West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. (File photo)
West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. (File photo)

Mamata forms committee to probe Pegasus snooping row

The Pegasus row erupted last Sunday before the beginning of the current monsoon session of Parliament after an international investigative consortium reported that India was among the countries that used phone hacking software to potentially target politicians, journalists and activists
UPDATED ON JUL 27, 2021 12:01 AM IST

West Bengal has ordered an inquiry into the Pegasus snooping row that has rocked the nation since July 18, becoming the first state to do so.

“The Cabinet has approved the appointment of a commission of inquiry comprising former Supreme Court judge, justice (retd) MB Lokur and retired chief justice of Calcutta high court, justice (retd) Jyotirmay Bhattacharya in exercise of the power conferred by section 3 of the Commission of Enquiry Act, 1952 in the matter of widely reported illegal hacking, monitoring, putting under surveillance, tracking, recording etc of mobile phones of various persons in the state of West Bengal,” chief minister Mamata Banerjee said while addressing media at the state secretariat before leaving for Delhi.

The Pegasus row erupted last Sunday before the beginning of the current monsoon session of Parliament after an international investigative consortium reported that many Indian ministers, politicians, activists, businessmen and journalists were potentially targeted by Israeli company NSO Group’s phone hacking software, Pegasus, with a forensic analysis of 10 of the targets proving they had been hacked or that there had been attempts to do so. Political strategist Prashant Kishor, widely seen as the man behind the Trinamool Congress’ (TMC) recent electoral success, and Banerjee’s nephew and TMC leader Abhishek Banerjee were named in the list of potential targets.

“Over the past one week, we thought the Centre would initiate a probe, monitored by the apex court on which the citizens have faith. But when we saw that the Centre was apathetical, we decided to appoint a commission of inquiry comprising two retired judges. West Bengal is the first state to do this. This will look into how hacking was being done and who were the persons behind it,” she said.

The West Bengal home department immediately issued a notification announcing the terms of reference of the commission. The panel was asked to submit its report within six months and empowered to formulate its own procedure, select venues of sittings and seek assistance from government officials and experts.

“Reported interception may have landed in the hands of state and/or non-state actors, as being currently reported, which, if found to be true, can lead to a total breakdown of public order of the state and the same is a serious criminal offence,” said the notification.

“The reported interception, if found to be true, shall cause a loss of public confidence on the rights guaranteed to the public under the Constitution of India,” it added.

The notification said the panel will probe the people allegedly involved in the row, whether spyware was used in hte past or currently being used, if the information collected was altered, stored or used and whether anyone could carry out such interception without legal provisions. Whether the right to privacy of individuals was affected will also be a part of the inquiry.

“A state government can always order an inquiry under the Commission of Enquiry Act, 1952. Such a commission is formed so that the government can inform itself with the help of the findings. However, the Centre is not bound to accept the report,” said former Supreme Court judge, justice (retd) A K Ganguly.

Neither of the two judges were available for comment.

“If someone is asleep, he must be awakened. This is a small step. Hopefully this would awaken others. This is has been approved in the cabinet today. We will now request the two retired judged to join and start the inquiry,” Banerjee said.

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 it into a pocket spy.

Banerjee, who has for long claimed for long that her phone was being tapped, alleged last week that spyware was used to hack Kishor's mobile phone and record an entire meeting with him before the recent assembly elections. Her name, however, was not on the list of potential targets.

The BJP countered Banerjee and said her move to set up a commission is nothing but a gimmick.

“It appears nothing more than a political gimmick which lacks support of jurisprudence and support of the Indian legal mechanism. Since coming to power in 2011 her government has so far formed innumerable such commissions using public money. But none of the reports were published or placed in the Legislative Assembly. Earlier multiple political leaders alleged that their phones were tapped by the TMC government. Will the commission also prove all these?” said Jay Prakash Majumdar, BJP vice president in West Bengal.

In Delhi, Banerjee is scheduled to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi and many opposition leaders. “I am going to Delhi for two to three days...I had sought an appointment with the Prime Minister, and he has given me time. I will also try to meet the President. This apart, several political leaders have requested that they want to meet me,” Banerjee said last week while announcing her trip.

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