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Sinister Designs of India’s Surveillance State

Suhit K Sen |
How the Bhima Koregaon case has progressed so far gives credence to the claim that malware was planted on activist Rona Wilson’s computer.
Rona Wilson

On 10 February, Rona Wilson, one of the first batch of activists arrested by the police in the Bhima Koregaon/Elgar Parishad case, filed a petition in the Bombay High Court seeking the dismissal of the case against him. In support, his lawyers provided a forensic report showing that evidence had been planted against him.

The report prepared by the reputed Massachusetts-based Arsenal Computing says Wilson’s computer had been compromised for at least two years before it was seized. Wilson is a member of the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners and a Dalit-rights activist. Before we get to what exactly the forensic analysts found, some background is necessary.

On 31 December 2017, a couple of events were held in Pune under the auspices of an organization called the Elgar Parishad, which includes retired high court judges. Speeches were delivered and various cultural programmes held. Most of them highlighted and protested against the exploitation of Dalit communities and drew attention to the upper-caste and majoritarian politics of various constituents of the Sangh parivar. The programmes passed uneventfully.

On the next day, 1 January 2018, Dalit communities assembled at the village of Bhima Koregaon, some 30 km away, to celebrate the bicentennial of the victory in a battle of a Dalit Mahar regiment in alliance with a British detachment over an army of the Brahmin Peshwas, who were then at the helm of the disintegrating Maratha Empire. The Dalit congregation was set upon by the storm troopers of the Sangh parivar. The violence that then occurred triggered statewide violence in Maharashtra as well as a bandh call by Dalit groups.

The investigations initiated by the Pune police initially focused on the role of Hindutva groups. A high-powered committee set up by the police force itself came to the conclusion that the violence had been provoked by Hindutva groups and been stoked primarily by two people—Milind Ekbote, who heads two fundamentalist organisations, and Manohar Bide, aka Sambhaji Bhide, the head of an organisation called the Shiv Pratishthan Hindustan and a former Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh member.

Strangely, the Pune police took no steps against them. Ekbote was finally held after the Supreme Court passed strictures against the police and Bhide, also known as Guruji, who is said to be close to and held in high regard by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was never even questioned, though he was, so to speak, hiding in plain sight.

Soon after, the Pune police executed an astonishing pivot, abandoning their pursuit of Hindutva frontmen and focusing on “urban Naxals”, supposedly with close links to the Communist Party of India (Maoist), as those who fomented the violence. For good measure, or comic relief, they dreamed up a plot to assassinate Modi.

As of now, 16 people are under arrest in the case. All the detainees are activists, on issues relating to Dalit and other underprivileged groups. Apart from being activists, some of the incarcerated people are lawyers, academics, cultural figures and an octogenarian priest—Father Stan Swamy of Jharkhand. Among the first to be targeted was Wilson, who was arrested alongside Mahesh Raut, Surendra Gadling, Shoma Sen and Sudhir Dhawale on 6 June 2018.

In the second lot of arrests, Pune police conducted chilling, countrywide dawn raids, when they held writer-poet P Varavara Rao, then nearing the age of 80, lawyers Sudha Bhardwaj and Arun Ferreira, academic Vernon Gonzalves, and Gautam Navalakha on 28 August 2018. The rest have been picked up individually in most cases.

There is a reason for recounting this background—it gives weight to Wilson’s claims. The point to note is that Hindutva storm troopers and those who incited the violence at Bhima Koregaon were inexplicably let off the hook (at that point in time, though the cases are in the processes of being reopened), while a group of people fatuously codenamed ‘urban Naxals’ were systematically rounded up in connection with an event that most had nothing to do with.

Thus to Wilson’s submissions. The burden of Arsenal Consulting’s song is that they have found forensic evidence is that someone using Varavara Rao’s mail account sent Wilson a series of emails. When Wilson opened a particular document, it installed a malware that gave the hacker control over Wilson’s account and enabled him or her to copy and embed ‘incriminating’ documents into the computer in such a manner that Wilson was unaware of them. This happened over almost two years and when Pune police seized his computer these documents were adduced as evidence of his as yet unproven guilt of the wrongdoings ascribed to him.

The National Investigation Agency (NIA), which is in charge of the entire case, claims that the documents have been authenticated as genuine by the Regional Forensic Science Laboratory in Pune. Knowledge of how the current regime has subverted practically every state institution casts a dark shadow over this thumbs up. Nevertheless, let’s look at this important thing called independent corroboration.

Soon after the Arsenal revelations, The Washington Post asked three experts about these findings. They all said the “findings were sound”. On 16 February, Jedidiah Crandall, an associate professor in computing at the Arizona State University, told an online news conference that the report “conclusively establishes that the malware was used for incriminating document delivery and there is no room for interpretation or doubt about this…”. Crandall has a track record of researching computer systems and cybersecurity, surveillance and other threats to Internet freedom.

Father Stan Swamy has also been reported to have told NIA officers during interrogations last year that documents had been unethically inserted into his computer on at least three instances. He had disowned any knowledge of documents shown to him by NIA interrogators.

If that were all. Last year, Amnesty International and the University of Toronto’s Internet watchdog, Citizen Lab, had revealed that a spyware operation had been mounted in 2019 on innumerable Indian citizens, including nine human rights defenders of whom eight are campaigning for the release of the 16 detained activists. In addition, it had been revealed in the same year that an Israeli spyware, Pegasus, had been used to surveille human rights defenders by penetrating their cell phones through WhatsApp.

In response to a legal case, the NSO group, which produces Pegasus, said the spyware is sold only to governments. Questioned about this illegal surveillance, all Union Information and Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad could tell Rajya Sabha was, “To the best of my knowledge, no unauthorised interception has been done.”

Given this extremely equivocal response, several conclusions can be reached. First, that it is well within the bounds of possibility that the current regime conducts illegal surveillance of people and groups it considers inimical to its interests and psychopathic ideology. And, second, that the illegal targeting of activists in the Bhima Koregaon/Elgar Parishad case has two objectives: to shield the Hindutva brigade which fomented the 2018 riots, and use the opportunity to harass and incarcerate people who have dissentient worldviews.

Both these conclusions are consistent with the fundamental features and aims of the current regime: that it is anti-constitutional and that it aims to install in India a totalitarian one-party state governed by the toxic, exclusionary, majoritarian ideology of Hindutva.

The author is a freelance journalist and researcher. The views are personal.

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