The Supreme Court today adjourned its hearing of a batch of PILs that are seeking a judicial or SIT probe into reports of snooping using the Pegasus spyware. However, the top court made it a point to ask the union government if it wanted to file an additional affidavit on using the Israeli spyware.
Previously, solicitor general Tushar Mehta had requested for time to seek instructions from the government on the petitions. Today, the Centre filed an affidavit that stated that the “Pegasus question already stands clarified on the floor of Parliament & nothing further needs to be done".
Mehta added that in order to dispel the wrong narrative spread by “certain with vested interest”, the union of India would constitute a committee of experts in the field.
Denying every allegation, Mehta argued that the Pegasus issue was merely a "sensational story" published by a web portal and that the Centre had nothing to hide. It was a technical issue, he added, and thus required the appropriate expertise. “I don’t think the government can be more transparent and impartial than this,” he said.
Responding to the affidavit, senior advocate Kapil Sibal said, “There are three issues in the affidavit. They have to state on oath if the government of India or its agency has used Pegasus. If they don't, our arguments will be different. This fact must be denied or stated by them if Pegasus was ever used.”
He added that enough time should be given to the government to “file an affidavit on fact”. “I am more concerned with institutions," he said. Two institutions which protect democracy are journalism and judiciary and they have been infiltrated."
Furthermore, Sibal said that if interception has been done legally, the home secretary will have all information. If he says he doesn’t know, he continued, it means everything was done outside law, which was known since 2019.
Sibal said, “Israel itself has raided Pegasus and is conducting an inquiry but the Indian government says everything is fine. This is wholly unacceptable. It has ramifications which are far larger than individual infiltration.”
Senior advocate Rakesh Dwivedi endorsed what Sibal had said and added that there was nothing explicit in the minister's statement about the government not using Pegasus. He said, “So far there is no denial, no statement regarding law supporting the user or a statement that it wasn’t used against me. Give them time, these are statements they need to make.”
Dwivedi added that if at all a committee is constituted, it has to be an independent committee under the supervision of the Supreme Court. Since all petitions are against the government, he said, a committee formed by them will not create any confidence in people.
Justice Bose responded that there was not enough material to support that there had been violation by the state. However, the Chief Justice of India NV Ramana told Tushar Mehta that the affidavit filed by him was not satisfactory.
He said, “It's not mentioned if the government used Pegasus. Unless and until you do, they can’t move forward. If you want time you can take it, and then we can decide the scope of the committee.”
Mehta, however, reiterated that attempts were being made to sensationalise the matter. He said, “The minister concerned with this department has given details, as to how this Pegasus issue has been a raging fire for issues. The placing of facts will involve national security issues.”
When the court asked Mehta to file an affidavit instead of explaining the background of the case to the court, he said, “I’m posing a question to myself, if I file an affidavit saying Pegasus was never used, will they withdraw their petitions? If lordships are convinced it needs to be gone into, we are ready to make a committee.”
The purpose of the committee would be “fact finding” to combat the false narrative being created, he said, not “sensationalising”. He added that the committee could be constituted of independent neutral experts and not government officers. He said, “A committee may be formed and terms of reference can be laid down by court. Mr Dwivedi said the government can’t be trusted. I disagree, it can be.”
Kapil Sibal once again pushed Tushar Mehta to answer on whether the government had or had not used Pegasus. Mehta asked him if he would withdraw the petition if he said no. Chief Justice of India Ramana also asked Sibal how they could compel the government to file an affidavit if it was reluctant to do so.
The hearing will continue tomorrow.