Pegasus Mystery Continues; Nepal Halts Agnipath Recruitment To Indian Gorkha Regiments
India votes against Russia in UNSC, 124 facial recognition systems active, IT firms brace for recession, CJI came with scam charge, leaves with another, ‘should be ashamed’ is now unparliamentarian
A newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas | Contributors: MK Venu, Seema Chishti, Siddharth Varadarajan, Sidharth Bhatia, Sushant Singh and Tanweer Alam | Editor: Pratik Kanjilal
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Snapshot of the day
August 26, 2022
As expected, Ghulam Nabi Azad has quit the Congress Party. In February, PM Modi had given him a very emotional farewell when his term as leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha ended.
Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren of the JMM has called a meeting of all UPA MLAs following news that a communication from the Election Commission disqualifying him from the House had reached the governor. The EC has heard charges that Soren awarded a mine lease to himself. Soren has accused the BJP and friendly journalists of drafting the communication.
The bail application of Malayalam journalist Siddique Kappan is listed for today in the Supreme Court. Read and see what his wife Raihanath Kappan says about his unconscionable arrest and detention for 700 days. She says he was beaten because he knows Arabic and studied at Jamia Millia Islamia University. The UP Police wouldn’t let them speak to each other in Malayalam.
Based on RTI queries, the Internet Freedom Foundation says that the authorities had deployed 124 facial recognition systems in India as of August. Until last November, there were just 75. According to IFF’s Project Panoptic, Maharashtra has the highest number of such systems (12), followed by Telangana (8), Gujarat (8), Andhra Pradesh (7) and Tamil Nadu (7). The Union government is working on 13 more. The rapid spread of the new but unproven technology has alarmed critics and civil liberty advocates, especially because India lacks a data protection law.
Foodgrain procurement this year has been the lowest in the past three years. The offtake of wheat through food schemes under the National Food Security Act and other welfare schemes is 43%, and only 36% for rice, as against almost 100% offtake last year for both.
Amid a shortfall in wheat production and high inflation, the government yesterday restricted the export of wheat flour to curb prices. The decision was taken at a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA), chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to “ensure food security of the most vulnerable sections of society.”
Top IT services firms are freezing or cutting staff bonuses, worried about tightening budgets of US and European clients who are bracing for recession, which will lower their profits after a pandemic-fuelled boom. Infosys and Wipro recently told employees that they had reduced the variable pay portion of compensations, reports Reuters, which is linked to the performance of the employee and the company. Indian IT companies have also cut back on hiring new graduates. Top IT services provider Tata Consultancy Services has not cut variable pay, which was disbursed without delay.
According to Nepali newspaper My Republica, Foreign Minister Narayan Khadka summoned Indian Ambassador Naveen Srivastava on Wednesday and asked him to postpone plans to recruit Nepalese youth for the Indian Army’s Gorkha regiments under the controversial Agnipath scheme. The Indian Army had planned to recruit Nepalese troops yesterday in Butwal and Dharan on September 1. According to My Republica, Khadka said that all “political parties in Nepal should have a unanimous view about the Agnipath scheme” and India must wait for a consensus. As per IANS, after Agnipath was announced on June 14, the Indian Army via the Indian Embassy in Kathmandu wrote to Nepal’s Foreign Ministry and sought approval for recruitment and security support. But Nepal responded only the day before recruitment was to begin.
The business interests of the richest Indian Gautam Adani have grown on acquisitions, but now debt-funded future acquisitions could start putting pressure on ratings, S&P Global Ratings said yesterday. The Adani Group started as a commodities trader in 1988 and diversified into mines, ports and power plants, followed by airports, data centres and defence. The Gujarat-based oligarch has enjoyed a sharp rise in assets, wealth and prominence after 2014.
The Telangana Police have arrested suspended BJP MLA T Raja Singh again within two days, this time under the Preventive Detention Act, and lodged him in Cherlapally Central Jail amid fears that law and order could break down in parts of Hyderabad. Protests have raged since Monday, when the Goshamahal MLA posted a purportedly offensive video on YouTube.
The Union government has said that it expects 5G services to be rolled out by October 12, and it will keep prices affordable. Union IT minister Ashwini Vaishnaw said that installations are being made for a seamless rollout of 5G services.
