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Chennai: A Tamil nationalist leader and several Periyarist activists were of interest to a government client of the Israeli NSO Group, which sells Pegasus spyware.
Naam Thamizhar Katchi’s Seeman, May 17 movement’s Thirumurugan Gandhi, Thanthai Periyar Dravidar Kazhagam’s K. Ramakrishnan and Dravidar Kazhagam treasurer Kumaresan feature in the list of potential targets of an NSO Group client.
The leaked database, accessed by the French non-profit Forbidden Stories and shared with The Wire and 15 other global media partners, contains details of 50,000 telephone numbers of individuals around the world selected as persons of interest by different government agencies that have used or are using Pegasus spyware.
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.
Thirumurugan Gandhi was arrested under the Goondas Act and later the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act in 2018. Coordinator of the May 17 movement, Gandhi has been vocal on several matters including the rights of Sri Lankan Tamils, the Sterlite protests and violent state backlash, and other issues concerning the common people. May 17 was founded in 2009 as a response to the civil war in Sri Lanka. Since its inception, the movement has been actively advocating the cause of Sri Lankan Tamils, besides fighting for issues in Tamil Nadu.
In 2018, Gandhi had raised the issue of the extra-judicial killing of Sterlite protestors at the United Nations Forum. He has also been advocating for a greater role for the states in foreign policy, and had raised the issue of Sri Lankan Tamils in the EU parliament in 2018. May 17 has also been vocal on the controversial Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) policy of the World Trade Organisation (which has been agreed to and signed by India).
“Their idea is to silence vocal voices against Hindutva. I see this as a planned, undemocratic assault on forces functioning democratically,” Gandhi said. He also pointed that most “customers of NSO ranked poorly in the press freedom index”.
Seeman is also known for his vocal support for the cause of Sri Lankan Tamils. He confirmed to The Wire that he had temporarily used the number featured in the list in 2019. “We are a people’s movement. Our movement was very involved in protesting Sri Lankan Tamils’ killings. I have been arrested in Canada and the United States, and I know I am under surveillance because the state thinks I will facilitate the reorganisation of the LTTE. I am well aware of the fact that I am being watched and we continue to work despite this knowledge. But this is very undemocratic and fascist,” he said.
Naam Thamizhar party too was founded in 2010, a year after the Sri Lankan war. The party eventually came to identify itsself as anti-Dravidian, putting forth a vehemently contested claim that the “Dravidian movement led to the downfall of Tamils”. The party has contested independently in several elections. In the 2021 assembly elections, the party had close to 7% of the vote share, though it did not win any seat.
K. Ramakrishnan, a former activist with Dravidar Kazhagam, who later split from the movement to launch the Thanthai Periyar Dravidar Kazhagam, is a senior activist with over decades of experience. Along with Kolathur Mani, a senior Periyarist activist, Ramakrishnan launched Thanthai Periyar Dravidar Kazhagam in 2001, which in 2012 further split – with Mani heading the Periyar Dravidar Kazhagam and Ramakrishnan heading the Thanthai Periyar Dravidar Kazhagam. Besides propagating the ideals of Periyar, Thanthai Periyar Dravidar Kazhagam also actively advocates the cause of Tamil nationalism.
“This is shocking and worse than emergency, during emergency the State at least informed us that we were being watched” he told The Wire. Ramakrishnan sees the snooping as an attempt to ‘suppress progressive movements.” “Thanthai Periyar Dravidar Kazhagam has been very active in opposing the BJP and RSS in the State. While we are shocked about this development, we are not really surprised.”
Kumaresan, whose number also features in the list, is a treasurer with Dravidar Kazhagam, the parent party of both the DMK and AIADMK in Tamil Nadu. Founded by the iconic Periyar, Dravidar Kazhagam has kept away from direct electoral politics while being a strong, uncompromising voice against Hindutva in Tamil Nadu.
Dravidar Kazhagam has its roots in the self-respect movement (founded by Periyar in 1925) and the Justice Party (founded by non-Brahmin leaders in 1917 as a response to Brahmin hegemony). The two groups merged under the leadership of Periyar and came to be called Dravidar Kazhagam in 1944. Headed today by K. Veeramani, fondly known as asiriyar (teacher), Dravidar Kazhagam continues to espouse the cause of Periyarist and Dravidian ideology.
When contacted, Kumaresan said he condemned the alleged spying of his mobile phone. “It infringes on the right of my privacy which has been confirmed by the Supreme Court of India as a fundamental right to be ensured to every citizen.”
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.