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Pegasus controversy: MP seeks consent to initiate contempt proceedings against Home Secretary, NSO Group

The letter made mention of the government’s evasive answers on Pegasus surveillance and contended that the competent authority to direct such interception is the Secretary of Home Affairs. 

Tamil Nadu MP Thol Thirumaavalavan has written to Attorney General for India K.K. Venugopal seeking his consent to initiate criminal contempt proceedings against the directors of Israeli firm NSO group as well as the current home secretary Ajay Bhalla and former home secretary Rajiv Gauba. The letter cites their involvement in “military-grade surveillance” against a Supreme Court judge, two Supreme Court registry officials, and a Supreme Court staffer who had made allegations of sexual harassment against then-Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi. 

A recent exposé by a consortium of 17 news outlets revealed that NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware was being used to (potentially) surveil politicians, lawyers, activists, and journalists among others. These revelations have major implications on the state of surveillance and privacy in India. 

Thol Thirumaavalavan is the president of Viduthalai Ciruthaigal Katchi (VCK). He has sought permission to initiate proceedings for criminal contempt under Article 129 of the Constitution of India and the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.

Medianama tried to get in touch with Thirumaavalavan but his office refused to comment stating that the matter is sub-judice. 

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Details of the Letter 

“The Rule of Law is the basic foundation of any democratic society. The judiciary is the guardian and protector of Rule of Law. The judiciary of India is not merely vested with the duty to resolve conflicts but also with the special and additional duty to oversee that all individual and institutions including the executive and the legislature, act within the framework of the constitution.” — MP Thirumaavalavan’s letter

  • Thirumaavalavan cited the “equivocal and vague” answers of the government on being questioned about the usage of Pegasus in Parliament. 
  • Contending that the competent authority to direct interception, monitoring, or decryption is the Secretary of Home Affairs, as per the rules of Telegraph Act and IT Act, the letter proposed that “both Mr. Bhalla and Mr. Gauba be arraigned as Alleged Contemnors in the proposed contempt petition.”
  • The letter stated that the surveillance attempt on a Supreme Court judge who was in office in 2019 when his number was added to the database, along with registry officials who worked in the crucial ‘writ’ section of Supreme Court, “interfere(s) and obstruct(s) the administration of justice, thus falling under the definition of Criminal Contempt of Court under S. 2(c)(iii) of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.” 
  • Though Justice Mishra said that the phone number which was added to the list of potentials suspects of surveillance was surrendered by him back in 2014, the letter contends that the fact that his number was added to the target list while he was a sitting judge is enough reason for initiating contempt.
  • The letter also raised concerns about the list containing the phone number of a court staffer who had accused then-Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment in April 2019. The Wire had revealed that three of her phone numbers, along with eight other phone numbers belonging to her family were on the list.

Other demands for probe into Pegasus surveillance 

West Bengal’s Commission of Inquiry: West Bengal’s Chief Minister Mamata Bannerjee constituted a Commission of Inquiry comprising Justice Lokur and Justice Bhattacharya to probe the Pegasus spyware issue. West Bengal was the first state to have set up a committee to look into this matter.

Petitions filed before Supreme Court: A number of petitions filed by journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, N Ram, Sashi Kumar, Rupesh Kumar Singh, Ipsa Shatakshi,  Prem Shankar Jha, S.N.M.Abdi, ADR co-founder Jagdeep Chhokar*, Rajya Sabha MP John Brittas, advocate M.L. Sharma, and civil-rights activist Narendra Mishra seek an impartial probe of the Pegasus controversy.

List of potential targets for surveillance

The Wire has revealed names of 161 people who were targets or potential victims of Pegasus surveillance, a few of them are listed below –  

  • Justice Arun Mishra – He is a retired Supreme Court judge who currently chairs the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). During his tenure at the apex court, Mishra presided over politically sensitive cases such as the Haren Pandya murder case, amendments to the Scheduled Castes, and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, medical college bribery case among others. 
  • N.K. Gandhi and T.I. Rajput — N.K. Gandhi and T.I. Rajput are two former Supreme Court registrars who worked in the crucial ‘writ’ section of the court, the report said. Mobile phones of both Rajput and Gandhi were unavailable for a forensic examination so it couldn’t be clearly established if they were persons of interest or if surveillance was carried out on them.
  • Rahul Gandhi – The Congress Party leader who was also the presumed prime ministerial candidate from Congress during the 2019 general elections – the year in which his name was added to the list. 
  • Ashwini Vaishnaw – A former IAS officer and currently the Minister for Railways, Communications, Electronics & Information Technology in the Union Cabinet.
  • Prahlad Singh Patel – Newly-inducted Minister of State for Jal Shakti in the Union Cabinet.
  • Prashant Kishor – Kishor is an election strategist who represented PM Narendra Modi during the 2014 elections and has represented several other parties since then, including Trinamool Congress in the recent West Bengal assembly elections 
  • Abhishek Bannerjee – West Bengal CM Mamata Bannerjee’s nephew and a Trinamool Congress MP 
  • Pradeep Awasthi – Personal secretary to former Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje Scindia.
  • Sanjay Kachroo – A corporate executive who was appointed by Smriti Irani, former human resource development minister, as her officer on special duty in 2014.
  • G. Parameshwara: Deputy chief minister under the JD(S)-Congress coalition government in Karnataka, which was toppled after several MLAs defected to the BJP.
  • Satish: Former Chief Minister of Karnataka H.D. Kumaraswamy’s personal secretary
  • Venkatesh: Former Chief Minister of Karnataka Siddaramiah’s personal secretary
  • Manjunath Muddegowda: Former Prime Minister and JD(S) president H.D. Devegowda’s security personnel

*Disclaimer: Jagdeep Chhokar is related to Nikhil Pahwa, the founding editor of MediaNama.

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