For the first time on Wednesday, India voted against Russia during a “procedural vote” on Ukraine at the UN Security Council. The 15-member UN body invited Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to address the meeting via video. So far, New Delhi had abstained at the UN Security Council on Ukraine. It has not criticised Russia for its aggression against Ukraine.
Denying bail to a policeman for the custodial death of a 24-year-old, the Allahabad High Court has observed that “custodial violence, custodial torture and custodial deaths have always been a concern for civilised society.” Police officials also allegedly forcibly entered his house, abused his family and took away Rs 60,000.
Maharashtra Assembly Speaker Rahul Narvekar yesterday ruled that the phrase ‘should be ashamed’ is unparliamentary. It is Item Number 357 in the list of words and expressions held to be unparliamentary. Shiv Sena MLA Aaditya Thackeray, while attacking the Eknath Shinde government on malnutrition and problems faced by Adivasis in the state, had said “one should be ashamed” at the plight of Adivasis even after 75 years of Independence, when the country has a tribal president. Forest Minister Sudhir Mungantiwar objected to the term.
“We, members of the 191 Denotified Tribal communities, got independence only on August 31, 1952 – five years after your Independence. From 1871, we had been categorised as being members of ‘criminal tribes’ by the colonial government, stigmatised as hereditary criminals. Though this was repealed 70 years ago, repressive customs die hard. We still have to give periodic hajiri (attendance) to the village landlord and local police station. On being found absent, we face punishment and exploitation,” says this open letter from a nomad to ‘free and just’ India.
The southwest monsoon is likely to enter its withdrawal phase in the first week of September, nearly a fortnight ahead of the normal date, the weather office has said.
A sorry sight:
Scam allegation against CJI as he leaves office today
Several mediators and arbitrators have urged the central government for a probe into the “illegal acts” of Chief Justice of India NV Ramana for his alleged role in the setting up of the Hyderabad-based International Arbitration and Mediation Centre (IAMC). As many as 65 legal professionals, arbitrators and mediators, including Sriram Panchu, a senior advocate at the Madras High Court, have signed the representation dated August 15. The centre was established under a trust “formed” by Justice Ramana, who is also the author of the deed of the public charitable trust, they claimed, adding that Justice Hima Kohli and the recently retired L Nageswara Rao are trustees. The former is a sitting Supreme Court judge, and the latter retired on June 7.
Justice Ramana demits office today. He inaugurated IAMC in December last year in the presence of Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekar Rao. The representation claimed that the CJI was “promoting the centre and using his official position to solicit business for the centre”. “Justice Ramana has obtained large financial benefits from the government of Telangana amounting to approximately Rs 250 crore, by obtaining 5 acres of land at Hi-Tech city” for the centre, it alleged.
Navy seeks another aircraft carrier
Critical flight trials will be conducted on board indigenous aircraft carrier INS Vikrant from November with the warship expected to be fully operational and integrated with its air wing by the middle of next year, Navy vice-chief Vice Admiral SN Ghormade said. The Navy is pushing for another aircraft carrier, which can be built faster using skills learned while building Vikrant, whose construction began in 2005. India now operates one carrier, INS Vikramaditya, bought second-hand from Russia for $2.33 billion. The Navy argues that it needs three floating airfields, given its vast area of interest.
INS Vikrant hasn’t operated a fighter jet from its flight deck yet. Twelve MiG-29Ks are likely to be deployed on it and it will operate a new deck-based fighter that the Navy is looking to buy as an interim measure before the indigenous twin-engine deck-based fighter (TEDBF) is ready in a few years, Ghormade said. INS Vikramaditya operates MiG-29K fighters.
Army man witness in Malegaon case turns hostile
An Army officer related to Lieutenant Colonel Prasad Purohit, accused in the 2008 Malegaon blast case, became the 25th witness to turn hostile during the trial at Mumbai yesterday. Six were killed and 90 injured when explosives strapped to a motorcycle went off near a mosque in Malegaon, north Maharashtra, on September 29, 2008. The Army officer recorded his testimony before Special Judge AK Lahoti on Thursday and recognised Purohit, who was present in court. He further testified that the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad had questioned him but never recorded his statement, upon which the court declared him hostile.
