Pegasus list: India may have snooped on Dalai Lama advisors, Tibetan government-in-exile

Lobsang Sangay, the former president of the Tibetan government-in-exile speaks to the Dalai Lama during a function in Dharamshala. The phone numbers of Tibetan officials and advisors close to the Dalai Lama appeared on a leaked database of numbers that may have been targets of surveillance using the Pegasus spyware. Ashwini Bhatia / AP Photo
29 August, 2021

In July, the Pegasus Project, an international investigative collaboration of 17 media outlets, revealed that the Pegasus spyware may have been used to target 50,000 phone numbers globally. In India, the list of suspected targets included journalists, rights activists, politicians, and a former election commissioner. But in the hills of Himachal Pradesh, another unlikelier group appeared as a potential target for surveillance: the Tibetan government-in-exile.

The phone numbers of Tibetan officials and advisors close to Tenzin Gyatso, the Tibetan spiritual leader referred to as the fourteenth Dalai Lama, appeared on a leaked database of numbers that may have been targets for surveillance by clients of the NSO group, an Israeli firm behind the Pegasus spyware. The NSO group has stated that it sells Pegasus only to governments. The leaked database was accessed by Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based non-profit media organisation, and the global rights-group Amnesty International. There were at least 1000 Indian numbers on the database. Amnesty International’s Security Lab conducted forensic analysis on a number of the phones on this list, confirming that they showed signs of either attempted or successful Pegasus hacking.

The government of the Tibetan community-in-exile, called the Central Tibetan Administration, is headquartered in the hill station of Dharamshala. It was established shortly after the Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959, escaping a crackdown by the Chinese government. It is structured like a parliamentary democracy, with an executive, legislative, and a judicial branch.

Among those listed as possible surveillance targets were Lobsang Sangay, the former president of the Tibetan government-in-exile, who served from 2011 until 2021, and Lobsang Tenzin, the religious figure commonly referred to as the fifth Samdhong Rinpoche, who preceded Sangay as the political leader of the community-in-exile. Others listed included Tempa Tsering, the Dalai Lama’s envoy in New Delhi, Tenzin Taklha and Chimmey Rigzen, both aides to the Dalai Lama, and Urgyen Trinley Dorji, the seventeenth Karmapa Lama, one of the highest-ranking figures in Tibetan Buddhism. The Dalai Lama himself reportedly does not carry a personal cell phone.

I spoke to Tenzin Lekshay, the media spokesperson for the Central Tibetan Administration. When asked if this changes the Tibetan government’s perception of the Indian government, his response was brief. “No, not at all,” he said. “Other than the media reports, we don’t have any information on that … so we cannot just comment on this issue. And as far as the relationship between India and Tibet, it is strong and is getting stronger.”

To probe what the suspected Pegasus hacks mean for India’s relationship with the Tibet and China, I spoke to Robert Barnett, a long-time expert on Tibetan affairs and the founder and former director of the Modern Tibetan Studies programme at Columbia University in New York. He is presently a professorial research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. “India has generally avoided displaying a clear stance on the political dimensions of the Tibet question—it varies according to the political temperature at the time,” Barnett said. He told me that for a long time, India has approached the Tibetan issue within the context of its need to get China to recognise Indian sovereignty over Sikkim and Kashmir. “That, for many, many decades has been a major issue for India, and Tibet gave it this opportunity, because it could hint that it could qualify or even withdraw its recognition of China’s claims to Tibet, if China would not reciprocate,” Barnett told me.

According to Barnett, the implications of the newly-revealed Pegasus hacks in the case of the Tibetan exile community remain unclear. “It could be used by the Chinese as a sign of some distance between India and the Tibetan exile leadership,” he said. “But it is not evidence that the relationship between New Delhi and Dharamshala is weakening.” He added, “This does underline the urgency of India developing a consistent, long-term, strategic vision regarding the Tibetan political question.”

