The Supreme Court’s order for an enquiry into the alleged deployment of the Pegasus spyware by the Centre to spy on several prominent Indian citizens has been, predictably, welcomed by everyone enraged over the snooping row. However, the court’s candid admission that some technical experts contacted by it for being nominated to the probe panel had “politely declined” the assignment has left many troubled.
Ordering the court-monitored probe, a three-judge bench of the apex court had, on Wednesday, said in its order: “It was an extremely uphill task to find and select experts who are free from prejudices, are independent and competent.” The Bench, headed by Chief Justice N V Ramana, also noted in its order that it had shortlisted expert members for nomination to the panel based on bio datas and information collected independently, “rather than relying on government agencies”.
Without divulging any names, the order then goes on to say that some of the candidates approached by the court “politely declined this assignment” while others “had some conflict of interest”.
The Bench said it had, however, shortlisted and chosen the “most renowned experts available to be part of the committee” but had also left it to the discretion of former Supreme Court judge, Justice RV Raveendran – chosen by the court to monitor the probe – to “take assistance from any expert, if necessary, to ensure absolute transparency and efficiency”.
The technical experts who were finally appointed to the panel by the top court are: Dr Naveen Kumar Chaudhary, professor of Cyber Security and Digital Forensics and Dean at the Gandhinagar-based National Forensic Sciences University, Dr Prabaharan P, professor at the School of Engineering at Kerala’s Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, and Dr Ashwin Gumaste, Institute Chair Associate Professor (Computer Science and Engineering) at IIT-Bombay. The enquiry by this panel of technical experts will be supervised by Justice Raveendran, who in turn will be assisted by former IPS officer Alok Joshi and renowned cyber security expert, Dr Sundeep Oberoi.
Though hailing the experts who consented to be on the panel for “putting the Constitution and national interest before themselves”, some lawyers in the case that The Federal spoke to said that the disclosure by the Bench of not being able to get some experts it had first approached for the assignment “is a worrying sign”. A senior advocate representing one of the petitioners in the Pegasus case told The Federal, on condition of anonymity: “While it is not unusual for people to decline requests by the Supreme Court to join committees of enquiries formed by it, we need to also look at the sensitivity of this case in light of the vindictive politics pursued by the government of the day and wonder whether people who, as the court said, politely declined the assignment, did so out fear of retribution by the Centre and its agencies.”
While lawyers appearing in the case, which will now be heard after eight weeks, are guarded in their response and cited the “need to show complete faith in the court-monitored probe instead of pre-empting or doubting its outcome”, former Union finance minister P Chidambaram was more forthright. “I am perturbed by the statement in the SC order that many persons when requested to be a member of a committee to probe the Pegasus controversy, “politely declined”,” (sic) the Congress veteran tweeted, on Thursday. Chidambaram said: “Can any conscientious citizen decline the request of the SC to serve in a matter of paramount national interest? This episode illustrates how far we have travelled from the exhortation of Mahatma Gandhi that Indians should not fear their rulers.”
A second senior advocate representing the petitioners in the matter told The Federal that “Chidambaram’s conjecture that people may have declined the assignment out of fear of the government is not out of place”.
“Just glance through the list of people who have allegedly been attacked by the Pegasus spyware… politicians, including those from the ruling party, well-known journalists and human rights defenders and even sitting judges of the Supreme Court… obviously there will be fear; if such prominent people can be put under surveillance for whatever reasons, what is stopping the government from using similar methods to intimidate experts who agree to join the committee… I think we need to bow before the three technical experts who gave their consent to join the committee and acknowledge their commitment to justice and to upholding the Constitution.”