Use of Pegasus shows Modi government is scared of May 17 Movement: Thirumurugan Gandhi

27 July, 2021

On 27 July, as part of an international investigation, The Wire reported that the phone number of Thirumurugan Gandhi 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 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 a forensic analysis of some of the phones listed in the database.

Gandhi is the founder of the May 17 Movement, an organisation that advocates justice for victims of the genocide of Tamils by the Sri Lankan armed forces in 2009. He has been previously arrested several times for his advocacy. He spoke to Abhay Regi, an editorial fellow at The Caravan, about why he thinks he was targeted, the work of the May 17 Movement, and the government crackdown on it over the past few years.

Abhay Regi: When did you first find out about the possibility that your phone was infected with Pegasus?
Thirumurugan Gandhi: I found out alongside everyone else when the news broke. I have known for a while now that if the government did want to surveil people I would be quite high on that list. But even we thought that would only be something like wire taps. I don’t think I ever thought they would spy on me with something as sophisticated as Pegasus. Of course, I had been following news about Pegasus since the first reports about it being used to hack into the phones of those arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case.

Regi: Are you certain it was the union government that was behind this?
Gandhi: Yes. It is unsurprising that now, exactly like they had previously in the Bhima Koregaon case, the government is denying using Pegasus. But if you simply look at the list of people who were infected with the malware, it is very easy to surmise that only the government and Modi would have seen all of them as a threat. Nobody else fears so many journalists, human-rights activists, opposition politicians and bureaucrats.

Their denial is largely immaterial, we knew they would deny it. I think what we need to fear is the potential uses they can have for a technology like this. I think we need to understand Bhima Koregaon as just the first step in a model they have built. A model by which they can criminalise any public event of any ideology that they disagree with. I fear that we will likely see more such cases of mass arrests under draconian laws and evidence planted using something like Pegasus.

Regi: Why do you think the government would want to hack into your phone or surveil you?
Gandhi: I think it first needs to be stated that the May 17 Movement has never hidden anything. We are an organisation that has always been fighting for greater democratic space, and we have that same democratic space internally. We are open about our political principles and about what political actions we are going to take. What we believe in is very clearly established in the books and pamphlets we publish. For all of our meetings, we also take police permission as the law requires.

In a sense, their surveillance hasn’t earned them anything, they wouldn’t learn anything new about me that we haven’t already made clear. If they do use something like Pegasus to attack us, it is only to help them in implicating us in crimes we didn’t commit or to further oppress our organisation. That is something they have done for years because they are scared of what we stand for.

Regi: What are the aims of the May 17 Movement?
Gandhi: We are a Tamil nationalist movement, meaning working for the welfare of the Tamil people, which follows Ambedkarite, Periyarist and Marxist principles. Simply speaking, it is for accountability for the 2009 genocide in Eelam [the name for a proposed independent state for Tamils] and to ensure democracy and social justice in the region. Our organisation was founded in 2009 following the brutal genocide of Tamils in Eelam. That genocide was perpetrated by the Sri Lankan state, but also received support from several quarters. Unlike many other Tamil organisations, from the very beginning we were clear that in our quest for justice for genocide victims, we should speak about all those other supporters of the genocide too.

Rather than merely see it as an emotional issue, we were determined to expose the geopolitical ramifications it had and the support it had from imperialist countries like the United States and the United Kingdom, alongside China and India, as well as the silence of the United Nations. We also spoke about the role INGOs played in either aiding or remaining silent throughout the genocide.

Regi: Is this why the Indian government would want to target the May 17 Movement?
Gandhi: Yes. In 2012, the UN published a report called the Petrie report detailing their handling of the genocide and the information they had at that time. The report had been heavily redacted when it was given to the public. We were able to get a copy of the unredacted file and we shared it widely pointing out clear markers to the role of India and the United States in aiding the genocide. We held several press conferences in Chennai, Bengaluru, Mumbai and Delhi publicising this.

