Kolkata: Mamata Banerjee has set up a panel, consisting of retired judges Justice Jyotirmay Bhattacharya and Justice MB Lokur, to probe the Pegasus phone-hacking scandal. The move comes days after her nephew and Trinamool MP, Abhishek Banerjee, appeared on a list of potential surveillance targets.
This is a significant move for another reason - it is the first formal inquiry into allegations that between 2017 and 2019 an Indian client of Israel's NSO Group used Pegasus to hack hundreds of phones of opposition leaders, journalists, government officials and even a constitutional authority.
"We thought the Centre would form an inquiry commission, or a court-monitored probe would be ordered to look into this phone-hacking incident. But the Centre is sitting idle... so we decided to form a 'commission on inquiry'' to look into the matter," Banerjee said in a pointed swipe.
"... I hope this small step will wake up others. We want it to start as soon as possible. Many people from Bengal have been tapped," she added.
Justice Jyotirmay Bhattacharya is a retired Calcutta High Court Chief Justice and Justice Madan Bhimrao Lokur is a former Supreme Court judge.
Last week Banerjee, who is travelling to Delhi to unite the opposition against the BJP ahead of the 2024 election, spoke of a "surveillance state" and said it was a "threat" to democracy.
"Three things make democracy - media, judiciary and the Election Commission - and Pegasus has captured all three," she said in a speech shared with several senior opposition leaders.
Calling the Israeli military-grade spyware "dangerous" and "ferocious", Ms Banerjee said she could not even talk to other opposition leaders, as she feared her phone too had been tapped.
In a ferocious attack on Prime Minister Modi, she said, "Mr Modi, don't mind. I am not attacking you personally. But you, and may be the Home Minister, you are deploying agencies against opposition leaders. You are misusing the agencies."
On July 19, in a second round of reports on potential Pegasus targets, The Wire said Abhishek Banerjee, Congress MP Rahul Gandhi and poll strategist Prashant Kishor were on the list.
The Trinamool came down heavily on the BJP at the centre, declaring this proved they were afraid of Mr Banerjee and that the party was suffering from "fear-psychosis" after its defeat in Bengal.
Mr Banerjee hit back with a taunting tweet, calling for two minutes' silence for "sore losers".
The opposition's explosive accusations against the centre - since the NSO Group has repeatedly stressed it sells Pegasus only to "vetted governments" - have triggered widespread outrage, chaos in parliament and demands by the Congress for a joint committee probe.
The centre had rejected calls for a probe of any sort, insisting surveillance of the alleged kind was impossible given existing checks and balances within the country's legal framework.
IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw - who, as it turned out, was also on the list of potential targets (albeit before he joined the BJP) told parliament attempts were being made to malign Indian democracy.
Pegasus works by infiltrating phones via 'zero-click' attacks - which do not require interaction from the phone's owner - on or Apple's iMessage or WhatsApp, which is, by some margin, the world's most widely-used instant messaging service, with 400 million users in India alone.
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