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New Delhi: Mauritius’s political climate is currently seeing heated debate due to a major developing controversy that has brought into focus India’s close strategic relations with the Indian Ocean island nation, especially New Delhi’s intimate ties with the current prime minister in Port Louis.
On Thursday, the former head of Mauritius Telecom, Sherry Singh, was questioned for the first time by the police, two weeks after he first accused Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth of having bypassed processes to grant access to a ‘technical team’ from India to install a device that would monitor internet traffic at the landing station of an inter-continental submarine fibre optic cable.
Jugnauth has, so far, denied that any device was installed, but admitted that an Indian team was allowed to ‘survey’ the station despite initial trepidation from Singh.
The ongoing episode demonstrates India’s close ties with Mauritius, where more than 60% of the population is of Indian origin.
Worried about China’s rising influence in the Indian Ocean, India has been upgrading strategic cooperation with Mauritius. After signing an agreement in 2015, India began upgrading Mauritius’s military infrastructure — “air and sea connectivity” — at Agalega island and extended a $100 million line of credit for defence equipment in 2021. This year, Mauritius was also admitted as a full member of the Colombo Security Conclave, a regional group for maritime security founded by India, Maldives and Sri Lanka.
The controversy began when Sherry Singh resigned unexpectedly as chief executive officer of state-run Mauritius Telecom (MT) on June 30. It was a bolt from the blue as Singh was known to be an insider of the Jugnauth government, picked personally for the top job in 2015. Sherry Singh was also a special advisor to the prime minister from 2017 to 2021.
It was front-page news across the island, with political observers abuzz over the reason for his departure as his resignation letter mentioned that he couldn’t continue without compromising his values.
A day later, Singh made a sensational allegation in an interview with a private radio channel, Radio Plus. He accused the prime minister of personally instructing him to allow a “third party” to install equipment to monitor internet traffic at the landing station of the South Africa Far East (SAFE) submarine cable at Baie Jacotet in Mauritius.
It unleashed a political firestorm. The opposition labour party (PTR) leader and former Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam said that the accusation was “very serious” and urged Jugnauth to “tell the truth and the whole truth”. All the opposition parties called for a united response. The civil society group Transparency International called for a public commission of inquiry chaired by a judge.
The first response from Jugnauth was to reprimand Singh for going to the media with his resignation. “Decency dictates that he meets the one who placed his trust in him for this position, to discuss these differences and his intentions to resign,” Jugnauth told reporters.
On July 5, leader of opposition Xavier Luc Duval asked the prime minister for clarification in the Parliament. Jugnauth assured him that there “has been at no point in time any installation or any attempt by my office to install whatsoever equipment at any of these landing stations, to enable sniffing, interception, monitoring or recording of internet traffic to and from Mauritius”.
When the leader of the opposition pressed further, his microphone was switched off by the speaker on the grounds that the question had been answered. Meanwhile, angry opposition bench members were shouting treason and waving placards, as the speaker expelled several lawmakers to restore order.
Till now, there had been no mention of India by Sherry Singh or others.
This changed when the Mauritian prime minister made another statement on July 6, identifying the nationality of the “third party”.
Speaking to the media at a function to mark 50 years of China-Mauritius ties, Jugnauth said that he was ready to answer more questions in Parliament but could not do so due to the speaker’s ruling.
He agreed that there was a telephone conversation between him and Singh “to ask him to give access to a team of Indian technicians at the landing station in Baie Jacotet to conduct a state security survey”.
Jugnauth then claimed that India sent the technical team on a personal request. “There was a security issue, and it was necessary to do this survey in Mauritius. I have personally approached Shri Narendra Modi to send a competent team for this survey. In Mauritius, we don’t have the technicians for this survey, but even if we did, we preferred to go for this Indian team of technicians,” he said.
The Mauritian prime minister admitted that Singh had not initially agreed to the ‘survey’ by the Indian team, which forced him to intervene through the phone call. He reiterated that no “sniffing or interception equipment” had been installed.
At the next Prime Minister’s Question Time in Parliament on July 12, Jugnauth announced that he had filed a police complaint against Singh.
In a detailed statement, he began the chronology of events from October 21 last year, when a letter was sent from the security division of the prime minister’s office to the MT CEO.
The letter, Jugnauth said, asked Singh to provide details about the landing station “in the context of a security survey”. He said that the facts sought were about the location of the submarine cable, security measures, foreign nationals among the personnel and other technical details.
After repeated queries, the CEO’s office forwarded the required information over two months later, in December 2021, Jugnauth told the National Assembly.
He then claimed that Singh was told on April 12 that a “three-member technical team from India” would conduct a survey mission to Baie Jacotet, Bel Ombre, in the coming days and asked him to extend “all necessary assistance”.
Jugnauth alleged that Singh met with the head of the Indian delegation to discuss technical matters on April 14. But, when the team went to the Landing station on April 15 morning, Jugnauth was informed that the “necessary arrangements” for access had not been made.
