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Indian parliament erupts in protest over government's use of military-grade spying equipment

INDIA’S Parliament has erupted in protests as opposition MPs accused the government of using military-grade spyware equipment to monitor Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s political opponents, journalists and activists.

The session on Tuesday was disrupted repeatedly as parliamentarians shouted slogans against the government and demanded an investigation into how the spyware, Pegasus, was used in India.

Indian National Congress party official Kapil Sibal called the monitoring a national security threat.

The party’s workers helped their leader Rahul Gandhi cross over a police barricade by lifting him over their shoulders. Protesters chanted slogans and held placards reading: “Modi govt’s spyware dismantled national security.”

On Sunday, an investigation by a global media consortium was published, revealing leaked targeting data.

The findings provided evidence that the spyware from Israel-based NSO Group, the world’s most infamous hacker-for-hire company, was used to allegedly infiltrate devices belonging to a range of targets in 50 countries.

In India, the list of potential surveillance targets included Mr Gandhi, at least 40 journalists, a veteran election strategist critical of Modi and a top virologist, according to the investigation.

Mr Gandhi was the PM’s main challenger in the 2014 and 2019 general elections. Two of his phone numbers used between mid-2018 and mid-2019, in the run-up to the election, appear on the list of over 50,000 numbers obtained by the investigation.

The list also included top virologist Gangandeep Kang, Prashant Kishor, a longtime political strategist who helped Modi into power in 2014 but is now a fierce critic, and Ashok Lavasa, a former top official in India’s Election Commission. The spyware was even allegedly used by the central government in a project aimed at toppling the elected government of Karnataka, a south Indian state.

Phone numbers of a Supreme Court staffer who accused former chief justice Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment in 2019 also appeared in the data just days after she recorded her allegations.

Newly appointed information technology minister Ashwani Vaishnaw dismissed the allegations on Monday, calling them “highly sensational,” “over the top” and “an attempt to malign the Indian democracy.”

Minutes after his statement in Parliament, India’s independent The Wire website, which is a part of the media consortium, revealed that his name also appeared on the list as a potential surveillance target in 2017.

He was not a member of Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party at that time.

The Indian government has so far dodged questions over whether it is a client of NGO group.

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