Pegasus : Mamata announces panel to probe snooping allegations

Mamata Banerjee on Monday announced the nation’s first commission to probe the Pegasus snooping allegations, shortly before setting off for Delhi on a five-day trip during which she will meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi and several Opposition leaders.

Bengal’s two-man commission of inquiry will be made up of the retired Supreme Court judge, Justice Madan B. Lokur, and the former Chief Justice of Calcutta High Court, Justice Jyotirmay Bhattacharya. It has to submit its findings and recommendations within six months from Monday.

Under its terms of reference, the commission is to ascertain whether any interception occurred; identify the state and non-state actors involved, if any; determine the mechanism used for the alleged hacking; find out whether Pegasus or any other spyware was used; examine the information collected, altered, stored or used; and gather the details of how people were affected.

Among those whose phone numbers are said to have been hacked is poll strategist Prashant Kishor, whom Trinamul has consulted extensively since 2019. The phone number of Trinamul Congress national general secretary Abhishek Banerjee is reported  to be on the list of the potential targets of Pegasus-enabled spying.

Mamata said the Bengal government was well within its rights to institute the probe under the Commission of Inquiry Act, 1952, as the state is home to people whose phones may have been hacked via the Israeli spyware Pegasus.

“They (the retired judges) will see who hacked — totally illegal — how it is being done, in order to shut every mouth. It’s all done, ready…. We request Justices Lokur and Bhattacharya to immediately join and begin investigating this,” the chief minister said at a brief media conference at Nabanna before leaving for Delhi.

Justice Madan B. Lokur

The timing of the announcement makes it clear that Mamata would, during her Delhi trip, flag the subject to try and mobilise the Opposition against the Modi government.

Bengal’s move comes at a time two public interest petitions have been filed in the Supreme Court seeking a court-monitored investigation into allegations that the Centre has snooped on judges, politicians, journalists and rights activists with Pegasus. The Narendra Modi government is yet to formally deny having bought the spyware.

“I have an important piece of information to share with you,” Mamata said at the media conference.

“The (state) cabinet has approved the appointment of a commission of inquiry… in the exercise of power conferred by Section 3 of the Commission of Inquiry Act, 1952, in the matter of widely reported illegal hacking, monitoring, putting under surveillance, tracking, recording, etc, of mobile phones of various persons in the state.”

The Commission of Inquiry Act allows the Centre as well as the states to institute probes, Mamata later told The Telegraph.

If the Centre orders an inquiry, the state cannot on its own appoint a panel to look into the same matter. Nor can the Centre order a probe under the act once a state government has done so — unless the Union government widens the scope to cover more states.

“No state government shall, except with the approval of the central government, appoint another commission to inquire into the same matter for so long as the commission appointed by the central government is functioning,” according to the Commission of Inquiry Act.

If a state government has ordered an inquiry, “the central government shall not appoint another commission to inquire into the same matter for so long as the commission appointed by the state government is functioning, unless the central government is of opinion that the scope of the inquiry should be extended to two or more states”.

Mamata’s move is expected to put pressure on the Centre to order a wider probe as the possible targets for surveillance — as identified by a global media exposé on phone numbers earmarked for hacking through Pegasus — are based in multiple states.

Sources close to Mamata said the chief minister had consulted multiple legal experts on the matter over several days, and spoken at length to Justice Lokur three times before arriving at the decision.

Justice Jyotirmay Bhattacharya

Calls had gone out from her office to every member of her cabinet late on Saturday evening, asking them to show up before 1pm on Monday for a crucial cabinet meeting. Several ministers said in private that the agenda had not been shared with them till the meeting began.

Since speaking out on the Pegasus controversy on July 21, Mamata has relentlessly tried to corner the BJP on the subject, accusing it of endangering India’s democracy through illegal snooping and urging the Supreme Court to take suo motu cognisance of the matter and intervene.

After reaching Delhi on Monday, the chief minister went to the home of Abhishek Banerjee, the Trinamul MP and her nephew.

There, she met senior journalist Vineet Narain, known for pursuing the “hawala scam” of the early 1990s. Narain had recently been booked by Uttar Pradesh police on various charges, including hurting Hindu sentiments, after he made land-grabbing allegations against a Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader and his brothers.

On Tuesday, Mamata is scheduled to meet Modi and Congress leaders Anand Sharma, Kamal Nath and Abhishek Manu Singhvi.

Sources close to her said she would keep the interaction with Modi a G2G (government-to-government) meeting, talking to the Prime Minister as chief minister of Bengal and bringing up the state’s demands and concerns, particularly those relating to vaccines and central dues.

“Over the week, her trip will gather momentum with meetings with Sonia Gandhi, Sharad Pawar and other key Opposition politicians,” a source said. “In all this, her focus on the Pegasus scandal will remain unwavering.”

The source said Covid concerns had forced several changes to Mamata’s plans, and that a proposed visit to Parliament’s central hall, for instance, was no longer a certainty.

At the news conference at Nabanna, Mamata said: “For a week (since the media exposé), we had thought the Centre would definitely conduct a probe by a Supreme Court judge under the watchful eye of the Supreme Court, which people have faith in — while Parliament was on.

“In that case, people would not have been denied justice. But when we saw that this Centre, even while Parliament was on, was not paying this any attention, Bengal became the first state — even before my trip to Delhi — to do this.

“If somebody refuses to wake up, they have to be forcibly woken up. This is one small step by us, which we hope will awaken everybody else.”

Bengal home secretary B.P. Gopalika issued the formal notification for the commission following approval from governor Jagdeep Dhankhar.

The notification said the decision was taken keeping in mind the reports about widespread phone-tapping with sophisticated tools since 2017, which could potentially breach State secrets, jeopardise law and order in the state and violate privacy.

“…The reported interception, if found to be true, shall result in grave interference with the privacy of the aforesaid individuals and the public at large…. (The) reported interception may have landed in the hands of state and/ or non-state actors, as being currently reported, which if found to be true can lead to a total breakdown of public order of the state and the same is serious criminal offence,” it said.

It added that such snooping, if it happened, would cause “complete demoralisation” of the police force and other security services in the state, besides a “total loss of public confidence” in the police force.

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