“I know that the government may jail me or even shoot me dead for what I am doing to secure the rights of our people in Bastar. The spying must have been done to collect evidence against me so that I can be thrown behind bars and thus stopped from doing my work. What else can be the reason for spying on me?” says Soni Sori, the well-known social activist from Chhattisgarh.
Soni Sori figures in the list of the politicians, officers, social activists and journalists whose mobile phones may have been hacked using the Pegasus spyware. “I am a woman, yet the Government of India committed all sorts of atrocities against me. I was subjected to horrific treatment in jail. Policemen and NIA personnel come to my place to question me at regular intervals. This has been continuing for some time. What I want to know is whether it is a crime to speak up for the rights of the Adivasis? Our people are facing untold atrocities. They are being displaced. Fake encounters are common. Hills are being stripped of their wealth. In this situation, what option do we have except waging a democratic struggle? We will continue with our struggle. The government can spy on us, it can restrict our movement. But we will not abandon our struggle.”
Degree Prasad Chouhan: ‘Will continue to fight against casteist discrimination and Dalit oppression’
Chhattisgarh-based social activist and chief of the state unit of PUCL, Degree Prasad Chouhan’s name also appeared in the list of potential Pegasus targets. When asked whether he felt that his phone was compromised, Chouhan said that he had known about it since 2019, when Citizen Lab had informed him that his WhatsApp account was being tinkered with. Prior to that, his email account figured in Amnesty International’s report on hacked email accounts in India.
Did the knowledge that he was under surveillance made him fearful? Chouhan says, “There was nothing like fear. But we need to understand the conspiracy of the government. It wants to project everyone who is an advocate of an egalitarian society and who opposes casteism, exploitation and oppression, as suspicious characters. Earlier, the government had tried to frame me in the Bhima-Koregaon case. In September last year, in the middle of the Covid pandemic, I was summoned by the NIA to Mumbai and was interrogated for eight and half hours.”
When Chouhan, a lawyer, was asked whether he intends to approach the judiciary in this matter, he said, “There is no doubt that what the government did was violative of the right to privacy enshrined in the Indian Constitution. We all know this. The government violates my privacy every single day. Policemen are posted right below my house. The government may do what it wants to. As a social activist, I will do what I need to. But yes, I will take this issue to the people’s court.”
Ashok Bharti: ‘Let the government do what it wants to, we will continue to work for a better society’
“What privacy? We say what we have to say in public. When you work for society, there is nothing like privacy. As for surveillance or spying, the governments have been doing this earlier, too,” says Ashok Bharti, a veteran social activist associated with the All-India Ambedkar Mahasabha. His phone, too, was on the Pegasus list. He told FORWARD Press, “The government keeps people under surveillance. This is its job. Men from the Intelligence have been attending our programmes for a long time. The government has many other ways to keep an eye on the people. What difference does it make if we are put under surveillance? We know that we are doing nothing wrong. We are awakening the deprived people and we will continue doing our job without an iota of fear.”
Rupesh Kumar Singh: ‘Will challenge in Supreme Court’
Rupesh Kumar Singh, a Jharkhand-based independent journalist and his wife Ipsa Satakshi, both say that the revelation that the Pegasus spyware may have been used to penetrate their phones hasn’t affected their morale a bit. Rupesh said that he was consulting his lawyer and would move the Supreme Court against the central government on this matter. He says that the government has violated his right to privacy.
When asked whether he ever felt that his phone was being used to keep an eye on him, Rupesh said that in 2017, an Adivasi social activist was killed in a fake encounter by the police. “A big protest was mounted against this and three former chief ministers of Jharkhand – Shibu Soren, Hemant Soren and Babulal Marandi – joined the protests. My reports on the protest were published in many newspapers and magazines. At the time, whenever I talked on my phone, I could hear a ‘beep’ sound at regular intervals. That is when I felt that someone was listening to my conversations. I started using my wife’s phone but still the sound did not cease. Later, the police did try to frame me by claiming that I was a Maoist. I was put in jail for six months.”
(Translation: Amrish Herdenia; copy-editing: Anil)
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