Centre Moves to Disallow Rajya Sabha Question on Entering Into Contract With NSO Group

The rules do not allow the House to discuss a matter that is sub-judice, the government claimed, though experts say the rule cannot be applied 'mechanically'.

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New Delhi: The Union government has moved to disallow a question in the Rajya Sabha seeking details of whether the government entered into a contract with the Israeli company NSO Group, which sells the Pegasus spyware. According to a Hindustan Times report, the government said that the “the ongoing issue of Pegasus” is subjudice after “several PILs have been filed in the Supreme Court”.

A “Provisionally Admitted Question”(PAQ) asked by CPI MP Binoy Viswam was scheduled to be answered on August 12 in the upper house. However, the Union government wrote to the Rajya Sabha secretariat earlier this week, saying that it should not be allowed.

Viswam told HT that he has been told informally that the question was disallowed, though he is yet to get a formal response. He accused the Union government of misusing Rajya Sabha rules to dodge questions about Pegasus.

The question posed by the CPI MP asked:

“Will the Minister of External Affairs be pleased to state (a) the number of MoUs Government has entered into with foreign companies, the details sector-wise; (b) whether any of these MoU’s with foreign companies has been in order to curb terror activities through cyber security, the details of the same; and (c) whether Government has entered into a MoU with NSO Group in order to curb terror activities through cyber security across the nation, if so, provide details thereof?”

The Union government cited Rule 47 (xix) of the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Council of States (Rajya Sabha), which says questions “shall not ask for information on a matter which is under adjudication by a court of law having jurisdiction in any part of India”.

Reports by the Pegasus Project, an international consortium of media organisations, including The Wire, have revealed that politicians, journalists, activists, Supreme Court officials were among those who may have been targets of surveillance by an Indian client of the NSO Group. The military-grade spyware is only sold to “vetted governments”. The Indian government has neither denied nor confirmed purchasing the hacking software.

Consequently, several PILs have been filed in the matter, with the Supreme Court hearing them on Thursday. The top court asked the petitioners to serve a copy of their PILs to the Union government and posted the matter for hearing again on Tuesday.

The government, which has so far rejected the opposition’s demands for a discussion on the Pegasus issue, cited these PILs in the Supreme Court, saying the matter is “subjudice” and Visam’s question cannot be allowed, according to HT.

Former Lok Sabha general secretary P.D.T. Acharya told the newspaper that in the past, there have been occasions when the speaker had decided that if the matter is of great public interest, the House can discuss it even if it is subjudice. “The house has imposed the restriction on itself and this position has changed over a period of time… ‘subjudice’ as such has lost much of its rigour… You cannot mechanically apply the rule to all subjudice matter,” he said.