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India's Watergate moment

"Congratulations!" This was the most common message of support I received from friends and well-wishers after it became known on July 18 that my name was on a list of journalists whose cell phones were attacked by the Israeli military spyware Pegasus. I knew I was on the list since June. My friend and colleague Siddharth Varadarajan, co-founder of the independent Indian news portal The Wire – one of the 17 global media partners in this worldwide investigation – was grim when he first informed me. After I agreed to participate in the investigation, Amnesty International checked my device in early July. They found out that my cell phone had been infiltrated by Pegasus just a few days ago.

Leaked data for the investigation, provided by Paris-based nonprofit Forbidden Stories, showed that my cell phone was first sniffed in July 2018 when I was assistant editor at The Indian Express newspaper . That year I won the prestigious Ramnath Goenka Prize for Outstanding Journalism, which was awarded for my coverage of three major news items: the dismissal and replacement of the head of India's leading federal investigative agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation; the internal conflict and unrest at the highest level in the Supreme Court of India over allegations of corruption and the appointment of new judges; and the multi-billion dollar Rafale fighter jet deal between India and France, in which allegations of misconduct, nepotism and overpricing had gained ground. The deal became a major issue in the 2019 Indian elections.

"Congratulations!" This was the most common message of support I received from friends and well-wishers after it became known on July 18 that my name was on a list of journalists whose cell phones were attacked by the Israeli military spyware Pegasus. I knew I was on the list since June. My friend and colleague Siddharth Varadarajan, co-founder of the independent Indian news portal The Wire – one of the 17 global media partners in this worldwide investigation – was grim when he first informed me. After I agreed to participate in the investigation, Amnesty International checked my device in early July. They found out that my cell phone had been infiltrated by Pegasus just a few days ago.

Leaked data for the investigation, provided by Paris-based nonprofit Forbidden Stories, showed that my cell phone was first sniffed in July 2018 when I was assistant editor at The Indian Express newspaper . That year I won the prestigious Ramnath Goenka Prize for Outstanding Journalism, which was awarded for my coverage of three major news items: the dismissal and replacement of the head of India's leading federal investigative agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation; the internal conflict and unrest at the highest level in the Supreme Court of India over allegations of corruption and the appointment of new judges; and the multi-billion dollar Rafale fighter jet deal between India and France, in which allegations of misconduct, nepotism and overpricing had gained ground. The deal became a major issue in the 2019 Indian elections.

Although the Rafale deal remains a politically sensitive issue for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the list of Indians targeted by Pegasus goes beyond journalists and activists. It allegedly includes leading politicians, constitutional officials, bureaucrats, judges, lawyers, academics, diplomats and business people. Since the Israeli cyber weapon is allegedly only sold to "verified governments" for use against terrorists and criminals, the snooping list shows that the Indian democratic framework is no longer free and fair. This is no less than the Watergate moment in India.

If India's institutions fail to stand up and press Modi's government for answers, it could mean the downfall of the world's greatest democracy. It is also up to another democracy, Israel, to stay clean and take steps to revoke India's Pegasus license for breach of contractual obligations.

This is not the first time that revelations about Pegasus' use against Indian activists and journalists have come to light. In 2019, the WhatsApp intelligence service provided the Indian government with a list of 121 people whose cell phones had been spied on by Pegasus. WhatsApp has taken the NSO Group, the maker of Pegasus, to court for hacking the app to infiltrate phones. A report from Citizen Lab, a research group at the University of Toronto, showed that an operator called GANGES has been operating in India since June 2017. After questions were raised in the Indian parliament, the government resorted to obfuscation in its response, without confirmation, nor denied having bought Pegasus from its Israeli manufacturer. Meanwhile, the media turned the focus to WhatsApp when the culprit was really military-grade spyware.

But the details that have emerged in the recent revelations are of a different nature. The cell phones of India's opposition leader Rahul Gandhi, his two close associates and five apolitical friends were hacked by Pegasus in the run-up to the 2019 national election, which Modi won. During this campaign, one of the electoral commissioners – a constitutional official – spoke out against Modi's polarizing speeches. His phone and that of a journalist reporting his official stance have been compromised by Pegasus.

India's top political adviser Prashant Kishor, who made Modi prime minister in 2014 but has since been behind some of his party's most humiliating provincial defeats, has also been hacked. Among other things, two ministers in Modi's own cabinet were monitored. And in a breathtaking incident that illustrates the political dimension of the snooping network, the leaks revealed cell phones were hacked by political leaders and their aides in the opposition-led state of Karnataka just before Modi's party overthrew the government by defectors and established its own government founded in 2019.

