‘India Takes Political Prisoners’; Pegasus Is State Attack On Democracy

Plus: Retired civil servants oppose sneaky gag order, in Ladakh, faceoff continues but tourism begins, South African Indians hit by looters, and while cheap bikes stagnate, Lamborghinis sell

A newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas | Contributors: MK Venu, Seema Chishti, Siddharth Varadarajan, Sidharth Bhatia, Sushant Singh and Tanweer Alam | Editor: Pratik Kanjilal

Snapshot of the day

July 19, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

“India, the world’s largest democracy, takes political prisoners,” the Washington Post writes in its editorial, and adds that the state’s “cruelty to its critics” is a symptom of the “deterioration” of democracy. The editorial, which refers to UAPA detainees, including Father Stan Swamy, coincides with the paper’s investigation into state surveillance of journalists, activists, a judge of the apex court and even people in government, conducted in 2018-19 using the Israeli spyware Pegasus. Access Now says Pegasus reveals the “shocking situation of state-sanctioned surveillance impunity” in India, which should rightly dominate the Monsoon Session of Parliament.

Covaxingate gets bigger and draws nearer to Bharat Biotech. The India-Brazil Chamber of Commerce finds itself on the Brazilian Senate’s radar, and the parliamentary inquiry panel there has sought details of Madison Biotech’s partners, which includes Dr Krishna Ella of Bharat Biotech, and its assets.

This morning, a Supreme Court bench led by Justice DY Chandrachud heard the plea of the father of Manipuri activist Erendro Leichombam and set him free. It said that the continued detention of Leichombam, who was booked under the stringent National Security Act for a Facebook post on the state BJP chief’s death of Covid-19, violates Article 21, which guarantees the Right to Life.

Opposition parties objected to the government’s offer for a joint address to all MPs by the prime minister on Covid at the Parliament Annexe, saying it aims to “bypass” norms and would be “highly irregular” with Parliament in session. When the pandemic and issues related to it can be discussed on the floor of the House, why go “outside”, asked the Trinamool Congress and the CPI(M).

Lamborghini is racking up record sales in India. The company, which sells a range of super luxury cars priced Rs 3.15-6.33 crore, is besting its best-ever performance of 2019, when it sold 52 units. Unequal recovery in demand for new vehicles makes clear the disproportionate economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on different strata of Indian society. Sales of affordable motorcycles in the Rs 50,000 range have been languishing since the pandemic began.

Over 100 retired civil servants, including former national security adviser Shivshankar Menon, former adviser to the PM TKA Nair, former home secretary GK Pillai, former foreign secretary Shyam Saran, former defence secretary Ajai Vikram Singh, and former officer on special duty in the PMO for Kashmir AS Dulat have written an open letter to PM Modi seeking withdrawal of a rule that is widely perceived as an undeclared gag on them. An amendment to the Central Pension Rules makes it necessary for bureaucrats who have retired from intelligence or security-related departments to take clearance from the department concerned before commenting on related matters.

Barring Rajasthan and Punjab, meat consumption in India has gone up over a decade. But powerful, high-caste Hindus are turning vegetarian, so now 23 states are trying to ban beef, and 15 disallow eggs in mid-day school meals. Article 14 has the details.

The Tokyo Olympics kick off on Friday. Read about how a forgotten Olympic hero has died in dire poverty. Shamsher Khan was the first swimmer to represent India at the Olympics in Melbourne in 1956.

The official Twitter handle of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) was hacked yesterday. The hacker removed the bio from the party’s official verified handle and also changed the name from AIMIM to ‘Elon Musk’, and added the picture of the Tesla CEO. The hacker has left replies to tweets about cryptocurrency ― which Musk takes an interest in ― and has also replied to the real Musk. 


Pegasus takes wing again

The Pegasus Project, a global consortium of newspapers anchored by Amnesty International and Forbidden Stories of France ― a nonprofit whose mission is to finish and publish the work of journalists under threat ―  has revealed that the Pegasus spyware of Israel’s NSO Group was used to target 50,000 phone numbers of journalists, activists, business executives, heads of state, prime ministers, members of the Saudi royal family and Jamal Khashoggi’s fiancee, among others.