“Subsequently, I telephoned the CEO and asked him to make arrangements for the survey to be carried out. Finally, he agreed to grant access to the team. On the same day, the CEO asked the Chief Technical Officer of Mauritius Telecom to accompany the delegation to Baie Jacotet for the site survey,” he said. The Mauritian prime minister also claimed that Mauritius Telecom’s chief technical officer had said in a report that no equipment had been installed at the landing station.
Asserting that Singh’s allegations were a “grave risk to national security”, he questioned whether the former MT CEO’s silence for over two months before his resignation on June 30.
“Let me restate most emphatically that I have never given any instructions as alleged by the former CEO for the installation of sniffing equipment, and, at all material times, the question, and the only question as regards to Baie Jacotet Landing Station was the conduct of a survey by the Indian team in the interest of national security,” Jugnauth said on July 12.
On the same day, Singh gave his second public interview to one of Mauritius’ most prominent media outlets, L’Express, which was watched live by over 92,000 people on Facebook.
He asserted that the two letters from the PMO in 2021 had only sought information about Baie-Jacotet, but did not mention any physical survey.
“When I received the prime minister’s letter asking for details of the location, I went to meet the secretary to cabinet, which is also the chairman (of Mauritius Telecom). I told him to be careful because I’m not sure he understands the implications. For national security, we should not share information with just anyone,” Singh told L’Express head of multimedia, Axcel Chenney.
Explaining the importance of access to the landing station, Singh said that the SAFE cable is the “lung in terms of communication in Mauritius”. “If we intercept traffic in Baie-Jacotet and give it to a third party, it will be able to intercept incoming and outgoing traffic, which means that tomorrow it will be able to influence a government.”
The former MT CEO then noted that he did meet with the head of the technical team on April 14, whom he identified only as “Monsieur Moustache (Mr Moustache)”.
Singh said that the Indian official told him that his job was to analyse the traffic so that they could “calibrate the equipment they planned to install later”. “I asked him why. He told me it’s a device that can pick up in and out traffic, in other words, it’s called sniffing…”
When the CEO pointed out that he didn’t have formal instructions to allow “this type of survey” and that SAFE cable belonged to a consortium, the Indian team head told the senior Mauritian government official that “I (Sherry Singh) have to settle this with my government.”
Singh later clarified to Mauritian media that ‘Monsieur Moustache’ was not Mauritius’ National Security Adviser, Kumaresan Llango. A retired officer of India’s external spy agency Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), Llango was appointed NSA to the Indian Ocean nation in August 2021.
When the prime minister called him on April 15, Singh asserted that he made it clear that any physical intervention could “create a diplomatic incident because the cable belongs to a consortium”.
The Mauritian prime minister also reminded the MT chief that he would visit India on an official visit the next day. If the team was not given access, “What was I supposed to tell Shri Narendra as I was leaving the next day for India?” Jugnauth told CEO Singh.
With the prime minister asserting that he would take “responsibility”, Singh gave access to the Indian team for six hours, but only with other Mauritius Telecom officials in the room.
“What the prime minister did not say in Parliament was that there was no correspondence that mentioned a physical survey. You can’t do that without writing to the operator… The prime minister confirmed that I refused access. I am a nominee. If there was a formal request, there was no reason to refuse. He also agreed that it was under his instructions that I gave access,” he told L’Express.
Despite expectations, Singh did not make public any evidence, but he said that he had CCTV footage and logs that showed the physical intervention. He stated that the delay in his resignation till June 30 allowed him adequate time to “accumulate evidence”.
“When you make an intervention on a network or a server, it leaves a trace. Naturally, I have evidence of the intervention during the six hours that the technicians were on site. This proves without a doubt that there was an intervention. Even if you invoke the national interest, you will still be outside your jurisdiction. You will always be illegal,” he said.
A day after the live talk with L’Express, the Central Criminal Investigation Department began investigating the complaint case of PM Jugnauth by questioning the two journalists who had interviewed Singh.
On Thursday, Singh was questioned for over one and a half hours on three charges of criminal defamation, disseminating false news and violating the Information and Communication Technology Act (ICTA). He has been asked to return to the CCID premises for further queries on Friday.
Meanwhile, Mauritian foreign minister Alan Ganoo batted away questions that the latest controversy will impact relations with India. “These allegations have no diplomatic implications. Our relations with our friendly countries are not in question,” he said.
So far, the opposition parties have not directly criticised India but have sought to corner the Mauritian prime minister by accusing him of violating national security by illegally allowing access to internet traffic to a foreign power.
Chenney, who interviewed Singh on July 12, said that the former MT CEO seems to have the “upper hand”, if one goes by the facts he provided in the live interview.
“The crux is the illegality of the Indian intervention. The prime minister tried to lure us into the fact that the request was formal through letters sent since October. But Singh explained that the letters never mentioned any intervention nor any survey,” he told The Wire.
A well-known investigative journalist in Mauritius, Chenney pointed out that there has been no response from Jugnauth after Singh’s latest revelations. “We expect Singh to show the letters to the police upon whom the prime minister holds complete control. The police now is in a seriously uncomfortable position.”