Shortly after that, in 2013, the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal met in Bremen in Germany to look into the genocide. [The Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal is an independent, international civil-society collective that conducts proceedings into serious and systemic violations of the rights of peoples.] I had also attended the tribunal and presented evidence for the case against India. Other groups presented evidence against the UK, US and of course, Sri Lanka. Their judgment clearly underlined that the Indian state was complicit in the genocide. We also ensured that this was widely publicised so that we can begin seeking justice.

It was the first time there was widespread knowledge about, and opposition to, India’s role in the genocide. I think since then we have been in the crosshairs of the Indian government. And since then, they have been attacking both me and the organisation.

Regi: In what manner were you attacked after publicising India’s role in the genocide?
Gandhi: That happened following the 2013 protests. In 2013, there were massive protests by Tamil students in Tamil Nadu and among the diaspora. They demanded that the Sri Lankan government be tried for genocide, not merely war crimes and crimes against humanity as previous UN resolutions had described it. I of course participated in the protest and so did the May 17 Movement as a whole. During that time, K Ramanujam, the DGP [director-general of police] of Tamil Nadu, had also asked us if we had ‘organised’ the protests. It was after this that the government began cracking down on us. They would stop our events and we knew we were constantly under the scanner.

Despite that, we were vocal in both the local and international stage. In 2015, I spoke at the UNHRC meet in Geneva about why what happened in 2009 wasn’t only war crimes, but genocide. I also spoke there about how key to any redressal would be a move to underline the right to self-determination as a fundamental human right. If the crimes are widespread—war crimes, crimes against women and children, crimes against humanity and genocide—then the only final solution would have to be establishing the right to self-determination for the people of Eelam. This was later presented by an independent expert at the UN’s general assembly. [In October 2014, the UN independent expert Alfred-Maurice de Zayas submitted to the general assembly that self-determination should be seen as “more than a norm enshrined in the UN Charter” and that it should be seen instead “as a conflict-prevention strategy and as a guarantee of sustainable peace.”] This is a right that the union government of course fears, in relations to the many communities it claims territorial control over.

Regi: When did a more severe crackdown on you and the May 17 Movement start?
Gandhi: That happened largely after 2017. Following the Jallikattu protests [referring to protests in support of jallikattu, a traditional sport involving catching indigenous cattle, in January 2017,] we conducted a fact-finding mission into police violence in parts of Chennai. The police had brutalised several localities, largely of marginalised communities like fishermen, and they arrested many youths. We published our report and followed up the cases. A few of them are out on bail now. A judicial-commission enquiry into the police violence which started almost four years ago has still not published its findings. I think us speaking about police violence changed the way the government treated us. On 29 May that year, I was arrested under the Goondas Act for holding a candlelight vigil for the victims of the genocide, which is something we have done every year since the genocide.

After I got bail from that case, we continued working as usual. In 2018, I travelled to Geneva to speak at the UNHRC. This was just after the police massacre of people protesting against the Sterlite plant in Thoothukodi, so I spoke at the UNHRC about that. I also spoke to several members of the European Parliament and many German politicians about the Indian government indiscriminate use of draconian laws to crush dissent.

When I landed in Bengaluru, on 9 August 2018, I was arrested by the Tamil Nadu police. They didn’t tell me why I was arrested. When I was interrogated, they forced me to tell them all my passwords. They wouldn’t have even needed to hack my devices, they had full access to it.

I was taken to a local court in Chennai and saw that I was charged under sedition. I did not have my lawyer with me and the only evidence the police presented was a video of me speaking at the UNHRC. The judge gave me 24 hours to return with a lawyer. The next day, the judge ruled that when speaking in a democratic forum like that I am entitled to diplomatic immunity, and that the police should just question me and then release me.

The police interrogated me, but arrested me again just shortly after the interrogation ended. This time they had filed two other sedition cases against me, one for garlanding an Ambedkar statue and another for garlanding a Periyar statue. They had me in judicial custody and after about ten days, they called me to court saying I was involved in a passport related case. Only when I reached court did I realise it was a case under the UAPA. I almost laughed in court. I told the judge I had just returned from speaking to the UNHRC about India’s use of sedition, UAPA and NSA. I asked her, “Please arrest me, there is no better way of convincing the world about everything I had just spoken about.”