The list includes over 40 Indian journalists, ranging from reporters and editors in Delhi covering defence, external affairs and the Election Commission, for the Hindustan Times, India Today, Network18, The Hindu and Indian Express, to an independent journalist in Ramgarh, Jharkhand. Three out of six regular contributors to The India Cable are revealed to be on the list, which includes three top Opposition leaders, a Supreme Court judge, a constitutional expert, businessmen ― and two ministers in Modi’s Cabinet. Even Caesar’s wife is not above suspicion.  

In 2019, former home secretary GK Pillai had said that he was aware that Pegasus was being used in India, for legitimate purposes. The issue may dominate the Monsoon Session of Parliament, which began today. If the convention of the Wilson Doctrine in the UK serves as a guide, the prime minister of a nation is to be held responsible for interception of the communications of MPs. The RSP has put in a notice today for the Lok Sabha to suspend regular business and discuss the Pegasus affair. Republic World reports that the IT Ministry told the Lok Sabha that the Pegasus Project is a “fishing expedition”. It took this much trouble just to go fishing?  

The NSO Group has always pooh-poohed charges that its software is misused, saying that it is sold only to “vetted” governments. No coincidence: most of them have scored poorly on the World Press Freedom Index 2021, down whose slope India has been slaloming.  

Here’s a little background on the technology used by Pegasus ― from the technology advisor to the Kerala Police. 


Newsclick shrugs off ED’s ‘selective leaks’

The news portal Newsclick’s editor-in-chief, engineer, rationalist and writer Prabir Purkayastha hit back at the Enforcement Directorate’s “leaks” alleging a China link, and support to journalist Gautam Navlakha, currently in custody in the Elgar Parishad case. In a statement, Purkayastha made it clear that “selective leaks from ED regarding their investigation, which is already under challenge before the court, reflect the inherent weakness in their own investigations and the course that it will take in the courts.” Purkayastha is an Emergency veteran, having served time with Jan Sangh leaders in 1975. His accounts of discussions with them in jail are revealing. 


Ladakh: faceoff continues, tourism begins

The Guardian reports that Indian army officials allege the People’s Liberation Army is becoming more aggressive in Ladakh. Though India has denied recent skirmishes, army officials said that the situation in areas of eastern Ladakh including Galwan Valley and Hot Springs remained extremely tense. “Every month there are two to three face-offs in these areas,” said an officer posted there, which local police and intelligence officers corroborated. “To avoid escalations, we started fencing some areas around Galwan, but the Chinese objected and we had to remove it,” said another officer. Sonam Tsering, former local councillor of Chushul, said the situation along the border was the most militarised anyone in the village could recall, with two armies appearing to be poised for attack, particularly in areas of eastern Ladakh.

The border clashes also heightened Ladakh’s eternal problem of poor telecommunications, as mobile access in most border villages is cut off. While concerns over instability linger, a drop in Covid-19 cases brings cheer. Some tourist hotspots have started welcoming back domestic visitors, reports South China Morning Post. Among the first was the western edge of the 160 km long Pangong Lake, the region’s main draw. Tourism contributes half of Ladakh’s GDP. In 2019, more than 2,79,000 tourists visited Ladakh, while only 6,079 tourists visited in 2020 till June.


Danish Siddiqui laid to rest

The mortal remains of one of India’s finest photographers and a Pulitzer winner, slain by the Taliban in the line of duty, were brought home to be buried in the graveyard of his alma mater, Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi. Danish Siddiqui’s colleagues and friends bade him an emotional and respectful farewell.       


The Long Cable

This is not just about hacking phones, this is hacking democracy

By MK Venu

This saga started with 50,000 cell phone numbers in a database received by Forbidden Stories and Amnesty Technology Lab. They approached media in 16 countries to verify names and, if possible, send system ‘images’ of suspect phones to be tested for Pegasus. (Amnesty Lab has explained its forensics here).

