File image of the Supreme Court of India | Photo: Manisha Mondal | ThePrint
File image of the Supreme Court of India | Manisha Mondal | ThePrint
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New Delhi: The Narendra Modi government Monday informed the Supreme Court that it will set up a “committee of experts” to look into the Pegasus spyware snooping controversy.

The Union Ministry of Electronics and Information and Technology (MeiTY) made the statement in a six-page affidavit filed in response to a batch of petitions demanding a court-monitored probe into the row.

The affidavit also said the questions surrounding the name of MeiTY Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw in the scandal have already been clarified by the minister in Parliament.

However, the petitioners in the matter rejected the government affidavit, saying it did not reveal whether the Centre used the military-grade spyware — made by an Israel-based firm called NSO Group.

In the absence of a clear stand, the petitioners said, the government should not be allowed to set up a probe committee.

This led a bench headed by Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana to ask solicitor general Tushar Mehta if he wanted more time to file a better or detailed affidavit, as sought by the petitioners.

“Whatever you want to say, why don’t you file an affidavit? We will also get a clear picture,” the court told him. Mehta responded by posing a question. “Will they (petitioners) take their pleas back if I file a detailed affidavit. This is a question I ask myself,” the law officer said.

This prompted the bench to comment that Mehta was reluctant to file a fresh affidavit and it remarked: “We see you do not want to take a stand.”

However, Mehta was quick to clarify that the court’s opinion about him in the matter was not correct. According to him, the information sought by the petitioners was “sensitive” in nature and concerned “national security”.

With Mehta remaining firm, the court deferred the hearing to Tuesday, but suggested he reconsider his view.

To be sure, the court has not issued any formal notice to the government yet, and it haS decided to hear the government first before dealing with the merits of the case.

The move comes weeks after the Pegasus scandal came to light following a global media probe that brought governments around the world, including India’s, under scrutiny for alleged snooping attempts against journalists, activists, politicians and lawyers, among others.

The scandal is centred on a list of 50,000 phone numbers that were allegedly identified as potential snooping targets. The NSO Group claims to only license the Pegasus technology to law enforcement and intelligence agencies of “vetted governments”.

Also read: Pegasus doesn’t matter to ordinary Indians, Opposition does. Keyboard politics won’t work

What the government has said

In its affidavit, MeiTY claimed the petitions are based on “conjectures”, “surmises” and “unsubstantiated media reports” or “incomplete or uncorroborated material”.  

“It is submitted that the same cannot be the basis for invoking the writ jurisdiction of this Hon’ble Court,” the affidavit said.

The proposed probe committee, it added, would “dispel any wrong narrative spread by certain vested interests and with an object of examining the issues raised (in the petitions)”.

On the government’s move to set up the expert committee, the court wanted to know how a technical committee would check what authorisations were given for use of the spyware, if it was used at all, and who issued permission and the sanction to procure it.

To this, Mehta said the committee will comprise eminent neutral people and the court can invoke its extraordinary power to lay down a mandate for it.

“I cannot think the government can be more transparent,” he told the court. The solicitor general even read out the MeiTY minister’s statement in Parliament to emphasise it dealt with the issues raised in the petitions.

Also read: Hopeful IT panel will take up Pegasus issue going forward, says Shashi Tharoor

What the petitioners said

A battery of senior counsel, appearing for the petitioners, called the government affidavit “wholly unacceptable”.

They contended that the government must state on oath whether the Centre or any of its agencies ever used Pegasus. They claimed the matter can proceed further only after the government provides specific answers to their queries.

The petitioners urged the bench to grant more time to the government to submit a detailed response.

“If the government admits to having used Pegasus then they cannot be allowed to set up the committee. And, if they have not, then the question of having a committee does not arise and our line of argument will also change,” senior advocate Kapil Sibal argued. 

Sibal is representing two of the petitioners, Editors Guild of India and senior journalist N. Ram.

He said the government must come clean on what steps they have taken since 2019, when it first got to know about Pegasus. He added that two pillars of democracy — judiciary and media — got infiltrated through the spyware.

The petitioners repeated their demand that the affidavit be filed either by the Cabinet secretary or home secretary.

In his rebuttal, Mehta said the issue before the court was sensitive, but an attempt was being made to sensationalise it and the “same cannot be a median through which the bench’s adjudication process can be invoked”.

Mehta sought to remind Sibal that he, too, was a telecom minister (in the previous UPA government) and aware of the rules on interception. “My friend would know there are interceptions that take place as per law and statutory rules. There are also review committees that look into permissions granted for the same,” he said.

Mehta applauded Sibal’s contribution in the framing of the Information Technology Act and called it a “beautiful legislation”, an Act that is “all comprehensive, taking care of every situation”.

Sibal said the “beauty of the beautiful statute is lost with time”. He even dismissed Mehta’s assertion that revealing government use of Pegasus will endanger national security.

(Edited by Amit Upadhyaya)

Also read: It’s a sorry state of affairs in Parliament, there’s no clarity in laws, CJI Ramana says


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