The Indian government is mute about the Pegasus scandal. Here's why.
Israel is helping dismantle whatever little is left of India's democracy. With consent.
Two weeks ago, it was revealed that a number of governments around the world had used the hacking software sold by the Israeli-company NSO to target human rights activists, journalists and even world leaders.
The software, called Pegasus, considered NSO’s premier product, is typically sold to governments and provides clients with remote access to a targeted phone - including the microphone, camera and data. The NSO says it “creates technology that helps government agencies prevent and investigate terrorism and crime to save thousands of lives around the globe.”
The global consortium of 17 media organizations that worked on the project reported that up to 50,000 phone numbers in more than 45 countries were potentially targeted for surveillance by clients around the world, through Pegasus.
To get a sense of the scale of this “intrusion”: French President Emmanuel Macron was found on that list. (So too, was my Middle East Eye colleague Ragip Soylu).
Pegasus in India
It has been reported that the NSO’s Indian client selected around 2,000 numbers from India and Indian-occupied Kashmir).
These include journalists/editors from The Wire, Indian politicians including opposition leader Rahul Gandhi to veteran Kashmiri journalist Muzamil Jaleel. These also include Dalit activists currently in jail, on ludicrous charges.
Though diplomatic pressure is building on Israel to provide answers over the extent to which this particular hacking project was signed off by the Israeli state, the Indian government has simply refused to engage on the matter. Calls for an investigation have been denied. Debates have been quashed.
Meanwhile, Indian opposition parties continue to call for a judicial inquiry, to no avail.
More details are likely to emerge, but already the reasons as to why the Indian government is attempting to bury the story is writing itself:
It is not clear who the client is in India. However, the NSO works only with governments. Also, neither the NSO nor the Indian government have denied working with each other. Go figure.
The Wire reported earlier this week that it found the numbers of politicians from the opposition-run government in Karnataka on the list of 2,000 numbers, suggesting surveillance might have played a role in getting rid of the state government in 2019.
Kovai Ramakrishnan, president of an anti-caste organization, whose name was also on the list, told the Caravan that the Indian government has been spying on activists for decades but the level of surveillance via Pegasus is more dangerous than it has ever been.
Surveillance has become an integral feature of the Modi-led government. In 2020, Down to Earth said that India’s National Automated Facial Recognition System (AFRS) would be one of the “largest centralized FRT surveillance systems in the world”.
The Hindu-right wing government brazenly uses the internet to target those who express dissent with or critique of ‘Dear Leader’ Modi or his government. The internet is rife with abuse, intimidation and incitement by pro-Modi supporters.
More than two dozen journalists and civil society members living in Indian-occupied Kashmir were on the list. Kashmir is one of the most militarized places on earth as well as one of the most censored. This method of constant monitoring, surveillance and shutting down of the communications establishes control over Kashmiris, as Israelis do in historic Palestine or the Chinese do in Xinjiang.
The Indian government routinely uses Israeli drones over the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The surveillance drones were signed off at the highest level.
In other words, there is nothing shocking about the fact that the Indian government partnered with the NSO.
If there is anything to be surprised about, it is that the Indian state only reported a targeted “2,000 numbers.”
It is suspiciously low for a government working to consolidate and cement a tiered ‘democracy’ in the mould of the Israeli-state. (I wonder if more numbers will be leaked in the coming weeks or months).
This is an Indian government, after all, that has become a crucial client of Israeli military & technology hardware, spending at times more than any other country on Israeli weapons. The decision to work with the NSO most certainly came from the highest office in the land, during the heydays of the Narendra Modi-Benjamin Netanyahu bromance. Between 2014-2020, India and Israel signed a record number of deals, including military and technology hardware.
That the Pegasus scandal illustrates the fragility of India’s democracy is a moot point.
The scrambling in Israel to ‘deal’ with the scandal compared to the pithy response from the Indian government shows that whereas Israel still cares about trying to keep up the appearance of a functioning democracy, the Indian government has zero interest in even keeping up the charade of being an accountable, transparent democratic enterprise. Pegasus is only further proof of what has become for all intents and purposes, a police state.
Israel is helping dismantle whatever little is left of India’s democracy.
Thanks for reading.
Until next time,