By Arun Srivastava
The Supreme Court has expressed its desire to set up a committee of experts to study the allegations of illegal surveillance using Pegasus spyware and in likelihood will issue orders next week. The apex court’s observations on constituting the committee assume significance in view of the Centre’s statement that it would set up an expert panel on its own to look into the grievances of the alleged surveillance of certain eminent Indians by hacking their phones using Israeli firm NSO’s spyware, Pegasus.
So far the Supreme Court was of the opinion that it would pass an order, the nature and content of which was not clear, but the latest stand of apex court has been quite intriguing. Speculations are rife as to what made the apex court to constitute an expert committee.
Questions are also being asked as to how it shall be different from the expert committee proposed by the Modi government. Both the Supreme Court and Modi government would like to have the Pegasus scam and conspiracy probed by an expert committee. While the proposal of the Modi government was not clear and transparent, the suggestion of the Supreme Court is also not so clear.
The initial move of the Supreme Court has met with some problem. Some of the experts who Supreme Court desired to have on the Committee have refused to be the members. The Chief Justice N V Ramana said; “We wanted to pass an order this week,” but it had to be deferred as some members of the technical committee, which the court had in mind, expressed “personal difficulties” in becoming part of it.
This has got two implications; either the members are afraid of the Modi government or nurse the impression that any such committee would fail to serve any substantial purpose. This is a very serious situation. At one level the reluctance of these people to be on the board also reflects that they are sceptical of the attitude of the government towards their findings and recommendations.
We have before us the recommendation of the three member committee on the farmers’ movement. It was in the initial stage of the movement the Supreme Court had constituted the four member committee to suggest a way out for resolving the farmers’ crisis. One member who was close to Modi quit. But the other three members continued with the exercise. They even submitted the report. But the suggestions are dumped. The government even did not bother to look at the recommendations and suggestions.
What is the guarantee that the expert committee on Pegasus would not meet the same fate? Modi through his aides, solicitor general and even through his body language had made it clear that he would not budge an inch from his stand in the matter. After all it is a matter of his image and prestige. Why should he endanger his image and prestige by agreeing to any such proposal? This would actually amount to his involvement in the scam and conspiracy.
But it is again a fact that this cannot be allowed to persist. The scam ought to be exposed. The Supreme Court should have to assert in a more determined manner, adopt a more aggressive attitude and send a strong message that it meant business and the recommendation of the committee should have wider implication. The court was not undertaking this task merely to show to the people of the country that it has set up a committee and it was working. Instead it must strive to unearth the scam and identify the players.
One is quite hopeful of the assertion of the CJI; “It is taking time to constitute the committee. We will be able to finalise the members of the technical expert team by next week and then pronounce our orders.” The bench must find out from the Centre whether Pegasus was used to allegedly spy on individuals and if it was done lawfully after the latter expressed its unwillingness to file a detailed affidavit citing national security.
In an affidavit submitted to the Supreme Court, the Modi government had offered to set up a committee of experts to look into “all aspects” of the Pegasus spyware allegations. However, the government did not clarify what and how exactly this would be done, who will be on this committee or how much time the committee will take.
The expert committee must reflect the trust of the people in the judiciary and especially in the CJI of Supreme Court. The manner in which a couple of judges subverted the trust of the people that has turned the people sceptical and lose their faith in the judiciary. Earlier the people of the country abide by any executive action, even prefer to languish in jail for years without raising any kind of protest, but now the same people have started asking questions. The people have come to nurse the feeling that judiciary has come alive.
There is no doubt that the probe committee set up by the Modi government would have manoeuvred the probe and distorted the finding. Mehta’s proposal suffered due to trust deficit, which has ironically the creation of the Modi government and specially the Prime Minister. As the head of the state Modi should have come out clean in a bold manner and accepted the offer of the Supreme Court.
It was the consistent denial by his government to have the conspiracy probe that turned Modi suspect in the eyes of the people of the country. In view of number of petitions the Supreme Court was under legal compulsion to have it thoroughly probed whether the government employed the Israeli spyware to hack into the phones of journalists, politicians and human rights defenders in India.
There is absolutely no doubt that a probe under an SC-appointed committee has more credibility than one by a government panel. By its unwavering stance on not getting it probed, Modi has turned him and his government turn suspect. His style of operation further made the people question his real intentions and expressing doubt that he was behaving like Uncle Sham of US of seventies.
How could people believe him? At stake are vital issues involving civil liberties, including the right to privacy of citizens, the integrity of institutions and due process. The court has rightly recognised that the likes of Pegasus pose a threat to core values of democracy.
The Supreme Court may use its discretion to engage some of the experts who belonged to the group of 17 media organisations from across the world including The Wire to unearth the scam. They are in possession of the details of a leaked database of 50,000 numbers who may have been targeted for surveillance by clients of NSO Group. The news organisations working on Pegasus Project were independently able to identify the owners of over 1,500 numbers across at least 10 countries, including over 300 in India. A small cross-section of these phones was forensically examined to find traces of Pegasus. It is worth mentioning that France’s national cybersecurity authorities have confirmed the Pegasus infection on the phones of three French journalists who were on the list.
In sum, The Supreme Court has a major task ahead when it announces the details of the interim order including the composition of the experts committee. The apex court has shown its guts in rejecting the plea of the Government to avert any probe which involves national security, but at the same time, The learned judges have to ensure that the experts panel does its job in record time and help the Court in taking proper decision on taking the next course of action. (IPA Service)