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Cutting-edge technology detected in government campaign against Indian activists

The arrest of a prominent Jesuit priest marks the latest chapter in a decades-long crackdown on those who campaign for marginalized peoples

On the evening of October 8, Father Stan Swamy took a break from watching TV and came down to the ground floor of Bagaicha, the Jesuit community center he founded in the eastern Indian town of Ranchi, Jharkhand. The 83-year-old priest and social activist was chatting with colleagues when an SUV pulled up outside. 

Four officers from the National Investigation Agency, India’s counter-terrorism task force, burst into the room — one of them holding a gun. Six more stood outside, and another police vehicle waited about 200 meters away. The officers spoke quietly to Swamy, seized his mobile phone and asked him to pack a bag. 

A colleague asked for an arrest warrant, but none was presented. 

The next morning, Swamy was driven to Ranchi airport and put on a two and half hour commercial flight to Mumbai, where he was remanded into custody by a special NIA court until two weeks later, on October 23. The agency filed a 17,000-page charge sheet on the same day, accusing him of links to the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) which the Indian government views as a terrorist organization.

Swamy, who was detained under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), is the oldest person to be accused of terrorism in India. To him, the arrest came as no surprise. Police had raided his residence in 2018 and 2019 and confiscated his laptop, tablet, mobile phone, a hard drive, some thumb drives, CDs and documents. 

As a prominent human rights campaigner, who has spent decades fighting for the rights of marginalized and indigenous people, or Adivasis, Swamy was the latest arrest in a sprawling case from 2018 that has seen 16 human rights activists accused of being in league with the CPI (Maoist).

Maoist fighters and Indian forces have engaged in conflict in central and eastern India for five decades. More than 12,000 people have been killed in the violence in the past 20 years. The rebels say they are fighting for the rights of indigenous people and landless farmers in the mineral-rich region, but the state regards them as outlaws and violent extremists.

Among the individuals arrested in the 2018 case under the UAPA, a broadly worded antiterrorism law that gives the authorities powers of investigation and detention, are a prominent scholar of India’s caste system, a professor of linguistics and an 81-year-old poet. All have one thing in common: they have spent their lives campaigning for the rights of so-called low-caste Hindus, minority Muslims and other vulnerable Indians. All have been repeatedly denied bail and are accused of conspiring with banned Maoist militants to incite unrest. All deny the charges.

A history of violence

The detentions are linked to clashes that broke out on January 1, 2018, in the village of Bhima Koregaon in the western Indian state of Maharashtra. Hundreds of thousands of Dalits — lower-caste Hindus, once known as untouchables — gathered to mark the 200th anniversary of the victory of Dalit soldiers in the British Army over an army of the upper-caste Peshwa dynasty. The commemoration was disrupted by a mob waving saffron-colored flags, the symbol of the Hindu nationalists who dominate Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.

Heavy security is deployed after clashes between Dalit groups and supporters of right-wing Hindutva organizations during the 200th anniversary celebrations of the Bhima-Koregaon battle in Pune, India. (Photo by Sanket Wankhade/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

The nationalists objected to the Dalits, who commemorate the battle as an important chapter in their ongoing struggle against India’s caste system, celebrating a victory by British colonial forces. At least one person died in the resulting violence and several were injured. 

Police investigations quickly latched onto a complaint that the violence was instigated by Maoists during a public rally attended by 35,000 people in Maharashtra the previous day. Police claimed to have discovered Maoist plots to assassinate Modi and overthrow his government. Police have so far arrested 16 activists, who are accused of being Maoist conspirators and inciting hate which contributed to the violence at the Bhima Koregaon commemoration.

The government’s case against Swamy rests on digital evidence discovered on his electronic devices and the devices of three more of the accused. According to the NIA, investigators discovered letters encouraging an uprising against a “fascist government” purportedly written by Swamy to Maoist leaders.

Swamy is also accused of writing letters to Maoists advocating that they “capture” senior leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in protest against a controversial anti-conversion law introduced in Jharkhand in 2017, with stiff jail sentences and fines for those found guilty of forcing anyone to change their religion. Human rights groups say the law targets Christian, Muslim, and other minority groups, including  Adivasis, in an effort to enshrine Hindu culture and practices. 

Other letters allegedly show that Swamy received $110,000 from an associate to help the Maoists. The priest denies having ever sent any such messages. 

Mihir Desai, Swamy’s lawyer, claims the discovery of the letters points to the possible use of spyware. Eight people connected with the case were previous targets of spyware attacks. One such incident used malware tools from the controversial Israeli surveillance tech firm the NSO Group. 

Surveillance from hacking tools provided by companies like the NSO Group has become a hallmark in crackdowns on minority groups and activists around the world. The NSO has previously been linked with helping numerous governments to zero in on human rights activists, lawyers and journalists, in countries including Mexico, France, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

Speaking of Swamy during a telephone conversation, Desai said, “These letters have not been emailed from his computer, neither have they been found in his deleted files. Please understand these are not emails. If it’s an email, you’d find it on the sender’s email or device, as well as the receiver’s.” 

