On 27 July, as part of an international investigation, The Wire reported that the phone number of Kovai Ramakrishnan was among a leaked database of over 50,000 numbers listed as potential targets for surveillance by a client of the Israel-based NSO group. The Wire and 16 other international partners have found that several of the numbers on the list were infected with Pegasus, a malware that allows the hacker to access and monitor a phone. The leaked database was accessed by Forbidden Stories, a French non-profit media organisation, and Amnesty International’s Security Lab conducted the forensic analysis of some of the phones listed in the database confirming that they had been infected by Pegasus or previously attacked by the malware.
Kovai Ramakrishnan, is the president of the Thanthai Periyar Dravida Kazhagam, a Periyarist, rationalist and anti-caste organisation based in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. Ramakrishnan argued that he was likely infected with the malware because his work in advocating rationalism, communal harmony and inter-caste marriages had seriously hampered the Bharatiya Janata Party’s ability to grow in the city. Sujatha Sivagnanam, a Tamil Nadu-based freelance journalist, interviewed Ramakrishnan about the possible reasons why he was included in the list of potential targets and why the BJP fear the work of the TPDK.
Sujatha Sivagnanam: When did you first find out that your phone might have been infected with Pegasus?
K Ramakrishnan: We are not new to police surveillance. Since the early 90s we know the police have been spying on us. Back in the 80s, when India was training the LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam] we used to aid them too. After India broke ties with the LTTE there used to be a constant police scanner on us and often false cases would be lodged against us. There used to be shadow watches of us because of our pro-Eelam Tamil stance.
But we were prepared for that. I used to always keep the bus and train tickets safe when I travelled because I’ll never know when I’ll need it as evidence in some false case. It was always useful in avoiding police questioning. But what is happening now is far more dangerous. It looks like they could be spying on everything we do, personally and professionally.
I found out about this only when the reporter from The Wire called me, a few days ago. I was very shocked to hear about it, because none of the reasons they had to surveil us in the 90s exist now. If they are targeting us now, it is clearly for some other reason.