Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

BJP MPs successfully thwart attempts to discuss Pegasus issue in IT Parliamentary Committee

After a dramatic day involving a walkout, BJP MPs scuppered attempts to establish quorum for the Parliamentary Standing Committee on IT

Aditi Agrawal
Published: Jul 28, 2021 12:08:52 PM IST
Updated: Jul 29, 2021 10:23:25 AM IST

BJP MPs successfully thwart attempts to discuss Pegasus issue in IT Parliamentary CommitteeImages: Getty Images

Update (July 28, 2021 8:58 pm): The drama continued Wednesday as the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology met to discuss the Pegasus Project. Eleven BJP members turned up for the meeting but refused to mark their attendance in the register. As a result, the required quorum of ten members could not be reached and the meeting could not be officially convened with just nine on-the-record members.

The Shashi Tharoor-led committee had summoned secretaries of ministries of home affairs (Ajay Kumar Bhalla), and electronics and information technology (Ajay Prakash Sawhney), and the department of telecommunications (Anshu Prakash) to discuss the revelations made around the use of Pegasus spyware. Two hours before the meeting was supposed to begin, all three secretaries sent their regrets, citing reasons ranging from needing to answer parliament questions to attending other meetings in the parliament. 

It is understood that Tharoor conversed with Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla about this incident. The next date of the meeting has not been announced yet.

Apart from that, a shouting match also erupted between TMC Lok Sabha MP Mahua Moitra and BJP Lok Sabha MP Nishikant Dubey. Dubey alleges that Moitra called him a “Bihari gunda (goon)” and the spat also spilled over on to Twitter. On being asked his stance on the Pegasus issue, Dubey told Forbes India, “[Moitra] calling me a Bihari gunda is a more important issue than Pegasus. Does this mean that Chanakya, Gautam Buddha, et al were goons?” 

Story (published on July 28, 2021 12:08 pm):

There was high drama on Tuesday as the Parliamentary Committee on Information Technology convened to discuss the draft Cinematograph (Amendment) Bill, 2021. Led by Lok Sabha MP Nishikant Dubey, multiple BJP members, including Rajyavardhan Rathore, walked out of the meeting as chairperson Shashi Tharoor was delivering his introductory remarks. The meeting was held to understand the Indian movie industry’s views on the amendments that the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) has proposed to the Cinematograph Act. After speaking to multiple sources aware of the proceedings, Forbes India has learnt that a majority of the industry representatives opposed most of the changes, citing lack of consultation. 

This spectacle took place a day ahead of the committee’s meeting to discuss the Pegasus Project and its implications. Sources told Forbes India that the walkout today was a precursor to scuttling Wednesday’s meeting which will focus on the revelations made by a consortium of 17 media organisations, including The Wire, across the world about a list of people that were intended to be targets of the Pegasus spyware. At least two sources say they received calls from Labour Minister Bhupender Yadav to attend other meetings within Parliament at the same time, but they chose to attend the IT Committee Meeting. Representatives from the Home Ministry and Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) have been summoned by the committee for Wednesday’s meeting. 

Dubey raised a host of issues and objected to holding a meeting while Parliament was in session. Tharoor said four other meetings were happening at the same time and argued that in that case, those should also be cancelled. Dubey demurred and claimed that Covid-19 safety protocols were not followed—allegations that were promptly dismissed—before ending by saying that members were not consulted before announcing the meeting. While most BJP MPs walked out, Rajya Sabha MP Suresh Gopi attended the meeting.

It is the first time that a member of at least this committee has raised such issues. For instance, in 2020, Parliament was in session from January 31 to April 3 and Tharoor’s committee met nine times. Dubey attended all the meetings along with several BJP members.

‘An attempt to scuttle meeting on Pegasus Project’

Multiple members of the committee—from the opposition—have been demanding independent judicial probes or an investigative Joint Parliamentary Committee to look into the issue. Tharoor wants the matter to come up before the IT Standing Committee.

In November 2019, WhatsApp had sued NSO Group, the Israeli maker of Pegasus, in a Californian court. However, WhatsApp had told the Indian government in September 2019 that 121 Indians’ phones had been compromised with Pegasus using a vulnerability in the app as an attack vector. At that time too, the Tharoor-led committee had summoned the IT Ministry and Home Ministry, but attempts to learn which agency might have procured the spyware were stonewalled. Victims of the spyware at that time had written to Tharoor, demanding answers from the government, but it yielded no results. 

