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WhatsApp-Pegasus Row: Why Left Activists Became Snooping Targets

A majority of the names revealed so far are Left-oriented activists & lawyers who’ve been working for Dalit rights.

Published
India
4 min read
Anand Teltumbe and Bela Bhatia.
i

A majority of the names disclosed in the WhatsApp-Pegasus snooping scandal so far are Left-oriented activists and lawyers who have been working for Dalit and land rights.

At least four of the twenty people who were allegedly attacked by NSO developled spyware that could enter their phones and spy on them were related to the Bhima-Koregaon case, including accused Anand Teltumbde and Surendra Gadling. Gadling’s lawyer, Nihalsing Rathod, and Bastar-based lawyer for Sudha Bhardwaj (another accused in the case), Shalini Gera are also part of the list.

Gera had previously worked with the Jagdalpur Legal Aid, a group of women lawyers who provide free legal aid to tribal people implicated in Maoist-related cases. In 2016, Gera and her other team members were allegedly 'forcibly' asked by the Chhattisgarh Police to vacate their residences within eight days. She is currently working as the People’s Union For Civil Liberties (PUCL) secretary for Chhattisgarh.

Other names that have emerged so far include Bastar-based Dalit rights lawyer Bela Bhatia, Chhattisgarh-based activist Degree Prasad Chouhan, human rights lawyer from Chandigarh and Sudha Bhardwaj’s close associate, Ankit Grewal, human rights activist and PUCL member Seema Azad and others. (See the full list here)

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After WhatsApp confirmed that it has sued the NSO group in a US court and had notified the victims about the breach, the MHA in statement said, “The attempts to malign the Government of India for the reported breach, are completely misleading.” However, so far there has been no actual denial from the government that it had purchased the spyware.

Meanwhile, several of the activists who were targeted suspect that it was indeed the government that spied on them.

‘Uneven Fight’

Nihalsing Rathod claims that cracking down on activists who do not bow down to pressure has dual benefits for the government. “These people are not in a very tight bound structure. They are scattered here and there. They work in small factions so they are a weak entity. They are short on resources and money. It is an uneven fight for those fighting against the government.”

“Secondly, there were some ridiculous letters which the Pune police claimed they have found from Gadling’s computers which allegedly suggested a plan to assassinate PM Narendra Modi and established links with the banned Maoist group. This is a group that has survived an underground movement for about 50 years and why would they suddenly reveal names and addresses?,” Rathod asked.

“How do we know that these letters were not planted through the spyware attack since it does benefit the government who can claim to have put the so-called ‘urban naxals’ under arrest.”
Nihalsing Rathod

‘State-Corporate Nexus’

Himanshu Kumar, an activist who was forced to flee Chhattisgarh during the Salwa Judum controversy in the Congress era, says, "The land rights activists are being targeted because they are hindering the intentions of capitalists wanting to grab land from the tribals. The entire government machinery is working towards helping these capitalists and corporates capture the resources of the poor."

“The traditional ruling class in India is upper caste but for governance it needs Dalits and OBCs. Any activist who is organising Dalits against the state oppression is not tolerated by the government. Those who can effectively expose the government through writings and public actions. They are scared of intellectual opposition more than terrorists. Why was Gauri Lankesh killed otherwise?”
Himanshu Kumar
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Have ‘Leftist’ Human Rights Activists Targeted Before?

Commenting on the profile of people who have emerged as being spied upon, a former Intelligence Bureau officer told The Quint, “It is not that Dalit intellectuals are being surveilled. It is possible that individual people’s activities were spied upon. For example, a lot of these activists belong to PUCL, which is an extreme left organisation.”

GK Pillai, who was the home secretary during UPA-2 under P Chidambaram as the Home Minister, told The Quint that during his tenure around 4000-8000 people were snooped upon. “We would definitely be tapping phones of somebody who is a leftist extremist person if there is an intelligence input that he/she is in touch with the banned Maoist organisation. With the approval of the home secretary, the agencies were allowed to have a surveillance on such people.”

In a report published in 2018 by India Today, an RTI reply from 2013 had revealed that around 9,000 phones and 500 email accounts were surveilled every month by the UPA government at that time. Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in 2010, had said that Naxalism remains the greatest threat to his government.

WhatsApp has now officially responded to the Ministry of Electronics and IT on the security incident related to the breach by Pegasus malware The Quint on Saturday, 2 November.. The messaging platform has also confirmed that its reply includes updates that WhatsApp had sent to CERT-In in May and September. The government is yet to acknowledge the response and on Friday, 1 November, alleged that it had received no notification from WhatsApp on the "NSO spyware breach".

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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