The three phone numbers registered to the name of former Central Bureau of Investigation director Alok Verma were listed down by the unidentified Indian agency known to have access to Israeli firm NSO's Pegasus spyware, hours after Prime Minister Narendra Modi ousted him from his post at midnight on October 23, 2018, The Wire reported.
Forbidden Stories, a French media non-profit, accessed and shared the database with a consortium of 15 other international media partners. The Wire investigated several hundred Indian numbers from a leaked database comprising 50,000 numbers, believed to be of those potentially being targeted by Pegasus.
The report said that along with Verma, the personal telephone numbers used by his wife, daughter and son-in-law ended up on the list too; a total of eight numbers from the family were on the list,
The numbers of two other senior CBI officials, Rakesh Asthana and A.K. Sharma, were also reportedly added to the list at the same time as Verma's. Both their numbers were added to the database about an hour after Verma’s number was added. Asthana was also removed from the CBI on the night of October 23, 2018; he currently heads the Border Security Force (BSF). Sharma was removed from the crucial post he held – head of the policy division – on the same night, but remained in the CBI till January 2019, when he was transferred out. He retired from the government earlier this year.
The midnight shuffle had come barely two days after Verma ordered the filing of a criminal case against Asthana, then special director in the Bureau, on October 21, 2018, accusing him of corruption. Two days later, Asthana filed a complaint against Verma with the Central Vigilance Commission.
The report pointed out Verma had courted official displeasure by apparently refusing to take action against individuals who the establishment had political reasons to target. He had also not been keen on rejecting the request for a criminal probe into the controversial purchase of 36 Rafale aircrafts from France – the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party had assumed he would.
Verma may not have begun the formal process of launching a preliminary enquiry into the Rafale matter, but the report speculates that the fear in the PMO might have been that following Asthana’s counter-attack, Verma might actually announce a probe into the aircraft deal.
Verma had filed a petition in the Supreme Court a few days after his dismissal, which said: “Certain investigations into high functionaries do not take the direction that may be desirable to the government...Not all influence that is exercised by the political government would be found explicitly or in writing. More often than not, it is tacit, and requires considerable courage to withstand,” it added.
The inclusion of his numbers and those belonging to members his family, in the list of potential surveillance targets, may have been driven by the desire to make sense of his legal strategy and “to determine whether he was going to leak information that the government would find embarrassing”, the report said.
Asthana, a Gujarat-cadre Indian Police Service officer, had worked closely with PM Modi in Gujarat back when he was chief minister and is known to be extremely close to him. Sharma, joint director (policy) in the CBI at the time, is also a Gujarat cadre IPS officer who is said to enjoy a close relationship with Union Home Minister Amit Shah, His name had figured in two controversies, the 2004 fake encounter of Ishrat Jahan and the illegal surveillance of a young woman in 2009.
Immediately after Verma’s removal, the Central Vigilance Commission, on the Union Cabinet Secretary’s complaint, initiated an enquiry against the former CBI chief. This forced him to move the apex court against the Centre’s action. A bench headed by former CJI Ranjan Gogoi subsequently ordered the CVC to investigate the matter.
Verma later alleged that a “top PMO official” used Asthana in the agency to target the opposition, and that he could name the official if the matter was investigated further. Verma was exonerated by the SC later, and reinstated in service but then promptly removed through a prescribed procedure. Asthana too was cleared of all charges. Verma retired from the Indian Police Service on January 31, 2019. According to the report, the leaked database indicated he was no longer a person of interest after.