Normally, and quite understandably, most citizens would hesitate to subject themselves to such a test, like I was. But for a larger cause, my colleague Siddharth Varadarajan and I sent digital images of our phones to be tested. The rest, as they say, is history. It appears that media personnel must bear an unusually heavy burden, now that authoritarian governments think they can silence them. High technology has made high surveillance possible. But now, we have a window of opportunity, as rights groups arm themselves to detect surveillance, understand it and check it. Governments cannot continue to snoop, without pushback. We must urge other citizens in the list, across countries, to help in this process and volunteer to have their phones checked. Actually, testing for Pegasus was a small fraction of the process of scanning for illegal surveillance. This process needs to expand, even become a universal practice at some stage.

Forbidden Stories, the Paris-based non-profit news platform, also contacted partner media across countries via secure communication platforms, to mitigate risks for investigative journalists across borders. It is important for citizens  to familiarise themselves with the processes followed by Amnesty Technology Lab and Toronto-based The Citizens Lab, whose efforts have helped to expose the privacy breach. Perhaps this exercise must become an ongoing one, since governments around the world remain in denial about the illegal use of Pegasus-like spyware.

The Israeli NSO Group has publicly and repeatedly said it sells Pegasus spyware only to “vetted governments” and expects them to use it for specific national security and criminal investigations. This makes it even more important to shine the light on transgressions that some governments are committing, deviously imposing blanket surveillance on some of its citizens. Why are constitutional authorities, judges and journalists being targeted? NSO maintains that it only supplies software to governments, and has no role in operations. In that case, how did they have access to the large database of phone numbers which was leaked? It is very legitimate to ask: what exactly is the ‘division of labour’ between NSO and governments that buy its spyware? (See here for more on the forensics The Wire did in India.)

We knew this was coming. The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology and WhatsApp had a conversation in 2019, when a Pegasus security breach was first confirmed by WhatsApp. WhatsApp said that it notified the government about 121 compromised phones. The government first tried to duck, saying that WhatsApp had not informed it about a privacy breach targeting Indian activists, lawyers and journalists. WhatsApp categorically stated that it had alerted the government twice, in May and in September, 2019. Responding to a notice from the IT Ministry, WhatsApp attached both the vulnerability notes it filed in May and its letter of September. The government eventually confirmed that it did receive the September intimation from WhatsApp about Pegasus targeting 121 Indians. Stubbornly, The Indian Express reported, the ministry claimed the letter was “still too vague” to be alarming.

The first alarm bell rang in India on October 31, 2019, but eventually, nothing happened. There was no probe, and the government sat tight, hoping perhaps that it would blow over. In fact, it went on to draft very aggressive and restrictive IT Intermediary Guidelines in December 2019, covering social media platforms, to fully control the digital conversation.

This is where we stand after two years, and there’s more information to be unveiled. 

When governments pretend they know nothing about illegal hacking on such a massive scale, they hack democracy. We must be the antivirus that prevents it. We must keep speaking. and make ourselves heard. To be silent is to be complicit, to consent to this violation of democracy itself. It is a crime against the nation, committed by the state. 


Reportedly

In his online meeting with chief ministers on Covid-19, PM Modi spoke to Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin in Hindi. He answered in Tamil, upon which Modi switched to English. Stalin then replied in English, which has always made itself useful as India’s “link language”. The Hindi push is not taking Modi very far in vanakkam country. 

Modi was also criticised by the Opposition for being present for all of nine minutes when all parties were discussing Covid-19. A photo-op also happened during that time, cutting into time spent with colleagues ― three minutes, complained MP Derek O’Brian. It is an indicator of Prime Ministerial interest in and confidence about handling the pandemic.


Bezos’ mission’s systems engineer from Maharashtra 

Sanjal Gavande, 30, from Maharashtra, is part of the team which built Blue Origin’s suborbital space rocket, New Shepard, which will launch Amazon founder Jeff Bezos into space tomorrow. Gavande served as a systems engineer. Before she joined the commercial spaceflight company to pursue her dream of building a spacecraft, Gavande worked in marine and racing car companies. 

She graduated in mechanical engineering from the University of Mumbai, is a postgraduate from Michigan Technological University and opted for aerospace. “She always wanted to build a spaceship and that is the reason she chose aerospace as a subject while pursuing her Masters degree at Michigan Technological University,” her father Ashok Gavande, who lives in Kolsewadi in Kalyan, Mumbai, told India Today.