More than 1,000 Indians’ numbers appeared on the list and thus far, of the 10 phones of Indians examined, all have shown signs of either an attempted hack or a successful compromise as per forensic analysis conducted by Amnesty International’s Security Lab and peer-reviewed by the University of Toronto-based Citizen Lab. Compromised phones include those used by founding editors of The Wire, MK Venu and Siddharth Varadarajan; Sushant Singh (former Indian Express journalist with focus on national security) and Smita Sharma (former TV18 anchor), among others. Other names include multiple human rights activists, lawyers, journalists, opposition leaders, a victim of sexual harassment and her family, bureaucrats, heads of CBI and business persons, including Anil Ambani, among scores of others. The Wire has thus far revealed 155 names. 

The revelations made over nine days (between July 18 and July 26) have led to multiple adjournments in both houses of Parliament as the opposition (whose several members, including Indian National Congress’s Rahul Gandhi and political strategist Prashant Kishor {successful hack}—appeared on the list) demanded answers from the central government and independent inquiries into the issue. Governments of West Bengal and Chhattisgarh have announced independent inquiries into the issue.

In this maelstrom, the government has so far not issued a categorical denial, a matter of extreme importance given that the NSO Group maintains that it only sells its software to legitimate governments and their law enforcement agencies, and each such sale is overseen by the Israeli Defence Ministry’s Defense Export Control Agency. 

Instead, the new IT Minister, Ashwini Vaishnaw (who along with his wife were intended targets in 2017), tried to discredit this international investigation as an attempt to malign Indian democracy and taint the monsoon session. This claim (reminiscent of government’s lack of denials in 2019 after WhatsApp revealed that 121 Indians were targeted using Pegasus) along with Home Minister Amit Shah’s statement that this is a “conspiracy” (reminiscent of the “international conspiracy” claims around farmers’ protests) have been repeatedly denied by the consortium, Amnesty International and Citizen Lab. 

Industry opposes proposed changes to Cinematograph Act

Actor, director and producer Kamal Haasan, along with representatives from the Producers Guild of India, and the Indian Broadcasting and Digital Foundation (earlier known as Indian Broadcasting Foundation), deposed before the committee to argue against the proposed amendments to the Cinematograph Act that regulates the manner in which movies must be rated before they are publicly screened.

A 2000 Karnataka High Court order prevents the central government from exercising any revisional powers over already-certified movies. The proposed amendments shift this power to the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) chairperson. Under the proposed changes, the government wants the chairperson to re-examine and re-certify an already-certified movie if it is against the national security interests of India, including “public order, decency or morality” among other issues. This means, that the certification of any movie, irrespective of when it is released, can be questioned, raising concerns of censorship. This, as per industry representatives, means that the certification process could continue in perpetuity, and has been voraciously opposed by the movie industry.

Haasan and Tharoor both questioned the need for censorship in the 21st century when everything is available online. The amendments also propose that the existing three categories for certifying films (U, U/A {parental guidance for children under 12}, and A) should be further sub-categorised into U/A 7+, U/A 13+ and U/A 16+. This, Haasan and others argued placed undue burden on exhibitors. 

The industry representatives also raised issues with the scrapping of the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT). In April 2021, the government had scrapped FCAT through an amendment to the Cinematograph Act. The FCAT allowed filmmakers to appeal decisions made by the CBFC. Haasan, it is understood, told members of the committee that if not for successful reviews of CBFC decisions by FCAT, he would have been insolvent.

 Haasan and representatives from the Producers Guild of India and Indian Broadcasting and Digital Foundation also raised concerns about the composition of CBFC whose chairperson and 23 members are all appointed by the central government. Amit Khare, MIB secretary, however, argued that there are certain decisions, such as those related to national security, that only the government can take. 

Members of the committee questioned witnesses over whether they had been consulted before these draft rules were made public. All witnesses, including CBFC Chairperson Prasoon Joshi (who deposed alongside Khare), replied in the negative. Industry representatives highlighted the need for more consultation and dialogue between the MIB and the film industry.

It is understood that the industry wants the recommendations made in the 2016 report by the Shyam Benegal Committee to be implemented. The report had recommended curtailing the powers of the CBFC chairperson so that s/he is not involved in the day-to-day activities of the CBFC, and had reserved the entirety of certification powers for the CBFC.

Update (July 28, 2021 8:58 pm): Headline, strap and featured image updated.

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