The suspected Pegasus hacks are not the Tibetan community’s first brush with cybersecurity breaches and surveillance. In 2009, researchers at the University of Toronto uncovered a coordinated spying effort, called GhostNet, which targeted the Central Tibetan Administration headquarters in Dharamshala. According to a report in the New York Times, the researchers said the operation was being controlled from computers based almost exclusively in China, but they could not say conclusively that the Chinese government was involved.

Over the years since, similar attacks and monitoring efforts of suspected Chinese origin have become a familiar feature of Tibetan life in exile. “In fact, if you were to look at the Tibetan community and their digital security risks going back that many years, you would see a snapshot of how cyberespionage itself has evolved,” Ron Deibert, the founder and head of Citizen Lab, the cybersecurity research lab based at the University of Toronto that conducted the GhostNet investigation, told me. In response, multiple advocacy organisations have gathered as a coalition—called the Tibetan Computer Emergency Readiness Team, or TibCERT—dedicated to providing cybersecurity education and training to Tibetans living outside of Tibet. “I often say to philanthropies that fund human rights—you want a model of how to respond to cybersecurity risk as a community? Take a look at what the Tibetans are doing,” Deibert told me.

This time, it is the Indian government that is seriously suspected of being involved in such an attack. The Indian government has historically been supportive of the Tibetan community-in-exile in India, ever since Nehru granted the Dalai Lama asylum in 1959. Although reticent to be publicly antagonistic towards China, India granted the Tibetan community cultural and financial support domestically.

However, the Indian state’s support for Tibetans and the Dalai Lama on the international stage waxes and wanes in parallel with India’s diplomatic relationship with China. India often errs on the side of caution, still maintaining an official “One China” policy, which affirms China’s sovereignty over its contested territories, such as Tibet and Taiwan. In 2018, the Dalai Lama let slip that the Indian government had discouraged him from meeting with Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, in May 2014. 

Some Tibetans had cause for hope that India would begin to be more internationally supportive of the Tibetan struggle for independence when Modi came to power and invited Lobsang Sangay, then the president of the community-in-exile, to his first inauguration. In early 2017, the Dalai Lama was allowed to visit the Tawang monastery in the border area of Arunachal Pradesh, which is contested by China.

But after a dip in Sino-Indian relations following a standoff in the border region of Doklam later in 2017, there was a turn away from Tibet. In February 2018, citing a “very sensitive time” in Indo-Chinese relations, India discouraged government officials from attending an event that was to be thrown by the Tibetan government-in-exile to commemorate the start of 60 years of the Dalai Lama’s exile. According to a report in the Indian Express, PK Sinha, the union cabinet secretary, put out a directive telling “senior leaders” and “government functionaries” of the union and state governments that it is “not desirable” to participate in the events of the Tibetan leadership in exile. According to The Wire, it was during this sensitive time, starting in late 2017, that the numbers of Tibetan leaders began to feature on the list of potential Pegasus targets.

The Indian government could be interested in monitoring the Central Tibetan Administration and the Dalai Lama for a number of reasons. Officials could be worried about dissent or internal security threats; they could be eager to monitor any communications that the government-in-exile might have with China or the United States; they could be interested in keeping track of whether and how the Chinese are monitoring the Tibetans or what China is doing in the region.

“There is a security issue that we rarely read about,” Barnett said, “which is that it is very important for India to have information about what China is doing within Tibet.” Human intelligence provides a crucial aide to satellite imagery of the border region, which the Indian security establishment keeps a cautious eye on. “You’d be amazed how often technically-minded analysts completely misunderstand what they see in photos,” Barnett told me. “And you still need local informants—and in this case, that primarily means working with Tibetan exiles.”

The Indian government is also likely interested in how the Tibetan community is preparing for the succession of the Dalai Lama, who is 86 years old. They are almost certainly concerned about the looming reality of the Dalai Lama’s mortality, and the geopolitical drama that is likely to ensue after his death. This is also a security issue for India. The question of the aftermath of the death of the current Dalai Lama has long dogged the Tibetan community, and, recently, garnered increasing attention internationally. There is likely to be a power tussle over who gets to choose the Dalai Lama’s successor after he dies. While the Chinese leadership will most certainly attempt to appoint a China-approved successor within Tibet—China has even begun grooming Tibetan clergy in Tibet to endorse their pick—the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile have already rejected this. Internationally, many have been watching the situation keenly; the United States has revised its Tibet policy to prohibit China from interfering in matters of the succession.

