Mumbai/Delhi: Rajeshwar Singh, a senior Enforcement Directorate officer who led several high-profile investigations conducted by his agency, was selected as a probable target for surveillance by an Indian client of the Israeli spyware firm NSO Group, an investigation of leaked data by The Wire and its media partners on the Pegasus Project has revealed.
The database accessed by French non-profit Forbidden Stories and shared with the project’s media consortium, included not only two of Singh’s numbers but four numbers belonging to three women from his family, implying they too were likely targets.
V.K. Jain, a former Indian Administrative Service officer who worked as a personal assistant to Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, also appears to have marked as a person of interest. In addition, the leaked records contain details of the numbers of at least one official each from the PMO and NITI Aayog.
In an official response to the media organisations which investigated the database, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology has denied placing any of the specific individuals identified under surveillance.
Singh, a provincial police service officer (PPS) from Uttar Pradesh, has been with the ED since 2009, during which time he had served on the investigation of several sensitive cases such as the 2G spectrum scam and the Aircel-Maxis matter. He has also been involved in the probes into the Sahara group and the disproportionate assets case of Andhra chief minister Jagan Reddy.
His run in the database stretches from late 2017 to mid-2019, which is around the time when the leaked data itself tapers off. A second number of his appears to have been of interest from the spring of 2018 onward. This is also when two numbers registered to his wife are added, as are the numbers of his two sisters, one of whom, Abha Singh, is an Indian Administrative Service officer-turned-lawyer based in Mumbai.
The Wire was not able to elicit a response from Rajeshwar Singh, his wife or one of his sisters despite multiple attempts.
However, Abha Singh, a Mumbai-based lawyer who has been handling some prominent cases in the Bombay high court, agreed to have her mobile phone forensically analysed. Her phone from the time of the potential attack is of an Android make and the forensic analysis turned out to be inconclusive. Abha told The Wire that she had used that phone between 2018 and 2019 and subsequently handed it over to her son.
As The Wire and its Pegasus Project partners have maintained, unless the phones are technically examined, it is difficult to ascertain if the numbers from the potential list were actually infected. The Wire won’t be able to confirm if Singh, Laxmi and Meenakshi’s phones were actually subjected to surveillance.
Why was Rajeshwar Singh and family on list?
Apart from the 2G scam case, which the ED and the Central Bureau of Investigation jointly probed only to have the trial court acquit all the accused in 2017, Singh has been at the helm of many big-ticket investigations, including the Aircel-Maxis deal case involving former finance minister P. Chidambaram and his son Karti.
The case involved clearances granted by the Foreign Investment Promotion Board to the firm named Global Communication Holding Servives Ltg for investment in Aircel in 2016. Chidambaram was the finance minister during this period and his son, Karti, was accused of receiving money to facilitate the deal.
Even as Singh continued with the investigation, a public interest litigation (PIL) was filed by one Rajneesh Kapur claiming Singh had amassed disproportionate assets. Singh had responded to these allegations with a criminal contempt plea against Kapur before the Supreme Court claiming that “vested interests” were trying to derail the ongoing inquiry. His investigation, Rajeshwar Singh in the contempt plea claimed, had “irked a sizeable number of individuals, corporate, lobbyists and corrupt and dishonest persons who have time and again filed false, frivolous and motivated complaints against me.”
The investigation against Chidambaram, Singh believed, landed him in deep trouble.
While the Supreme Court protected Rajeshwar Singh in 2014, it gave the government a green light to investigate the ED officer in June 2018.
This was around the time Singh accused the then Union revenue secretary, Hasmukh Adhia, of “siding with scamsters and their affiliates” by allowing investigation of disproportionate assets against him.
In June 2018, Singh wrote a letter to Adhia – which was later made public – expressing his displeasure over the “animosity” that Adhia had showed against him. Singh, who has spent over two decades in the service, claimed in the letter that despite his past performance having been rated as “outstanding”, Adhia was blocking his promotion to the next grade in ED, additional director.
“It has become more than difficult for me to survive this continued onslaught and persistent vilification from all the quarters for doing my job,” Singh’s letter read.
Though he later apologised for his letter, the inquiry against him continued though nothing of substance emerged. After a period of long leave, Singh is now posted at the ED’s office in Lucknow.
