New Delhi: Officials of companies linked to then global farm tech giant Monsanto, which was involved in developing genetically modified (GM) seeds, and an Assam activist at the forefront of the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) are among those whose numbers figure in the list of the alleged Pegasus snooping targets, a global media consortium reported Wednesday.
According to the report, the numbers of Mahyco Monsanto Biotech and Monsanto India officials were allegedly targeted in 2018, when the companies are believed to have come under the scanner in light of allegations about the unauthorised sale of GM seeds.
The Assam activist is Samujjal Bhattacharjee of All Assam Students Union (AASU), who was involved in protests against the controversial CAA. Also on the list is Anup Chetia of the pro-talks faction of the banned United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA).
The Pegasus expose claims that, in 2018, the numbers of six senior officials from Mahyco Monsanto Biotech (India) Pvt Lt and Monsanto India were selected as possible candidates for surveillance.
While Mahyco Monsanto Biotech is a joint venture between Mahyco — Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Co. Ltd — and the erstwhile Bt seeds pioneer Monsanto, Monsanto India is a subsidiary of Monsanto, US, which was acquired by the German company Bayer AG in 2018.
Referring to Mahyco-Monsanto and Monsanto India, the Pegasus Project noted that, in early 2018, the then BJP government in Maharashtra had started an investigation into allegations that certain firms were selling or releasing unapproved herbicide-tolerant (HT) transgenic cotton, or Bt cotton, seeds in the state.
A few months before the state government set up a special investigation team to look into the matter, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), in October 2017, launched its own probe into the allegedly illegal proliferation of GM seeds.
The two companies were named in the resolution issued by the Maharashtra government while forming the SIT.
The Pegasus expose was broken Sunday by a global consortium of media organisations that claimed to have a list of numbers allegedly identified by governments dealing with Israel’s NSO Group — which owns the military-grade spyware Pegasus — for attempted snooping. Presence on the list only reportedly indicates that a number was identified for potential snooping and doesn’t confirm if the plan went through.
The estimated 300 Indian numbers on the list included those of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, newly-appointed Union IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, political strategist Prashant Kishor, and West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee’s MP nephew Abhishek Banerjee.
Others on the list
On Tuesday, the numbers of former Karnataka chief minister H.D. Kumaraswamy’s secretary, former deputy chief minister G. Parameshwara and the secretary of another former CM, the Congress’ Siddaramaiah, were reported to be in the list of public figures and politicians whose phones were allegedly targeted using Pegasus.
The numbers were allegedly targeted in 2019, when Karnataka was witnessing political turmoil that led to a change in government, from one led by the JD(S)-Congress to that of the BJP.
Three former Jawaharlal Nehru University students, including jailed activist Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya, accused of sedition in connection with a 2016 protest at the institute, figured in the list as well.
The opposition, especially the Congress, has subsequently targeted the Modi government and asked it to issue a clarification on the matter. The Pegasus expose has been among the reasons that the Opposition has cited to disrupt Parliament.
The Modi government has denied the charges. Union Home Minister Amit Shah said the report about the alleged snooping has been amplified by people “whose only aim is to do whatever possible to humiliate India on the world stage”.
“This is a report by the disrupters for the obstructers. Disrupters are global organisations that do not like India to progress,” he said. “Obstructers are political players in India who do not want India to progress. People of India are very good at understanding this chronology and connection.”
Union IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw said Monday that the report had no factual basis and appeared to be an attempt to “malign Indian democracy and its well-established institutions”. This was before his name was also found to be on the list.
Prime Minister Narendra also hit out at the Opposition Tuesday, saying it is “spreading lies” and “politicising” the Covid-19 pandemic. He also asked his party members to counter the “lies” being spread by the opposition about Covid-19 and the government’s policies.
(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)