Uproar in Parliament on Pegasus, farm laws
Massive protests rocked Parliament on Thursday over the alleged targeting of phones with military-grade spyware, the controversial farm laws, and income tax raids in a newspaper office, forcing repeated adjournments and allowing little business to be done in both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha.
Trinamool Congress (TMC) MP Santanu Sen snatched papers from information technology minister Ashwani Vaishnaw while he was reading a statement on the alleged use of Israeli software Pegasus to potentially target politicians, activists and journalists in the Rajya Sabha. Earlier, a few other MPs rushed to the Well of the House with their phones to protest against the alleged snooping.
Officials indicated that on Friday the government might seek Sen’s suspension from the House.
In the four days of the Monsoon Session of Parliament since Monday, only a debate on the Covid-19 pandemic in the Rajya Sabha on Tuesday can thus far be counted as substantive business, underlining the Opposition’s emphasis on protests over discussions on the other issues. Strategists in the Opposition camp hinted that protests will continue on Friday.
The government and the chairmen of both Houses repeatedly urged protesting MPs to participate in debates. Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla told them, “You should raise issues related to problems faced by people, then debate on those issues to find a solution. But you are flouting the decorum of the House.” Similarly, Rajya Sabha chairman Venkaiah Naidu could be heard saying, “Members seem to be not interested in discussing people’s issues.”
Rajya Sabha functionaries told HT that the government offered to debate the economic situation of the country and that it could be taken up early next week, a sign that the Opposition might allow the Upper House to function, at least in part. “Four hours have been allotted for the debate on the economic situation. It will be taken up sometime next week,” said a senior Rajya Sabha official.
Efforts are also on to end the impasse. “Naidu asked the government’s managers to sit with opposition party leaders for prioritising legislative business and discussions on opposition’s issues. He also asked the floor managers to discuss and decide which bills should be referred to committees for scrutiny,” added the functionary.
On Thursday morning, even before the proceedings started, the Congress staged a dharna in front of Mahatma Gandhi’s statue, demanding a repeal of the three farm laws that were passed last year but sparked massive protests. The agitation coincided with the gathering of farmer leaders in central Delhi’s Jantar Mantar for the same cause.
As soon as proceedings started in the Rajya Sabha, Congress leaders such as Digvijaya Singh and KC Venugopal tried to raise the issue of income tax raids at the offices of Hindi newspaper Dainik Bhaskar but they were not allowed to as no notice to the effect had been served. The Shiromani Akali Dal continued to protest against the farm laws while Trinamool Congress (TMC) remained focused on the Pegasus row. A TMC MP, Abhishek Banerjee, was on the list of people potentially targeted by the software, an investigative consortium reported this week.
Around 2pm, as Vaishnaw rose to speak, TMC Rajya Sabha member Santanu Sen snatched papers from the minister, tore them and flung them in the air. A heated exchange was also seen between Sen and Union minister Hardeep Puri. The TMC alleged that Puri abused Sen and complained to the Rajya Sabha deputy chairman. Sen said he was gheraoed and threatened.
Deputy chairman Harivansh asked the members to desist from unparliamentary behaviour, before adjourning the House for the day. “You do not want a discussion on an issue you have been agitated about...this is undemocratic,” he said.
Government functionaries indicated late on Thursday that it might push for Sen’s suspension for his “unruly behaviour”.
Rule 256 of the Upper House says, “The chairman may, if he deems it necessary, name a member who disregards the authority of the chair or abuses the rules of the council by persistently and willfully obstructing the business thereof.”
“If a member is so named by the chairman he shall forthwith put the question on a motion being made, no amendment, adjournment or debate being allowed, that the member (naming him) be suspended from the service of the council for a period not exceeding the remainder of the session,” the rule added. Last year, the same rule was applied against eight Opposition MPs in the Upper House after unruly protests over the farm bills.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) condemned Sen’s behaviour. “TMC has a long history of working against the dignity of Parliament. Making noise, tearing papers are their culture. The BJP strongly opposes this,” BJP chief JP Nadda tweeted.
TMC’s Lok Sabha floor leader Sudip Bandopadhyay blamed the government. “For the Opposition, Pegasus is the biggest political issue. The minister read a half-baked statement and ran away without taking a few questions. The problem is there is a total breakdown of communication between the government and the Opposition. The government has not offered to hold a debate on it.”
A top government functionary refuted the Opposition’s claims and said, “The government had discussed the situation with the Opposition in meetings with both Lok Sabha Speaker and the Rajya Sabha chairman. The Opposition is not interested in any discussion.”
The Pegasus row erupted on Sunday night after an international investigative consortium reported that India was among countries that used Israeli company NSO Group’s phone hacking software to potentially target politicians, journalists and activists.
The first report alleged 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. Subsequent reports said that Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, former election commissioner Ashok Lavasa and two sitting Union ministers – including Vaishnaw -- were on the list of potential targets.
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.
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.
The allegations roiled Parliament. The government as well as the BJP refused any wrongdoing and insisted that India had a well-established protocol for tapping telephones and it was used only for national security. But the Opposition called for a separate probe into the charges.
The three farm laws, enacted last year, promised major reforms in the agriculture sector but farmers, primarily from Punjab and Haryana, launched massive protests blocking arterial highways in the national capital. The farmers say the new rules favour big corporations to whom they will lose business and gradually end the system of state-set minimum prices – charges refuted by the government.