As per the record, the ATS had recorded his three-page statement, in which he had claimed he had seen documents related to the Abhinav Bharat outfit at Purohit’s house. He had also claimed to have dropped Purohit and another former Army officer at the site of the camp held for Abhinav Bharat in October 2008 in Panchgani. The other accused in the case include BJP Lok Sabha MP Pragya Singh Thakur, who is out on bail.
Byju’s struggling to audit acquisitions
The Ministry of Corporate Affairs has sought reasons from Byju’s, India’s most valuable startup backed by Tiger Global Management, for not filing audited financial accounts for the year ended March 2021. Byju’s attributed the 17-month delay to difficulties in consolidating the accounts of a number of companies acquired that year. Bengaluru-based Byju’s, valued at $22 billion according to market researcher CB Insights, was founded by CEO Byju Raveendran, 41, a teacher and the son of schoolteachers.
The Long Cable
Pegasus: The Questions That Still Remain
The Pegasus Project – executed by a consortium of global news organisations, including The Wire in India – showed how governments have been using Pegasus spyware to target specific individuals. The project’s reporting identified multiple individuals in India, including members of the opposition and journalists, who had been targeted using Pegasus. In October 2021, a number of individuals petitioned the Supreme Court of India, asking that it investigate whether Pegasus was illegally used to target them. The court set up a panel of technical experts to investigate if and how the spyware was used against citizens. The Supreme Court has now observed that the panel was unable to provide conclusive evidence that Pegasus was discovered on the devices it examined. The case, which involves requests for the report of the technical panel to be made public, will next be heard in four weeks.
One of the concerns raised is why the technical panel was unable to conclusively establish that Pegasus was used. How is it possible that the panel examined several devices of individuals who were identified as targets on the basis of forensic tests conducted by Amnesty International and peer reviewed by Citizen Lab, and found no evidence? Besides this, the panel received technical comments from established experts including professors and researchers, so it would be difficult to argue that the comments put forth by these individuals and organisations were not good enough for the panel to accept.
In addition to the comments it received, the panel must certainly be aware of developments in investigations of the use of Pegasus in other jurisdictions. In 2019, for instance, WhatsApp testified before a United States court that 1,400 individuals were targeted by Pegasus. The case in the United States assumes significance in this debate particularly because WhatsApp has confirmed that the figure in the case includes individuals from India. In addition to this, technical evidence highlighted by the Pegasus Project was the basis on which authorities in several countries ordered independent investigations into the use of Pegasus. This includes investigations by the European Parliament as well as those in France, Spain, and Mexico. If the panel has indeed concluded that Pegasus was not used in India, it would be remarkable, since the same evidence presented to the technical panel has been deemed adequate to launch investigations into the use of Pegasus in other countries.
Another concern raised by the development is that the Supreme Court is unlikely to order an independent probe into the use of Pegasus if the technical panel concludes that Pegasus was not found on the devices it examined. If this occurs, it will impact the rights of citizens who have been identified by independent experts and researchers, including by the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab and Amnesty International’s Security Lab, as victims. These individuals have been and may still be targeted by spyware that infiltrates their personal lives, and the consequence of such illegal acts extends beyond their personal privacy and safety.
Because the list of potential victims includes members of the opposition, an election commissioner, a judge and staff of the Supreme Court, and journalists, the use of Pegasus to target these individuals strikes at the heart of Indian democracy. It is important to remember that using Pegasus to target these individuals is illegal, since Indian laws do not permit such hacking, with no exceptions even for the government. This makes it important for the Supreme Court to effectively investigate who ran Pegasus in India. Looking at the list of victims, it is easy to guess which government would have an interest in using Pegasus to spy on them. But without an independent investigation, we will never know for certain.
The Supreme Court continues to be the last recourse for those looking to hold those responsible for the use of Pegasus in India accountable since the government has resisted and evaded calls for an investigation into the matter and because the Parliament was unable to meaningfully debate it. As a first step towards functioning as an effective institution, the Supreme Court must avoid lurking behind the practise of using sealed covers over a key report of the technical panel. The report possibly outlines how the panel came to the decision that Pegasus was not found on the devices it analysed, and it must be made public with no redactions so that other experts may evaluate it. If the Supreme Court fails to function as an effective institution in this case, we will have three major pillars of our democracy failing to hold the government accountable when serious allegations of this nature arise.