Barnett emphasised that different actors in the Indian establishment may have different strategic interests in the Tibetan community. “When it comes to the Tibet issue, there are countervailing trends and interests within the Indian policy elite, ranging from those who see China as a predatory military threat to those who view it variously as a strategic competitor, a market opportunity, a powerful neighbour that must be appeased, or, more traditionally, in the Nehruvian mode, as a counterweight to western dominance,” Barnett said. He continued, “Many of these views are represented by powerful, entrenched constituencies within the Indian administration, and their competing agendas appear overall to have fuelled a degree of strategic vacillation or ambiguity in India’s China policy, particularly with regard to the Tibet issue. For the hawks, and also for nationalists, Tibet is seen as potential leverage to counter China’s military incursions along the Tibetan borders, while status-quo diplomats, market-focussed business players, and, more generally, policy realists push for India’s support for Tibetans to be largely cultural or humanitarian rather than risk inflaming relations with Beijing.”

Barnett said that if there is no diplomatic solution to the Tibetan issue within the Dalai Lama’s lifetime, these conflicting constituencies will likely undermine India’s need to maintain a coherent position on Tibet when the question of the Dalai Lama’s successor arises. If the exiles identify a child born within India as the next Dalai Lama, India could play this purposefully to its advantage. “From a realpolitik view, India stands to gain enormously, because it would gain massively increased leverage with China, but it could also come under massively increased pressure and antagonism,” Barnett told me. “It would make the current border provocations and tension look like a minor skirmish.”

Meanwhile, over the past decade, many Tibetans have grown tired of their marginal position within Indian society. Tibetans in India are not granted refugee status; India is not a signatory to the 1951 United Nations convention on refugees. They are not eligible for government jobs, and pathways to citizenship remain difficult. Since 2011, the number of Tibetans in India has plummeted by 44 percent, from 150,000 to 85,000 in 2019. Tibetans in India have been leaving for the West and even returning to Tibet. Those that remain are acutely aware of their precarity. Many Tibetans I contacted declined to speak on record about the Pegasus issue, for fear of jeopardising their already-tenuous position in India.

Some who did speak are unsurprised. “We already knew that the Indian government has been watching the Tibetan affairs quite closely and quite seriously as well,” Lobsang Wangyal, a journalist, photographer for the Agence France-Presse, and editor of, a news portal for the Tibetan community, told me. “It makes sense that the Indian government to keep close tabs on the Tibetan government-in-exile. It’s just politics.” 

Tenzin Tsundue, one of the most outspoken advocates for Tibetan independence in India, agreed. As a political agitator, he had always assumed that he is under some degree of scrutiny. He said he thinks that many Tibetan politicians probably assume the same too.

But he added that he is disappointed. “Pegasus has exposed the government of India of its misplaced priorities,” Tsundue said. “Pegasus has exposed that the government of India has been spying on its own people. But where it should have been the focus, which is the Chinese, it was not there. And that is a complete failure of the government.”

Indian government officials have refused to confirm use of the Pegasus software, though they have refrained from officially denying it either. India stated that there has been “no unauthorised interception.”

“This is not a reminder that there is tension between New Delhi and the Dalai Lama,” Barnett said. “But this is a reminder that New Delhi has remained remarkably ambiguous, ambivalent, and strategically variable in its public pronouncements, activities, and thinking about the Tibetan issue. On the political and diplomatic note, that is, not in terms of the spiritual, hospitality, human side.” He continued, “It is a reminder that India is yet to produce a long-term strategic vision, let alone one that would maximise its strategic advantages but at the same time would not provoke major conflict with China.”