Project Pegasus: Phone numbers of top NSCN (I-M) leaders in snooping target list, says report

The phone numbers of top NSCN(I-M) leaders figured on the list of potential snooping targets of the Pegasus spyware, less than two years after the Narendra Modi-led government signed a "historic" agreement with the outfit in 2015 towards settling the Nagaland insurgency.

Less than two years after the Centre signed a framework agreement with the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN-Isak Muivah) in 2015, in what was considered to be a big step towards ending Naga militancy and bringing peace to the region, the phone numbers of several top NSCN(I-M) leaders were added to the database for potential surveillance through the Pegasus spyware, The Wire reported on Wednesday.

The NSCN (I-M) has fought an insurgency against the Indian government for decades and signing the agreement was widely considered to be the first step in solving the six-decades-old Naga political issue.

Among the NSCN (I-M) leaders whose names were found on the database are Atem Vashum, Apam Muivah, Anthony Shimray, and Phunthing Shimrang, The Wire reported.

Vashum was widely considered to be the successor of NSCN (I-M) chairman Th. Muivah. While Shimrang was the former commander in chief of the NSCN (I-M)’s Naga Army, Shimray was the commander in chief of the NSCN (I-M)’s ‘military operations’ in 2017. Vashum and Apam had taken part in discussions with R N Ravi, who was the Centre’s interlocutor for the Naga peace talks and later become the Governor of Nagaland.

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The number of Naga National Political Groups (NNPG) convenor N. Kitovi Zhimomi, who was also a key player in efforts to bring peace to the region, was also added to the list in 2017.

The digital news portal also reported that soon after the Ministry of Home Affairs announced the reconstitution of the high-level Clause 6 committee in Assam in 2019, All Assam Students Union (AASU) adviser Samujjal Bhattacharjee was also added to the potential snoop list.

AASU adviser, pro-talks ULFA leader also part of database

The inclusion of Samujjal Bhattacharjee to the list is significant because it came after the AASU adviser was included in the reconstituted Clause 6 committee. The original body, which was formed to ensure “constitutional safeguards” guaranteed to the “Assamese people” under Clause 6 of the Assam Accord are implemented in the state, did not include any AASU representative, a decision which had reportedly miffed the students’ body.

The Assam Accord had set January 1, 1951, as the cutoff date for legal citizenship claims in Assam as opposed to March 24, 1971 as decided by the National Register of Citizens (NRC).

Since, Clause 6 is meant to give the Assamese people certain safeguards, which would not be available to migrants between 1951 and 1971, there have been widespread demands to implement it in Assam. The committee thus assumed significance in the backdrop of the larger debates around and contesting claims over “Assamese” identity and the long-drawn and protracted steps to prove citizenship in the state.

Pro-talks United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) leader Anup Chetia also reportedly figured in the list. “I have two numbers, all the time the police keep listening to my conversations. I am not surprised at all. One number was given to me by the Assam Police itself after I was released from jail (in 2015). So it would be naïve to think that there is no surveillance on me through that number,” Chetia was quoted as saying by The Wire.

Virologist Gangandeep Kang added to snoop list when she was working on Nipah virus

The Wire has also reported that the phone number of virologist Gagandeep Kang was added to the database in 2018 when she was working on the Nipah virus and rotavirus.

“… there were discussions around Nipah in an international meeting being convened around August of 2018. Other than that, we weren’t working on anything particularly controversial. I was [trying] to get the funding for the CEPI lab to be established and stuff like that. So I can’t think of anything other than CEPI. I’ve worked with the same partners – [US] National Institutes of Health, WHO, Gates Foundation kind of stuff throughout, so there was nothing special other than Nipah that was happening at that time,” Kang told the Pegasus Project, The Wire report stated.

Also on the list is the number of an American US Centres for Disease Control (CDC) official who was in India before the Nipah virus outbreak.

Maharashtra seed giant may have also been targetted 

The Wire also reported that the numbers of six senior officials from Mahyco Monsanto Biotech (India) Pvt. Lt and Monsanto India, seed giants in Maharashtra, were selected as possible candidates for surveillance. This was at a time when the BJP government in the state had formed an SIT to probe companies that were allegedly selling or releasing unapproved herbicide-tolerant transgenic cotton seeds in the state.

A senior government official and scientist at the Department of Biotechnology, who was a part of the Field Inspection and Scientific Evaluation Committee set up by the PMO to investigate unlawful seeds, was also a person of interest selected for potential surveillance by Pegasus.

Editors Guild calls for probe under aegis of Supreme Court

Meanwhile, the Editors Guild of India, in a press statement, has strongly condemned the alleged widespread targeting of individuals by the spyware developed by NSO.

“The Editors Guild of India is shocked by the media reports on the wide spread surveillance, allegedly mounted by government agencies, on journalists, civil society activists, businessmen and politicians, using a hacking software known as Pegasus, created and developed by the Israeli company NSO…Since NSO claims that it only sells this software to governments clients vetted by the Government of Israel, it deepens suspicion of involvement of Indian government agencies in snooping on its own citizens,” the statement read.

It added, “While some of the instances of surveillance might have been targeted against those who may be seen as credible national security threat, what is disturbing is that a large of such targets were journalists and civil society activists. This is a brazen and unconstitutional attack on freedom of speech and press. This act of snooping essentially conveys that journalism and political dissent are now equated with ‘terror’. How can a constitutional democracy survive if governments do not make an effort to protect freedom of speech and allows surveillance with such impunity?”

Calling for “deep introspection and inquiry into the kind of society we are heading towards, and how far we may have veered away from the democratic values enshrined in our constitution”, the Guild demanded an “urgent and independent inquiry into these snooping charges, under the aegis of Supreme Court of India”.

“We also demand that this inquiry committee should include people of impeccable credibility from different walks of life- including journalists and civil society- so that it can independently investigate the facts around the extent and intent of snooping using the services of Pegasus,” it said.

The Wire, a digital news platform, which is part of a global collaborative investigative project, reported Sunday that the leaked global database of 50,000 telephone numbers, was first accessed by French non-profit Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International, and then shared with 16 media partners: The Guardian, Washington Post, Le Monde, Suddeutsche Zeitung, and 11 other Arab and European organisations.

The Indian list of 300 “verified” numbers includes those used by “ministers, opposition leaders, journalists, the legal community, businessmen, government officials, scientists, rights activists and others”, it said. The Guardian, however, said the presence of a phone number in the database was not a confirmation of whether the corresponding device was infected with Pegasus or was subject to an attempted hack.

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