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Is Pegasus controversy a toolkit to defame India?

Is it not true that vested foreign powers are keen to destabilise India? Did The New York Times not seek to recruit a journalist who would be anti-establishment and anti-Modi? Is it not true that Amnesty International was violating the law of the land, and when asked to explain and comply, it ran away?

If a news report comes out a day before Parliament's Monsoon session is set to begin and the next day opposition parties try to disrupt Parliament claiming that the rights of private individuals have been violated by the State, one is bound to doubt the intention behind such a story. Naturally, there would be closer scrutiny by the State and unbiased people about the authenticity of the report and the intentions.

This explains why Union Home Minister Amit Shah said "disrupters and obstructers would not be able to derail India's development trajectory". "Disrupters are global organizations that do not like India to progress. Obstructers are political players in India who do not want India to progress. People of India are very good at understanding this chronology and connection," he said and assured that the Modi Government would continue to work for national welfare.

The story that first appeared in India was carried by a website that has earlier too published stories that have not been credible. This story was published in collaboration with 16 other international publications, including The Washington Post and The Guardian, which were media partners to an investigation carried out by Paris-based NGO Forbidden Stories and rights group Amnesty International.

The so-called investigation conducted by the Amnesty security team found a leaked database of 50,000 phone numbers which the reports said was of the NSO and target for surveillance using Pegasus spyware developed by Israel's NSO. This also included potential 300 targets that were Indians and included politicians even from the ruling BJP, journalists, and activists.

The claim was that the data was leaked from the NSO server but the NSO had denied having any such data. It said: "The report by Forbidden Stories is full of wrong assumptions and uncorroborated theories that raise serious doubts about the reliability and interests of the sources.After checking their claims, we firmly deny the false allegations made in their report. Their sources have supplied them with information which has no factual basis, as evident by the lack of supporting documentation for many of their claims." The NSO even threatened a defamation suit.

Analysis of the source of such reports would further establish understanding of the entire controversy. The source of the investigation is Forbidden Stories (FS) and Amnesty (AI). The FS, which claims to champion independent journalism, has become a tool of propaganda by the West and has backed leftist viewpoints in the entire world.

It is difficult to believe the FS claims that its activities are not affected by the ideology of its donors. One of the donors is Luminate founded by Omidyar group. Luminate holds that Illiberal democracies' are emerging and civil society is under attack. It has lamented the rise of nationalism and polarization of communities. Scroll.in is supported by the Omidyar group.

One of the donors is the Open Society Foundation of George Soros whose antipathy for India is well known. He has lamented the rise of nationalist governments across the globe. He has criticized the Indian Prime Minister and his policy on Jammu and Kashmir. He has described the actions of the Modi Government as the "biggest and most frightening setback" to the survival of open societies worldwide.

Amnesty story in India is rather well known. Its accounts were frozen by the Indian Government in 2020 after it was found that it violated the FCRA. It opened business entities in India and used the FDI route to fund its activities. When caught it raised the bogey of the witch hunt.

The Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos has claimed that he was a victim of Pegasus. Some private photographs of Bezos were leaked which became the reason for his divorce that cost him Rs 3 lakh crore.

So, it is quite possible that all conspired to defame NSO and Pegasus and the countries that could possibly be linked. They could kill many birds with one stone. Paint some regimes as violators of Human Rights and individual liberty, paint Pegasus as the enemy of privacy of individuals and club a vibrant democracy like India with not-so-democratic regimes and paint the country's image in a bad light.

Let us focus our attention on India. Many are unhappy with India's growing clout and assertion. There were many foreign NGOs that worked unfettered without bothering to abide by the law of the land. Amnesty is not the only one. Greenpeace Organization had to close many of its India offices since foreign donations were stopped for violating Indian laws.

Of the 22,400 NGOs registered under the FCRA, the registration certificates of more than 20,600 were cancelled since 2011 for violating various provisions of the FCRA. Most were deregistered due to non-filing of annual returns which is mandatory as per law. The Government simply wanted to make NGO operations more transparent and accountable. Who gave the money and why and whether the money was used to serve that purpose? This intended to check siphoning and diversion of funds for other activities. These FCRA NGOs received more than Rs 58,000 crore in donations in the year 2016-17 and 2017-18.

The lobbies acting against India have an axe to grind. Such stories based on fiction- I call it fiction because you don't need much brain to prepare such a list- intends to create an optics that India is intolerant and is violating the right of private individuals. After this, the lobbies would call on US Senators and representatives of European countries and the UK and ask them to issue Statements condemning India's so-called attempt to muzzle the press and on the issue of their perception of violation of Human Rights.

