agencies of vetted governments”.
The consortium – which comprises 17 media organisations, including The Guardian, The Washington Post, Le Monde and Indian news website The Wire – published on Sunday that 38 Indian journalists, including three current Hindustan Times staffers and one from sister publication Mint, were among 180 journalists potentially targeted worldwide, including Financial Times editor Roula Khalaf, and reporters from the Wall Street Journal, CNN, New York Times, and Le Monde.
On Monday, it reported that Gandhi, Lavasa, information and technology minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, jal shakti minister of state Prahlad Singh Patel, public health experts Gagandeep Kang and M Hari Menon, and the woman who accused then chief justice of India Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment in 2019, were potentially targeted.
The government denied any involvement.
“Aap Chronology Samajhiye! [Understand the chronology] This is a report by the disrupters for the obstructers. Disrupters are global organisations which do not like India to progress. Obstructers are political players in India who do not want India to progress,” Union home minister Amit Shah said in a statement on Monday.
Vaishnaw told Parliament – hours before his name was revealed in the list -- that the allegations were an “attempt to malign Indian democracy and its well-established institutions”. “Time tested processes in our country are well-established to ensure that unauthorised surveillance does not occur,” he said in his first speech as IT minister in the Lok Sabha.