A young employee of the Indian Supreme Court who accused the then Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment in 2019 is said to have targeted eleven cell phones of her and her family from Pegasus. After Gogoi dismissed indictments against himself, Gogoi, who ruled in favor of the government on key cases – including the Rafale case, the Babri Masjid mosque case, and a lawsuit over illegal detention in Kashmir – was removed from Modi in 2020 Nominated for parliament The Supreme Court judge's cell phone was reportedly sniffed, as were the cell phones of many lawyers working on politically sensitive cases.

The exhaustive list does not leave any area of ​​the socio-political landscape of India free from Pegasus hacking. A variety of human rights activists, civil society actors and leaders of nonprofits, including the head of the Indian branch of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, were hacked. India's top virologist Gagandeep Kang is not spared either. Some business people, especially those involved in the Rafale deal, were also sniffed by the Israeli spyware. To top it off, there are more than 40 journalists on the list, many of whom have covered critical news about the politics and decisions of Modi or his top party leaders.

The closest parallel to the breadth and nature of Indian Pegasus sniffing is the infamous 1972-1974 Watergate scandal in the United States when it surfaced in the United States at the time. President Richard Nixon's administration tried to cover up its role of espionage for the Democrats. But current Pegasus-based sniffing goes a step further. Although Nixon has targeted his opposition, Modi's administration has reportedly targeted the judiciary, electoral authorities, journalists and federal investigators.

While Nixon was ultimately charged with covering up his crimes, Modi's government categorically refuses to deny that it procured or used Pegasus. Modi's deputy, Interior Minister Amit Shah, argued, “This is a troublemaker's report for the obstructors. Disruptors are global organizations that don't like India moving forward. Obstacles are political actors in India who do not want India to move forward. "

If Modi's administration hopes to overcome the current global storm, it is following in Nixon's footsteps. It took two years of hard work by the US media, justice system and lawmakers after the Watergate scandal first came to light to force Nixon to resign in 1974.

Many global watch dogs have warned of democratic erosion in India under Modi's Hindu majority rule. The government was offended when the V-Dem Institute labeled India an "electoral autocracy" and Freedom House classified it as "partially free" as these groups meticulously denounced New Delhi's democratic control. There is no stronger evidence of this trend than the government of the sublime company Modi, which the Pegasus investigations are in: Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Hungary and the United Arab Emirates.

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The Pegasus Inquiry reveals how every democratic institution in India has been bullied and blackmailed through the use of military cyber weapons. How would the institutions react if a similar military grade conventional weapon – such as a bomb, missile, or explosive – were used by the government against their own citizens? Will no one be held accountable if political leaders use intrusive spyware against their opponents and their own citizens? Now it is up to the main Indian institutions – the three pillars of the media, judiciary and legislature – to prove that they have what it takes to hold a powerful and popular leader like Modi to account. India's future as a democracy is at a crossroads: The country could either emerge stronger from this fire process or a truly extraordinary experiment in democratic history could come to an end in the 75th year of India's independence.

The Pegasus Inquiry is a moment of reckoning for the rest of the democratic world as well. Israel, another proud democracy, has much responsibility for selling Pegasus, which is intended to monitor criminals and terrorists but is instead used against civilians in a variety of countries. In a statement, the Israeli government stated that it “authorizes the export of cyber products only to government agencies for lawful use and only for the purpose of preventing and investigating crime and counterterrorism. … In cases in which exported items are used in violation of export permits or end-use certificates, appropriate measures are taken. "

Although India has not officially admitted to being an NSO customer, many newspapers have reported that New Delhi is said to have leased Pegasus. The Guardian said the surveillance of Indian cell phone numbers began largely around the time of Modi's visit to Israel in 2017, in line with the conclusions of the Citizen Lab report. If Israel were to abide by its established rules, it would have no choice but to revoke India's Pegasus license.

These recent revelations pose difficult questions for the United States alike. To counter an authoritarian Beijing, the Biden government has positioned New Delhi as its most important democratic partner in the region. Modi's authoritarian and anti-democratic moves have often received mild reprimands from successive US governments. (Stronger words were reportedly used in private conversations with Indian officials.)

Now the Biden government may have to go public to prevent New Delhi from going any further back in an authoritarian way. It must do this not only to ensure the success of its Indo-Pacific strategy, but also to help 1.4 billion Indians achieve their democratic dream. Indian democracy has long been a beacon for other developing countries as well. There is too much for the world to lose if India's democratic relapse continues.

Of course, democracies are not like individuals. When my phone was hacked, I was able to survive the ordeal to tell my story. But if a democracy is hacked, it runs the risk of dying and no one left to tell its story. This is my fear of India today. This fear must not come true.

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