Meanwhile, AI has come out with a curious explanation. It has claimed that it never said that the recently leaked list of phone numbers was specifically a list of numbers targeted by the NSO Group's Pegasus spyware. It merely said that this is a list of numbers on which the NSO clients might like to spy on. This proves that the list was designed by FS and AI and dished out to select media outlets to sensationalize.

Those who had calculated that this would be India's Watergate moment forcing the Prime Minister and the Government to resign were dejected that like many other arsenals this too failed to defame the Indian Prime Minister. This was a dangerous game plan. The entire controversy appears to be more like a toolkit to defame India and the Modi Government. Democracy like India has been clubbed with countries that India would not like to be compared with. India has been the target of many funders of FS and also AI and other international NGOs that have huge clout but they have failed to browbeat the Indian Government.

While the entire opposition could not hide its elation at something they calculated would bring the Prime Minister on its knees, the Government came up with a factual clinical response. "No unauthorized interception took place", the Government asserted. The "sensational story" a day before the Monsoon session of Parliament cannot be a coincidence, India's new IT minister Ashwini Vaishnaw said in the Lok Sabha. "Global expose of alleged hacking in India, using Israeli spyware Pegasus, is an attempt to malign Indian democracy and its institutions".

He asked all parliamentarians to examine facts and pointed out that the consortium spoke of a leaked list of 50,000 phone numbers but the presence of a number in the list did not mean that the device was targeted. He suggested technical analysis on the phone numbers to know whether these phones were compromised using any spyware.

Although many opposition leaders tried to present this as a serious violation of the right to privacy, the Government refused to set-up an inquiry, and rightly so. A mere report based on conjectures cannot be the basis of an investigation unless we want India to be on perpetual inquiry spree.

If the government says it has not done anything illegal, the best way for those, if they have proofs of being snooped upon using spyware, is to get their phones examined followed by lodging of an FIR if the accusations are true. This would lead to investigation and help the police to reach the truth. Hacking is a crime and it must be dealt so. As of now, none have come forward saying that they are giving their phones for investigation.

The investigation should be done, if or not the story was used as a toolkit to malign the Indian Government. Whether certain organizations contacted Indian parliamentarians asking them to raise the issue? Whether some parliamentarians were aware of such a story coming up anytime soon? This would establish if the pandemonium was a spontaneous or well-crafted result of the toolkit.

Indian Government came out with a strong response when it pointed out to vibrant democracy in India and its zeal to defend the Right to Privacy which has been dubbed a fundamental right by the Supreme Court. The Government has introduced the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019, and the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, to protect the personal data of individuals and to empower users of social media platforms, a Statement from the IT ministry said.

Critics have often asked the Government to clarify if it was a client of the NSO? Is it important? If the Government has clarified the issue should be allowed to rest unless one has proof to the contrary. Who are the people interested in knowing this? The NSO may have sold the spyware to so many countries, some of which are very hostile to India. Is it not possible that one of these have tried to play mischief if at all such a thing has happened?

Those advocating investigation have not found much traction among people since Indians by and large do not mind spying by the State to keep themselves safe. Mahatma Gandhi had said pubic figures should not have private lives and their actions should be open to scrutiny. Actually, people are having the last laugh at those claiming privacy rights.

This produced desperation as evidenced in Trinamul Rajya Sabha MP Shantanu Sen snatching the paper from the hands of IT Minister Vaishnaw, when he was going to read out from that on the Pegasus controversy. He was rightly suspended for the rest of the Monsoon session for this unruly behaviour.

Chanakya who is credited with conceptualizing State and its functions had asserted that the State must have a strong network of loyal spies to secure the State against vested interests. This was essential to curb political corruption, to prevent instability due to machinations by vested interests, and to ward off both internal and external security threats. Who would oppose this? Technology has replaced or come as powerful tool to carry on the activities that would keep the State safe and stable.

When the State has various mechanisms to know activities of individuals that could be a threat to the country, why should the State resort to illegal spying. If the country is safe today and it has not witnessed bomb blasts and major terrorist activities that marked the earlier regimes, it is because of the strong intelligence network. Terrorist modules have been caught whether in West Bengal or Uttar Pradesh before they could produce collateral damage by their actions.

Violation of the right to privacy by the State under exceptional circumstances is small price citizens pay to be safe and secure. The Government must keep them safe and enable them to pursue their dreams. The State needs to be successful 100 per cent every time to prevent any terrorist or such incidents. Terrorists need to be successful only once.

Rather than trying to shoot through the shoulders of others either as an accomplice or a victim, opposition leaders should do well to participate in the process of enacting privacy law that can be basis of similar legislations in other countries.

The writer is the convener of the Media Relations Department of the BJP and represents the party as a spokesperson on TV debates. He has authored the book 'Narendra Modi: The Game Changer'. Views expressed are writer's personal.

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