Prime number: 6 of 326
Only six persons were convicted in 326 cases that were registered using sedition law in 2014-2019 ― a hit rate of 1.84%, indicating that the colonial-era provision is being applied arbitrarily. According to the Union Home Ministry, chargesheets were filed in 141 cases during the six-year period.

South African Indians police their streets

Riots and disturbances in South Africa following former president Jacob Zuma’s arrest are razing Indian interests. Generics giant Cipla had its factory in Durban burnt down. A lot of damaged middle level businesses are Indian-owned and their destruction sets back the community’s efforts by years. There is a lot of anger against Indian ‘monopoly capital’ as the Gupta family of Saharanpur was involved in Zuma’s financial improprieties. South Africa has its own Kapil Mishra, a former ANC Youth League president, who focuses public ire on the success of Indians in the financial system. Indians have formed vigilante forces to protect their property, and some Indians patrolling the streets are dollar millionaires. 


Deep dive

With the funding tap opening up, an agri startup unicorn is no longer a distant dream. But will farmers benefit? Mint shines the light on the hope and hype behind India’s agritech boom.  


Why Indians in the Great War got less pension

“The colonial government held that in the West, anyone could be shaped into a soldier, but that in India only the ‘martial castes and tribes’ could be tapped for the army. They also liked to believe that Indian sepoys and cavalrymen were drawn from the ‘yeomen’ ranks, that is, from substantial farmers. This also allowed the Indian Army to argue that pensions did not have to be raised beyond a point because the Indian soldier could also count on income from the joint family farm. In contrast, in Britain, by the end of World War I, pensions for disabled soldiers had to be pegged to what was called a living wage,” historian Radhika Singha tells Scroll.in in this illuminating interview.


Come September, India-Pak to resolve basmati question

India is the biggest producer of basmati rice, accounting for 70% of the world’s production. It exported 4.45 million tonnes of basmati in 2019. Iran is the biggest market. Europe is also one of the largest importers, where demand for basmati is expected to reach $615 million by 2023. In the last few years, India and Pakistan have been at loggerheads over exclusive rights to the title of ‘basmati rice’ in the European Union

Pakistan has expanded its basmati exports to the bloc as India faces difficulties in meeting stricter EU pesticide standards – especially for Tricyclazole, a fungicide used to protect paddy from rice blast – as well as contending with US sanctions on Iran, the main importer. As per EU rules, India and Pakistan must try to negotiate an amicable resolution by September. It is rare to see the arch-rivals agree on anything. Maybe basmati rice will be one such instance, reports South China Morning Post.


Opeds you don’t want to miss

  • Vijay Gokhale writes that China believes its own rise and the decline of the US are inevitable. India must pay attention.

  • Ram Guha writes on the redevelopment of Sabarmati Ashram under Modi: “A politician whose entire life’s work has been antithetical to Gandhi’s, and an architect whose prime qualification is proximity to that politician, have no right to mess around with the most hallowed of all the places associated with the Mahatma”.

  • What did Bangladesh do differently to ride out the pandemic? Vaishali Basu Sharma writes on the success story’s lessons for India on macroeconomic stability, prudent fiscal management and support policies.

  • In the Dhaka Tribune, Syed Akhtar Mahmood writes that “in Bangladesh’s story of remarkable development, the key role” of successive governments is often ignored.


Listen up

Nearly 25% of hospital cases of Covid-19 were in the ICU during Delhi’s second wave, straining oxygen supply to the national capital. Shailendra Sharma discusses with Yamini Aiyar what it was like to be in the control room as SOS messages poured in during that time.


Watch Out

Watch Anoushka Shankar performing Love Letters ― live from the Purcell Room, Southbank Centre, earlier this month.


Over and out

Fifty-nine years ago, a Hindu man built a mosque in Kerala funded by a Christian. Gopalakrishnan, 85, started the charitable society Manavamaithri (Universal Brotherhood) in 2002. Since 1962 this man, who believes passionately in communal harmony, has built 111 mosques, four churches and a temple in the state.


That’s it for today. We’ll be back with you tomorrow, on a device near you. If The India Cable was forwarded to you by a friend (perhaps a common friend!) book your own copy by SUBSCRIBING HERE.