From Army and BSF to RAW, spyware threat looms

Two serving colonels who challenged official policy, a retired intelligence officer who took RAW to court, and two serving BSF officers also figure in the Pegasus Project database as persons of interest for an unidentified agency, The Wire reported.

K.K. Sharma, who was head of the Border Security Force (BSF) in 2018, his telephone numbers were added to a list of numbers containing several hundreds from India marked as probable targets for surveillance. These numbers are part of a leaked database containing 50,000 numbers worldwide that an international consortium of media organisations has analysed as part of its Pegasus Project reporting initiative.

The leaked records include three phone numbers used by Sharma, two of which he still uses after his retirement in 2018, indicate he was very much a person of interest to the Indian client of the NSO Group during the time he was in service as the BSF chief.

It is not clear what the purpose of any potential surveillance might have been. Serving officers are not meant to be politically aligned, but if the Indian agency in question was interested in studying the extent to which Sharma actually sympathised with the RSS, whatever it learned about his leanings clearly did not disqualify him from a key post-retirement assignment, The Wire reported.

Soon after Sharma retired, the Election Commission (EC) appointed him special central police observer for the impending Lok Sabha elections in West Bengal and Jharkhand. As per that order Sharma “would oversee the deployment and other security related issues in the said states.”

A day after Sharma’s appointment, the Trinamool Congress objected to his deployment in the state. Showing a photo of Sharma attending an RSS event in Kolkata in 2018 to local media, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said that her party would write to the EC.

The leaked database also shows that a BSF Inspector General of Police, Jagdish Maithani, was selected as a potential target for surveillance around the same time as Sharma.

A BSF commandant posted in Assam, Maithani appears to have been of considerable interest to an Indian client of NSO between 2017 and 2019.

Maithani has been associated with the Ministry of Home Affairs’ comprehensive integrated border management system (CIBMS) project or smart fencing, where physical fencing of the border, including in the riverine areas with Bangladesh, is not possible.

Another officer who was marked for probable surveillance was Jitendra Kumar Ojha, a retired senior official from the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), India’s external spy agency. His number figures in the database as does his wife’s, The Wire reported.

Ojha, who was in-charge of training Indian spies at RAW’s academy in Delhi between 2013 and 2015 and also served in London, was eased out of the service in January 2018. Aggrieved by his premature ‘retirement’ from service, he moved the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) in February 2018, and his matter came up the next month.

The leaked database shows that Ojha and his wife were selected as persons of interest around that time.

The leaked database also contains the numbers of at least two Indian Army officers who took on the government on service-related matters.

Colonel Mukul Dev shot to prominence in 2017 when he sent a legal notice to the secretary of defence arguing against the government order to scrap free rations for officers who are posted in peace areas. He was posted as deputy judge advocate general in the Jodhpur-based 12 Corps, The Wire reported.

Colonel Amit Kumar was also from the legal division within the armed forces and selected for potential surveillance at around the same time as Dev.

Kumar was posted as a legal officer at the corps headquarters in Jammu and Kashmir when in August 2018, a few months prior to his appearance in the database, he filed a petition in the Supreme Court on behalf of 356 Army personnel against what they apprehended was an impending dilution of the Armed Forces (Special Forces) Act (AFSPA).