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Centre blocks CPI MP’s Pegasus question in Rajya Sabha as it continues to dodge the controversy in Parliament

While the government moved to block the question citing House rules, it has a history of providing obfuscated answers to parliamentary questions on Pegasus. 

The central government sought to disallow a question enquiring about its dealings with the Israeli cyber intelligence firm NSO Group, from being asked in the Rajya Sabha, according to a report in the Hindustan Times. The question, asked by Rajya Sabha MP Binoy Viswam was disallowed on grounds that “the ongoing issue of Pegasus is subjudice after several PILs were filed in the Supreme Court of India,” the report stated.

Why it matters? The Pegasus revelations came to light a day before the commencement of the monsoon session of the Parliament. Given the implications of the revelation on privacy and other constitutional freedoms, opposition MPs have been adamant about forcing a discussion on Pegasus during the ongoing session. However, the government has brushed the controversy aside by terming it as a “non-issue” and has scuttled every attempt to debate the issue. It put forth a vague statement on the floor of the house which neither confirms nor denies its use. The government has not even ordered an investigation to find out more about the surveillance, despite increasing demands for the same by politicians including some of the government’s own allies.

Details sought by Binoy Viswam in his question

According to the report, Viswam sought the following details in his parliamentary question for the Minister of External Affairs:

  • The number of MoUs that the government has entered into with foreign companies and the sector-wise details
  • Whether any of these MoUs with foreign companies has been in order to curb terror activities through cybersecurity, and the details of the same
  • Whether the government has entered into an MoU with NSO Group in order to curb terror activities through cybersecurity across the nation, if so, provide details thereof?”

“I have been informed informally that my question was disallowed but I am yet to get a formal response… the Government is misusing Rajya Sabha rules and taking an alien stand on truth. They must face questions on the issue of the Pegasus,” Binoy Vishwam was quoted as saying by Hindustan Times.

Why did the Centre block the question?

The question was scheduled to be answered on August 12 in the Upper House but the government wrote a letter to the Rajya Sabha secretariat calling for the question to be disallowed.

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“It would be noted that Part (a) to (c) of PAQ seeks to know about the ongoing issue of Pegasus owned by NSO Group. On this issue, several PILs have been filed in the Supreme Court, making this issue subjudice,” the HT report said while quoting the letter.

“According to Rule 47 (xix) of the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Council of States (Rajya Sabha), dealing with admissibility of questions, an admitted question “shall not ask for information on matter which is under adjudication by a court of law having jurisdiction in any part of India,” read the letter as per the HT report.

The same is confirmed by the Rajya Sabha website which details the rules governing the admissibility of questions and answers.

Government’s responses on Pegasus in Parliament

  • November 2019: Former IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad in 2019 had informed Rajya Sabha that no unauthorised interception” took place following reports that around 1,400 users were targeted through WhatsApp by Pegasus.
  • September 2020: IT Minister of State Sanjay Dhotre in his response to a parliamentary question said that the government doesn’t have access to Whatsapp data and voice messages. This was the first time that the government explicitly responded to a question that was related to the issue of surveillance using Pegasus spyware.
  • March 2021: MeitY had replied in the Lok Sabha that the government had no information on whether it had found the presence of spyware such as Pegasus in the country.
  • July 2021: IT minister Ashwini Vaishnaw issued a statement in the Lok Sabha that did not categorically deny the use or purchase of the Israel-based NSO Group’s spyware. He also said that “the time tested procedures of our country are well-established to ensure that unauthorised surveillance cannot occur”.

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I cover several beats such as Crypto, Telecom, and OTT at MediaNama. I can be found loitering at my local theatre when I am off work consuming movies by the dozen.

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