Regi: How were you treated in jail?
Gandhi: I was put in a separate block without a single other prisoner. They would just drop off food, I wouldn’t get to see anyone else at all. I had dehydration and dysentery for 50 days and complained to them about it daily but they didn’t listen.

I fainted one of those days. They initially dragged me onto the ground outside in the night. Finally, the warden took me to the hospital. I was only semi-conscious throughout this. The doctor prescribed some medicines for me and that night itself, so that nobody else would see me, they took me back to my cell. I wasn’t even fully conscious when they took me back. They never bothered giving me those medicines, and never took me to the hospital again. They did not deliver any of the letters I wrote, even to my lawyers. It was basically solitary confinement. I got bail after 56 days.

Regi: What was the UAPA case against you about?
Gandhi: As soon as I was out on bail, they filed several other cases against me. They had basically gone through every single protest I had organised in a decade and filed cases for each of them. The UAPA case was about a protest that we had conducted back in 2014 when the Gaza war was going on. We had protested in Nungambakkam, calling for an end to the Palestinian genocide. Speaking in the protest I had said that genocide anywhere that is left unchallenged will lead to genocide in other places. I said that allowing Israel to conduct genocide unpunished will lead to the international community looking the other way if the same happened here. The police misquoted me and also claimed the event happened in July 2017.

My lawyer argued in court that in July 2017, I was still in Puzhal jail, I couldn’t have organised any protest. The police argued in court that the date was a clerical error. But how can they have the same clerical error in so many places, they had written 2017 everywhere in the FIR. My counsel also argued in court that speaking supporting the Palestinian struggle is not only in the interest of human rights but has been an active part of Indian foreign policy.

But the cases kept piling against me. They have been investigating all of those false cases. Since then, a lot more have been filed, including some for unlawful assembly, some for what they claim is hate speech, or inciting communities. During the anti-CAA protests, which I participated in, they added eight new cases too. My lawyer told me recently that I currently have a total of 46 cases pending against me.

Regi: Given that much of your time will go into court hearings, are you still able to continue the work you do with May 17?
Gandhi: The court hearings take up about five days in the average week. But I still try to do as much as I can. Honestly, even the work of the movement has gotten significantly harder. The police now deny permission for any May 17 event. So, rallies and public meetings have mostly been off the table.

More alarmingly, when our comrades from other movements organise rallies, the police have asked in multiple instances for them to submit a written promise that they will not invite me. When the Tamil Puligal Katchi, a Dalit party, was organising an event in Periyakulam in Theni district, they were forced to submit a letter to the police that I wouldn’t be allowed to speak. They did the same at the Neelachattai Perani in Coimbatore, a massive rally of all of the Ambedkarite groups in Tamil Nadu. When the Tamilaga Makkal Jananayaga Katchi, a party that represent Muslims and backward communities, held an event in Tirupattur, in Sivagangai district, the police asked them to sign a similar pledge. They refused and went to court. The court ruled that nobody who was not a member of the organisation was allowed to speak at the event. So, they made me one of the editors of their party magazine and I spoke there!

Regi: How has your personal life been affected by this?
Gandhi: It has been very tough. I have had to move house four times in the past four years. Many refused to rent me a house, even those who were long-time acquaintances. I was working in consulting before this. We ran a small company that dealt with communication, software and design. An elderly couple had rented us our office space. The police kept harassing them, calling them late in the night, and they finally kicked us out of that space. Nobody else was willing to rent us space, so we finally had to shut down.

It has been tough for my wife too. She was working in a college for six years, but she began facing a lot of targeted harassment and trolling. She was forced to resign from that job. She has applied for teaching positions continuously since then. Despite her having all the right qualifications, no college is willing to hire her.

