Indian Parliament logjam continues over Pegasus probe demand; Supreme Court starts hearing snooping petitions

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Opposition uproar over Pegasus snooping. Photo, ANI, 5 Aug 2021.

From Meetu Jain

New Delhi, 5 August 2021: The monsoon session of the Indian parliament has been logjammed for the 17th straight day as an adamant opposition demands an inquiry into the Pegasus spyware scandal that has consumed the globe. The government on the other hand is obdurate, refusing to admit that it was involved in surveilling its own citizens and showing little interest in getting to the bottom of who was behind this surveillance that first came to light after it was reported by a consortium of 17 media houses worldwide last month.

The opposition is clear that while countries including Israel are distancing themselves from NSO, the company that designed and exported this military-grade spyware to governments worldwide, the Indian government is following an ostrich-like approach.

Criticizing opposition parties for stalling Parliament over the Pegasus spyware controversy and other issues, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Thursday asserted that they cannot stop the country from marching forward. These parties are trying to stop the transaction of business in Parliament, he said in a no-holds-barred attack on the Opposition.

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As if on cue, former Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, at a presser at the BJP’s national headquarters in New Delhi, said that the government was willing to discuss all issues on the floor of the House, but asked, “Is there any prima facie evidence that [phone] numbers were indeed put under surveillance?” The former IT minister had famously told Parliament when the scandal first erupted two years ago that to the best of his knowledge, “no unauthorized interception had been undertaken” by the government of India.

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Lok Sabha Speaker conducts proceedings. Photo- ANI, 5 August 2021.

Wednesday cemented opposition unity after 6 Trinamool Congress MPs were asked to withdraw from the House for unruly behavior. In a joint statement signed by floor leaders of 14 parties, they said that the Opposition stands firm and united in their demand for a discussion on the Pegasus issue in both the Houses, while also seeking a reply from the Home Minister as national security dimensions were involved.
But Thursday was also a day when the Pegasus scandal came up in the Supreme Court which was hearing a clutch of petitions filed by civil rights activists and journalists including those whose phones were suspected to have been compromised.

A two-member bench, headed by Chief Justice NV Ramana said, “the allegations are serious if the media reports correct”. The CJI went on to say, “Reports of snooping came in 2019, I do not know whether any efforts were made to get more information. I am not going into the facts of each case, some people claim phones were intercepted. There is Telegraph Act for complaints.”

The CJI asked all petitioners to serve a copy of their petitions to the government. Justice Surya Kant is the second judge on the bench. The court will take up the petitions again on Tuesday, saying the Centre has to be present at the hearing.

The head of the eastern Indian state of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, who won a hard-fought and bitter electoral battle against the BJP three months ago has set up a commission of inquiry – consisting of a retired Calcutta High Court Chief Justice and a retired Supreme Court judge – to probe the scandal.

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