Clearly, there is a lot more at stake in this case than the privacy of a handful of individuals. The Supreme Court's ruling in this case will have effects that go beyond their rights, it will have an impact on the trust that citizens have in the independent institutions of our society. One can only hope that the Supreme Court understands this.
Jade Lyngdoh is at National Law University Jodhpur.
The central agencies are overworked. Swooping down on the BJP’s political opponents at the decisive moment ― before a trust vote, or when an MLA shows signs of independence ― is hard work, and some mix-ups will happen. Following the CBI raid on a Gurugram mall it thought was owned by Bihar Deputy Chief Minister Tejashwi Yadav, he has said that it’s incorrect. In a series of tweets, he said: “The Urban Cubes mall belongs to White Land Corporation Ltd and a BJP MP has an investment in it. Krishna Kumar is the present owner of this mall. Moreover, Haryana CM Manohar Lal Khattar inaugurated that mall. Now, CBI is answerable. It should clarify the owner of the mall.” Who?
Prime Number: 13 days
It took 13 days for the Indian government to open its mouth and condemn the attack on India-born novelist Salman Rushdie. It is the longest any country has taken to do this.
OSINT has mostly been used to hold the powerful accountable, as in the Russian invasion of Ukraine; in India, it’s being co-opted by rabid right-wingers to target Modi’s critics, explains Rest of World.
Opeds you don’t want to miss
Apar Gupta writes that India has adopted an authoritarian policy cocktail, mixing surveillance, welfarism and capitalism. Five years after Puttaswamy, India has not only failed to implement the right to privacy, but also compromised on its core principles.
Aadhaar-voter ID linking is voluntary, says the government – but there’s little chance of avoiding it. Election officials are citing ‘orders from above’ to pressure voters who have not yet linked these documents, writes Umang Poddar.
Julio Ribeiro writes that if you are a journalist sifting lies from the ‘truth’ put out by the BJP’s propaganda machine, and you happen to be Muslim, you will have to cool your heels in jail till the courts of law suffer a pang of conscience.
Indiara Jaising bids farewell to a politically correct and politically agile Chief Justice of India.
Anirudh Kanisetti writes that from the 8th century CE to the 15th, the religious culture of Cambodia was predominantly Shaivite, thanks to active conversion by Hindu preachers, market forces, Indian emigration and intelligence and selectivity in how Cambodia interacted with ‘Indian’ ideas.
Optimistically speaking, we are a decade behind China in military capability, but only in the traditional domains of war. In the cyber, electromagnetic, space and near space domains, we are nearly 15 years behind, writes Lt Gen HS Panag (retd).
Bharat Bhushan writes that Nitin Gadkari is done and dusted because Modi never forgives his critics and potential challengers are cut down to size.
India needs to avoid political instability which would result if a large community is made to feel that it cannot live with dignity along with the majority, writes Mint.
Suchandra Bose writes that anything can be boycotted on social media. The urge to relegate something to the margins isn’t new, but it’s now rampant.
In the Spotlight South Asia series by Sushant Singh (a contributor to The India Cable), hear conversations with Mosharraf Zaidi from Pakistan and Amish Raj Mulmi from Nepal to see how everything looks from other lenses in the neighbourhood.
The National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi is hosting Kshetragya: The Illumined, which celebrates the extraordinary work of 10 national treasures who were “torchbearers of a distinct Indian modernism”: Abanindranath Tagore, Raja Ravi Varma, Jamini Roy, Rabindranath Tagore, Gaganendranath Tagore, Benode Behari Mukherjee, Nicholas Roerich, Amrita Sher-Gil, Ramkinkar Baij and Sailoz Mukherjea. If you can’t visit, catch a glimpse here.
Over and out
Hollywood star Ryan Reynolds hails a UK restaurant for serving the “best Indian food in Europe”. He raved about the food at Light of India after he visited the diner to celebrate his football team’s win. The owners’ son says he hopes to name a dish after him.
An excerpt from From the Frugal to the Ornate: Stories of the Seat in India by Sarita Sundar reveals how chairs made by Godrej symbolised independent India’s socialist idea of modernism – of the spirit of equity, economy and access.
That’s it for today. We’ll be back with you on Monday, 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.