Bharat Bhushan: No one critical of the government seems to be innocent any longer / Delhi Police arrests 22-year-old environmental activist, calls her key to foreign hand

'Once crime was as solitary as a cry of protest; now it is as universal as science. Yesterday it was put on trial; today it determines the law': Albert Camus, The Rebel       

The Maharashtra government needs to order an inquiry into the planting of false evidence on Bhima-Koregaon accused Rona Jacob Wilson. It owes this to the Indian public to protect freedom of speech and the right to dissent in our democracy. The sensational but hare-brained ‘conspiracy’ to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi is entirely built on ‘evidence’, which a US cyber forensics company has shown to be fake and planted on the accused, describing it as “one of the most serious cases involving evidence tampering” that it has come across.

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If the Uddhav Thackeray government can order an investigation into concerted celebrity tweets defending the Modi government on its handling of the farmers’ agitation, then there is no reason why it cannot do so in the Bhima-Koregaon case. What happened to Rona Wilson’s laptop, according to revelations by The Washington Post based on examination of his laptop’s hard disc by US digital forensics firm Arsenal Consulting, is far more serious. It suggests that the “conspiracy” to “end Modi-raj” by executing a “Rajiv Gandhi style action” against Prime Minister Modi was an act of entrapment of an innocent citizen critical of the government.

The process of compromising Wilson’s laptop was moreover carried out over a two-year period – from June 2016 till his arrest in June 2018. This suggests that it was not a prank but a patient, wait-and-watch investigation that normally an intelligence agency would conduct to ferret out a suspected terrorist or a criminal.

Arsenal’s enquiry shows that the documents planted on Rona Wilson’s laptop were not even opened by him, let alone created by him. They were typed using a Microsoft Word-version not available on Wilson’s laptop. He would have been unaware of them as they were stored by the malware in a hidden folder. The documents were subsequently ‘found’ on his laptop by Pune police and incriminating documents also recovered from the computer of a co-accused, Dalit activist and lawyer, Sudhir Gadling. The documents named others – academic Shoma Sen, activist Sudhir Dhavle and Mahesh Raut – who were also then arrested on “conspiracy” charges.

Any inquiry will have to not only identify who planted the false evidence, but also investigate the complicity of the Pune police, then functioning under a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Maharashtra. Unless it gets to the bottom of how the fake evidence was planted, anyone critical of state policy can be declared guilty by vested interests planting “evidence” on their laptops and smartphones.

Coincidentally, much before malware was planted on Rona Wilson’s laptop, the mobiles of several activists were targeted by breaking into WhatsApp with the help of Israeli-origin Pegasus Spyware. Pegasus broke into the private WhatsApp chats of 121 Indians according to the government’s own admission in Parliament. Only a list of 17 activists and journalists was made public in November 2019.

Curiously, among those targeted through Pegasus were activists and lawyers in the Bhima-Koregaon case: Nihalsing Rathod, Shalini Gera, Ankit Grewal (all lawyers for those accused), Dalit-activist Anand Teltumbde (accused in the Bhima-Koregaon case) and P Pavana (daughter of accused Varavara Rao). The Israeli surveillance technology firm which sells Pegasus claims on its website, “NSO Group develops best-in-class technology to help government agencies to detect and prevent a wide range of local and global threats. Our products help government intelligence and law enforcement agencies use technology to meet the challenges of encryption to prevent and investigate terror and crime.” The government claimed it had sent a notice to NSO Group but has not come clean so far on who purchased Pegasus, sold at a licence fee of Rs 8 crore for hacking 10 smartphones.

It is quite a coincidence therefore that some of those linked to the Bhima-Koregaon case, and targeted by agencies unknown through Pegasus Spyware, have also been targeted by the new malware. Besides Rona Wilson, the laptops of Nihalsing Rathod (lawyer) and Surendra Gadling (accused) were also hacked. Experts claim that the malware, NetWire Remote Access Trojan (RAT), unlike Pegasus, can be purchased online for $10. Whether the users of the NetWire malware are the same as those who used Pegasus is a matter of speculation for now.

However, even if the individuals or organisations using these different hacking methods are found to be different, it is clear that those critical of the government or its ideology are being targeted with the consent of those in power. Unlike in the US, in India there is no “Deep State”, i.e. influential members of the intelligence or military community secretly manipulating and undermining government policy.

That during the Modi regime, ambient levels of intolerance to democratic debate have risen is a fact. BJP leaders in government themselves, their supporters and affiliated social-media trolls, have orchestrated an atmosphere of intolerance in the country. Such antipathy for contrarian views cannot be entirely controlled by government, especially once its display goes unpunished or even rewarded by those in power. It assumes a life of its own.

Lest this should seem an overstatement, consider the latest disruption of an educational webinar organised by the Editors’ Guild of India. A Zoom conference on “Unheard voices: Reporting from conflict zones” on February 12 was disrupted by posting of obscene messages, pornographic images and frivolous songs. The event, which had speakers who had reported from Maoist-affected areas, had to be abandoned.

Even more egregious was the manner in which the career of one of India’s most credible faces on television, Nidhi Razdan, was systematically destroyed through cyber manipulation of her email. She made the cardinal mistake, some would say, of evicting a spokesperson of the ruling party from a discussion. Some have claimed that she was naïve to have believed in the genuineness of an employment offer from Harvard University and resigned from her job at NDTV. By that logic, Rona Wilson was also naïve to have opened an email attachment ostensibly from a trusted contact. In that sense, in this walk towards the sunset of Indian democracy, all citizens are naïve to think that they will be spared if they are critical of the dominant discourse.

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