It has been particularly hard for my daughter. She is only in fifth standard, but the police went to her tuition centre and enquired about her. She had a tough time in school too. The teachers would mistreat her and she would often be called to the principal’s office for no reason. She would come back sad from school. She was depressed. Later we found out the police had gone to her school also to enquire, and this is likely why the school was so hostile to her. So, she had to transfer schools too, which is of course very hard on a child that age.

They do the same with our cadre too. And the police destroy your name locally, they will go and show everybody leaflets with your face and say something about terrorism charges. It creates a very uncomfortable environment.

Regi: Has the May 17 Movement as a whole faced censorship, or has it been just you as an individual?
Gandhi: Censorship, particularly online, has been routine. The May 17 Movement’s YouTube account was disabled twice. Facebook suspended my account thrice, in 2017, 2018 and 2020. When we asked them why, they simply said it violated community standards, without any more detail. In January, when Twitter blocked the accounts of several journalists and activists supporting the farmers’ protests, my account got blocked too. It was later restored along with the others.

The passive censorship by media houses, too, is something we noticed. In 2013 and 2014 we would routinely be called for panel discussions related to Sri Lanka. But over the past half decade, that has seemed to completely stop. It’s been seven years since Thanthi TV called me for a panel discussion, three years since Puthiya Thalaimurai did, and about the same for News 7. At various points, journalists from these news stations have taken long interviews of me, but those never get aired. That situation makes it very easy to see that there has been a veil of censorship around us ever since the government began targeting us.

Regi: Has the May 17 Movement been successful then?
Gandhi: I think it has. The Tamil public is far more aware of what happened in 2009, they are also more active in confronting issues related to the environment or issues relating to the attacks on democracy that happen in the country. Of course, a lot of other organisations in the state have been working towards this. The Thanthai Periyar Dravidar Kazhagam is too, and their founder, Kovai Ramakrishnan, is also on the list of people likely hacked with Pegasus. But I feel the May 17 Movement have been quite successful in their advocacy. Over the past few decades, the major Dravidian parties began espousing their core ideological convictions far less. Now they have been forced to. I think protests like the Karunchattai Perani in December 2018 was effective. We had gathered all of the Periyarist organisations of the state for a black-shirt rally in Thiruchirapalli to show that Periyarism will not go down without a fight against neoliberalism or Hindutva.

Before that, even when Periyar statues were attacked by right-wing groups, the DMK largely kept quiet. After seeing the crowds that came to Thiruchi, they began to become more vocal. The same party that didn’t fight against the Kudankulam nuclear power plant, or did not oppose methane mining in the state, now stands opposed to it. The major Dravidian parties largely ignored any issue related to Eelam in the past decade, but now they have been pushed to see that many in Tamil Nadu still care about the fight for justice in Eelam. In that way, yes, I think the May 17 Movement has been successful.

Regi: Does this mean that the May 17 Movement tries to stay away from electoral politics?
Gandhi: Not necessarily. We are just cautious about the Dravidian majors because they too often advocate the same neoliberal economics as the parties in Delhi. Modi’s regime should not be seen as Hindutva communalism, or Brahmin majoritarianism alone, it is inextricably linked with neoliberalism. This is part of what makes them displace Adivasis to build mines or demolish coastlines and maritime environments, that fisherfolk traditionally depended on, to build ports. I’m not convinced the DMK and AIADMK will stand against those aspects of the Modi regime.

But other groups will. So, I did actively campaign for the communist parties, the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi and several other smaller parties, that represent marginalised communities but still oppose neoliberalism. In the 2019 election, I campaigned for several such parties. Very often the Election Commission would deny me permission to campaign despite registered political parties making it clear I was their campaigner. For example, in 2019, I wanted to campaign for Thol Thirumavalavan in Chidambaram. He is the head of a registered political party, and now an MP, and still the EC refused me permission to campaign. I guess that is only an aspect of the crushing of democracy that we see in all of the institutions of the country.

But I think this use of Pegasus shows us that they aren’t immune. They are clearly scared of what we have been doing even with all other democratic institutions failing. They would have no other reason to spy on us. That means we have been effective, and I’m certain that means we will eventually win in restoring democracy and social justice to India.

This interview has been edited and condensed.