Raipur: “Raman Singh should come clean on who met the Pegasus sales team,” said Chhattisgarh chief minister Bhupesh Baghel.
“It has been over two years since he [Baghel] had ordered an investigation, they should reveal the names,” retorted former chief minister Raman Singh.
And both of them are right.
Illegal cyber surveillance was a major issue in 2018 assembly elections and Baghel had ordered an enquiry after coming to power, but nothing has come of it. The home secretary, DGP and IG Raipur were charged with the investigation.
In the noise over the worldwide revelations that Israeli company NSO Group has penetrated several administrations around the world, it is forgotten that the first victims had emerged from Chhattisgarh in 2019 where four private citizens had been warned by the Canadians group Citizen Lab that their WhatsApp accounts had been hacked. These included a journalist, a lawyer and two activists. The Bhima Koregaon accused’s names were also found on the same list, leading to suspicion that some of the objectionable material used against them had actually been planted by intelligence agencies.
“I escaped the nefarious designs of those who wanted to embroil my name in the Koregaon matter because the numbers that were used as mine had actually been discontinued by me years ago,” said former Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijay Singh.
Digvijay in fact raised the most pertinent questions related to Pegasus in the Rajya Sabha on November 1, 2019. He had sought to know from the government if it had bought the Pegasus software from NSO Group, names of people under illegal cyber surveillance and, importantly, if Pegasus sales teams had visited Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra. The answer to those questions would have cleared several doubts that the world media has raised today, but instead parliament’s IT committee, which was supposed to find answers, has hardly been able to meet. It comprises, among others, Shashi Tharoor and Meenakshi Lekhi, now a Union minister.
So the question of whether the Pegasus sales team visited Chhattisgarh is still unanswered. The DGP and IG Raipur are the same, while the then home secretary, Subrat Sahu, is now ACS to the chief minister. They have collectively not even met over the issue. And what do they need to find? Allegedly, the sales team visited the police headquarters in Raipur and met some senior officials. At any time, there are only half a dozen senior officials in the PHQ at Raipur and lower staff remains the same, but after two years of intense search, the team has not been able to determine who met whom? Why? Apparently because there are no official records of these meetings and no one is able to say if the NSO Group had been engaged by the state government or the Union government.
Chhattisgarh could have been a legitimate client for NSO, which claims that it helps governments engaged in fighting terror and militants. With the Naxal problem looming large in Bastar, they may have actually sold the software here as those who are engaged in civil activism in Bastar were targeted. The then chief secretary, Vivek Dhand, has complained that he was also watched and his phones were tapped.
Government sources say that the NSO Group had quoted a price of Rs 100 crore for providing its technology after going through the list of phone numbers. A senior police official had at the time apparently pooh-poohed the idea, saying that the secret fund meant for intelligence at the disposal of the state police is not that large, so the idea was dropped. He had instead reportedly pointed out that the Union home ministry would be a more viable customer. The same may have happened in Maharashtra, where perhaps the NSO Group wanted to sell the same software. But no one has since confirmed this to the investigation team under the DGP.
The major reason why the investigation has not come to fruition is because two ADG-level officers handling investigations and intelligence at one time are now on the run. One of them, Mukesh Gupta, has not reported for duty for more than 2.5 years and the other, G.P. Singh, has recently been charged with sedition by the Baghel government.