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Pegasus surveillance dragnet of potential targets widens to include NITI Aayog and PMO officials along with Delhi CM Kejriwal’s aide

The expansive list of Pegasus targets also reportedly includes Periyarist activists, members of the Dalai Lama’s inner circle, and the Bihar Cricket Association chief.

An investigation by The Wire revealed that the phone numbers of a junior official in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), a former employee at Niti Aayog, and a key aide of Arvind Kejriwal were listed as potential targets for surveillance in the leaked list of more than 50,000 phone numbers accessed by the Pegasus Project.

Why it matters? The investigation carried out by a consortium of 17 media organisations, which is led by Forbidden Stories with forensic analysis by Amnesty International, has caused a furore all over the world and has severe ramifications on issues pertaining to privacy, security, and surveillance. It is also important to note that the spyware is classified as a cyber weapon to be sold exclusively to government clients and is authorised for use against terrorists and criminals, according to the NSO Group. However, the consortium uncovered that the spyware was reportedly deployed against heads of state, government officials, journalists, activists, and lawyers, among others. 

Who are the bureaucrats identified as potential targets for surveillance?  

A report by The Wire puts the spotlight on bureaucrats whose names have emerged in the leaked database: 

V.K.Jain: Jain, a 1984-batch DANICS and 2001-batch IAS officer, was considered to be a close aide of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal. The Delhi CM appointed Jain in his office as his advisor and consultant in September 2017 – a stint that Jain cut short after he became embroiled in the chief secretary’s assault controversy. The Wire reported that Jain’s phone number appears in the leaked database in 2018 when he handled significant files of the Delhi government according to its sources in the Delhi government. 

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A junior PMO official: Furthermore, the news outlet revealed that an officer, who is currently an undersecretary, in the Prime Minister’s Office was chosen for potential surveillance in 2017. He was in charge of Prime Minister Modi’s tours in 2017 when his name appeared on the database. In his interaction with The Wire, he expressed doubt over the accuracy of the list.  “The only thing I can say is that I am not such an important person whose number should be traced,” he was quoted as saying. 

Niti Aayog official: The Wire also indicated that a senior employee of Niti Aayog, the central government’s policy think-tank, featured in the leaked list as a probable target for surveillance.

Why was the name of BCA’s chief in the list of probable targets?

In another report, The Wire disclosed that two phone numbers of Bihar Cricket Association (BCA) President Rakesh Tiwary were in the leaked list. He was chosen as a possible candidate for surveillance a year before he was appointed as the association’s president, when he was managing cricket administration in Gopalganj. 

The report stated that Tiwary is believed to have close ties with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and frequently mentions his association with functionaries of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI). 

The report quoted a BCA official who said that Tiwary often mentions Jay Shah in matters concerning state cricket. “If a district association is doing something he is not happy with, he will threaten them by saying how close he is to Jay Shah,” the official was quoted as saying. 

The Wire drew parallels with Tiwary’s elevation as president of the BCA and Jay Shah’s election as the secretary of BCCI with only a month’s gap between their appointments. Tiwary informed the website that he does not believe the list to be real. 

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“It (the list) is the imagination of anti-national people like you. I am a nationalist and a devoted worker of the Sangh ,” Tiwary told The Wire. 

More activists’ phone numbers included in leaked database

It has been well-documented that several activists and academicians feature on the leaked list of potential targets chosen by the government clients of the NSO Group. A report by The Wire casts light on new names, who were probable targets for Pegasus, from the South. 

  • Naam Thamizhar Katchi’s Seeman: Seeman is reportedly vocal in his support for the cause of Sri Lankan Tamils. He told The Wire that he had temporarily used the number featured in the list in 2019. He added that he knows he is under surveillance because the state thinks he will facilitate the reorganisation of the LTTE. He termed the entire snooping case as undemocratic and fascist.
  • May 17 movement’s Thirumurugan Gandhi: Gandhi has spoken on several matters including the rights of Sri Lankan Tamils, the Sterlite protests and violent state backlash, and other issues concerning the common people, according to The Wire. He is the coordinator of the May 17 movement which is a response to the civil war in Sri Lanka. In 2018, Gandhi had raised the issue of the extra-judicial killing of Sterlite protestors at the United Nations Forum. He told The Wire that the snooping was an attempt to “silence vocal voices against Hindutva” and saw Pegasus as a planned, undemocratic assault on forces functioning democratically. 
  • Thanthai Periyar Dravidar Kazhagam’s K. Ramakrishnan: K. Ramakrishnan is a senior activist and used to be with Dravidar Kazhagam, but later split from the movement to launch the Thanthai Periyar Dravidar Kazhagam. This collective propagates the ideals of Periyar and advocates the cause of Tamil nationalism. He told The Wire that the alleged snooping was worse than the emergency “as during the emergency, the State at least informed us that we were being watched”. Ramakrishnan said that he saw the alleged snooping as an attempt to suppress progressive movements.
  • Dravidar Kazhagam treasurer Kumaresan: Dravidar Kazhagam espouses the cause of Periyarist and Dravidian ideology. Its treasurer Kumaresan said that he condemned the alleged spying of his mobile phone and “it infringes on the right of privacy which has been confirmed by the Supreme Court of India as a fundamental right to be ensured to every citizen”. 

Dalai Lama’s inner circle also features in leaked database   

A report by The Guardian stated that the Dalai Lama’s senior advisers were identified as persons of interest by government clients of the NSO Group. These are the names of advisers whose numbers appear in the database: 

  • Tempa Tsering, the spiritual leader’s long-time envoy to Delhi 
  • Senior aides Tenzin Taklha and Chhimey Rigzen 
  • Samdhong Rinpoche who is the head of the trust that will oversee the selection of the Dalai Lama’s successor

The newspaper also disclosed that the list contained phone numbers of the president of the Tibetan government-in-exile, Lobsang Sangay, staff in the office of another Buddhist spiritual leader, the Gyalwang Karmapa, and several other activists and clerics who are part of the Tibetan community in India. 

According to The Guardian, there are two reasons that may have led to the addition of their names in the list.  

  • The possible surveillance of these advisers comes in the wake of a growing awareness of the strategic importance of Tibet to Delhi and the western capitals, whose own relationships with China have grown tense in the last five years. 
  • There is also tremendous interest in who will succeed the Dalai Lama as his death is bound to trigger a succession crisis which may have led to the possible surveillance of the Tibetan leaders. 

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