Moments before leaving for Delhi on 27th July, Mamata Banerjee announced a commission of inquiry into the alleged surveillance of phones using the Israeli cyber-intelligence company, NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware.
The panel includes retired judges Justice MV Lokur and Justice Jyotirmoy Bhattacharya and the commission has been given six months before submitting their reports.
After proposing a joint opposition against the centre and meeting Sonia Gandhi, this is the third huge and strategic move made by Mamata Banerjee in what is being perceived as Mamata’s plan to defeat the Narendra Modi led BJP government inthe 2024 elections.
“The Cabinet has approved the appointment of a commission of inquiry consisting of the Hon’ble Justice M B Lokur, retired Justice of the Supreme Court, and the Hon’ble Justice Jyotirmay Bhattacharya, retired Chief Justice of Calcutta High Court, in the exercise of the power under Section 3 of The Commissions of Inquiry Act, 1952, in the matter of the widely reported illegal hacking, monitoring, putting under surveillance, tracking, and recording of mobile phones of various persons in West Bengal,” said Mamata Banerjee, after a special meeting of the West Bengal Cabinet on 26th of July.
“Mamata Banerjee’s bold step is important. She set up a judicial commission and initiated an inquiry. She did want the Centre was supposed to do. So, in West Bengal, Mamata fought like a tigress and won. The chief ministers of other states should safeguard the rights of citizens and civil liberties. Mamata has done the job of awakening all,” said Shiv Sena while praising her decision of setting up a row for an investigation into the matter.
According to reports, Abhishek Banerjee’s phone and Prashant Kishor’s phone were hacked using the Pegasus spyware. Before the reports, it was being claimed that they were indeed potential targets.
Mamata had also alleged that the Centre had set up a clone meeting between her and Prashant Kishor, the election strategist who was hired by the TMC for the 2021 Assembly elections, and it came to light when Kishor got his phone audited.
As for the question, “how can Mamta Banerjee, a Chief Minister of a state, order a probe by the state government?”
Because under the Commission of Inquiry Act of 1952, both the Centre and states can institute a probe depending upon the situation
According to the act, If the central government has ordered such an inquiry then, “no state government shall, except with the approval of the central government, appoint another commission to inquire into the same matter for so long as the commission appointed by the central government is functioning.”
But the act also states that if a state government has ordered an inquiry then, “the central government shall not appoint another commission to inquire into the same matter for so long as the commission appointed by the state government is functioning unless the central government is of opinion that the scope of the inquiry should be extended to two or more states”.
In simple words, now that the West Bengal state government has issued an investigation, then the only way the central government can intervene is by expanding the scope of that investigation.
Among all the opposition leaders, only Mamata Banerjee has made a move in the Pegasus matter by setting up an inquiry committee.
According to the West Bengal government’s notice, the commission’s terms of responsibilities are to inquire whether any incidents of reported interception have actually occurred, whether phones were hacked/tapped; the involvement of State and non-State actors in the reported interceptions; whether Pegasus or/and any other spyware/Malware were used for the reported interceptions; the mechanism of how devices were hacked in the reported interceptions; what and how much information was collected and to ascertain how much of the information was changed or altered and how much of it was stored; and how is this cyber trespassing going to affect the common people of the nation.
Mamata said that it is important to look into the steps that have been taken to stop this illegal activity.
“Sometimes, you need to wake up some people when they are sleeping. I believe that this small step taken by us (the West Bengal government) will awaken others. I will request Justice Bhattacharya and Lokur saheb to immediately start the investigation.”
“Names of people from West Bengal have figured on the Pegasus target list. There are journalists from West Bengal whose phones have been tapped. We also need to find out who all in the judiciary got affected by this spyware,” she added
Mamata’s first visit to the national capital after assuming the position of the CM of West Bengal for the third time will likely see her try to carry forward the strategy of United Opposition with the Pegasus row acting as a catalyst.