Singh, during this period, was also considered to be a close aide of then CBI director Alok Verma. The BJP top leadership had also accused Singh of playing a pivotal role in aiding Verma and building an “anti-Rakesh Asthana narrative”. Asthana, known for his closeness with top BJP functionaries, especially Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was the CBI special director till October 23, 2018. He was moved out that night along with Verma and is currently director general of the Border Security Force (BSF). The numbers of Asthana and Verma are also in the leaked database.
Since the appearance of Singh’s numbers in the Pegasus Project database predates the subsequent targeting of Verma, it is likely that the cases he was handling at the ED led to him being identified as a person of interest. The fact that he and his family were targeted several months before allegations against him were made in the Supreme Court of disproportionate assets also raises the question of whether he had trod on powerful toes during one of his probes.
While Rajeshwar’s work at the ED marked him out as a person of interest, his sister Abha Singh feels that family members must have become a target for entirely other reasons. “Just look at our profiles, each one of us are handling important assignments,” she told The Wire.
Abha says that right from the start, the siblings have kept their professional and personal lives separate. “We are all either holding important posts or are handling important cases [Abha, her husband and two children are all lawyers],” she points out.
In Maharashtra, Abha says, she has been handling several high-profile cases and has also been a vocal critic of the current dispensation (BJP). The leaked data shows that Abha’s number was selected for potential surveillance for close to two weeks, as against her other family members, whose numbers in the leaked database appear to have been of interest for at least two years.
The targeting of lawyers’ phones, Abha feels, leads to a serious violation of the the sanctity of privileged communications between a lawyer and her clients. “This entire matter ought to be probed by a Special Investigation Team which should be set up by the Supreme Court and monitored by the court,” she wrote in a comment to The Wire.
Kejriwal’s aide in the dragnet too
The Pegasus Project list also includes the phone number used by V.K. Jain, who was appointed as chief consultant at Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal’s office.
Jain’s phone number appear in the leaked records in 2018, when, according to sources in the Delhi government, he handled the most significant files of the state government. As Kejriwal’s primary aide during his first full term, Jain is closely tied to implementation of the chief minister’s most prized welfare programmes like improving school education and health infrastructure in the city-state.
The Wire confirmed his phone number and contacted him, but he declined to participate in the story.
Significantly, his phone number appears in the records soon after he was questioned by the Delhi Police in connection with the alleged assault on Delhi chief secretary Anshu Prakash by two Aam Aadmi Party legislators in February 2018. The incident occurred during a meeting between AAP leaders and Prakash over the issue of ‘Door Step Delivery of Ration’ and the slow processing of files. While Prakash registered an FIR over the alleged assault, the AAP legislators denied the charge.
Jain, a 1984-batch DANICS and 2001-batch IAS officer, retired as the CEO of the the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB), chaired by Kejriwal. However, Kejriwal appointed him in his office as his advisor cum consultant in September, 2017 – a stint that Jain cut short after he got embroiled in the chief secretary’s assault controversy.
As a witness in Prakash’s case, Jain in his initial statement had denied witnessing anything as he claimed to have been in the “washroom” when the alleged assault happened. However, a few days later, he recorded a statement in front of a magistrate in which he said that he saw AAP legislators physically intimidating Prakash.
After that, he stopped going to office, and eventually resigned from his position in March 2018, citing personal reasons and family commitments. In the following days, when the Delhi police refused to share Jain’s statement with the chief minister and other AAP MLAs, the Delhi high court had then directed the police to immediately share it. Delhi police’s appeal at the Supreme Court against the high court’s order was also declined later.
At the NITI Aayog
The leaked records indicate that the telephone number of a senior employee of the NITI Aayog – the Union government’s policy think-tank – was also included as a probable target for surveillance. The Wire verified the number and spoke to the person involved but is withholding their identity at their request as they are no longer working at the government body.
A junior PMO official
An officer who is currently an under secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office was also selected for potential surveillance in 2017, the leaked records show. He was in charge of Prime Minister Modi’s tours in 2017 when the Indian client of the NSO Group showed interest in him.
The Wire spoke to him on the mobile number mentioned in the records. “I don’t know if this list is accurate or if my number is there. The only thing I can say is that I am not such an important person whose number should be traced,” he said.
The Pegasus Project is a collaborative investigation that involves more than 80 journalists from 17 news organisations in 10 countries coordinated by Forbidden Stories with the technical support of Amnesty International’s Security Lab. Read all our coverage here.