Activists protest against the arrest of Stan Swamy in New Delhi on October 12, 2020. The 83-year-old Jesuit priest has worked for the welfare of tribal populations in Jharkhand for more than 30 years. (Photo by Mayank Makhija/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

In a video recorded by his colleagues days before his arrest and uploaded to YouTube by Jharkhand Janadhikar Mahasabha, a coalition of progressive human rights organizations, Swamy said officers from the NIA had questioned him over five days in July and August. He said they had produced “some extracts” of letters allegedly taken from his computer that linked him to the CPI (Maoist). Swamy described the letters as “fabrications” that were put onto his computer.  

“We are all aware how prominent intellectuals, lawyers, writers, poets, activists, student leaders — they are all put in jail just because they have expressed their dissent or raised questions about the ruling powers of India,” he added. 

Desai insists that the letters were planted on Swamy’s devices and added that the priest had ample reason not to have written them. 

“Why would he create these files just to keep them on his computer, when he knows he’s been under scrutiny for the last two years?” he asked. “His house was raided twice and he was questioned about his links with Maoists. Why would he still not delete these letters? He wouldn’t do this unless he’s a complete fool.” 

Spear-phishing attacks

Nihalsing Rathod is a junior lawyer who has been working with Surendra Gadling, a human rights lawyer who was also arrested in this case. Rathod said he once received suspicious emails from the poet Varavara Rao and the activist lawyer Arun Ferreira, both of whom were arrested in August 2018 after they were accused of being Maoist conspirators in the Bhima Koregaon violence. The communications arrived before their arrests. 

“These emails looked suspicious and I had the good sense of not opening them. I called the senders instead,” he said. “They told me they had never sent me any email and got worried about a possible hacking.” 

Suspicions of hacking are common in the arrests. In June 2020, the Canada-based Citizen Lab and Amnesty International released a report detailing how nine people, including Rathod, were targeted with malicious emails and messages. The investigation identified 12 spear-phishing emails, messages which looked authentic because they appeared to come from a trusted source, sent between January and October 2019. All came from email accounts masquerading as belonging to journalists, officials from local courts or an activist that may have been known to the targets. 

These spear-phishing emails attempted to use a PDF document to deliver NetWire, a commercially available spyware program capable of compromising Windows computers in order to monitor their actions and communications. Citizen Lab was unable to determine who was behind the attacks. 

Shalini Gera, an Adivasi rights activist and lawyer for one of those accused, also received similar emails. “I’ve been racking my brains over this: ‘Why me?’,” she said. “Look at all the others who have been targeted, the only thing that ties us together is Bhima Koregaon.” 

Eight of the nine people targeted by the spyware are helping defend people arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case. Three of them — Rathod, Gera, and another Adivasi rights activist — were also targeted by another campaign that, according to Citizen Lab, used a program called Pegasus, a surveillance tool used by the NSO Group, to attack their WhatsApp accounts. 

Once installed, Pegasus can copy vast amounts of previously inaccessible data from smartphones — including contacts, voice calls, texts, emails, location and any data transmitted over apps including Facebook, WhatsApp and Skype. Pegasus can even turn on a phone’s camera, microphone and GPS to track a target’s location and movements.

Citizen Lab was unable to determine the extent of the breaches in both attacks and WhatsApp filed a lawsuit against the NSO Group in 2019. While the company says it does not operate any technology it provides to governments, the Modi administration has dodged questions on whether it has ever used Pegasus. 

Rathod claims that the evidence against Gadling was fabricated by the government. His suspicions were given some weight in December 2019, when the Indian magazine The Caravan reported that police may have edited files on Gadling’s devices. The publication obtained clone copies of his computers from the police. They also found that the computer of another of the accused contained malware that could be used to plant files remotely. 

For Desai, finding evidence of electronic tampering is proving difficult. He is still trying to press the courts to give him access to clone copies of the devices seized from Swamy. 

“Until the police provide clone copies of the hard disks, it is impossible to find out when and how the planting of evidence happened,” he said. 

“Dubious and manufactured evidence” 

Swamy has campaigned against the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act for many years. The legislation has been criticized for erasing presumption of innocence, allowing the state to unilaterally declare anyone arrested a terrorist and incarcerate them without trial or bail. 

In 2019, India had 5,134 active cases under the law and the number of people being detained is rising every year. Critics claim the legislation has often been used to target religious minorities and marginalized communities, including Adivasis. A 2015 research paper by Swamy found that over 3,000 Adivasis have been falsely accused of being Maoists and are imprisoned in Jharkhand under the UAPA, or similar laws. Swamy is currently suing the state of Jharkhand over delays to those trials. 

In the video he posted before his arrest, Swamy linked his pro-Adivasi work to his arrest. “This became a bone of contention with the state and they want to put me out of the way. And one easy way was to implicate me in some serious cases,” he said.  

The historian and writer Ramachandra Guha believes that the Bhima Koregaon case can be characterized by the abuse of power by the state. “The Bhima Koregaon case rests on dubious and manufactured evidence and is an extreme example of the ruling party abusing the power of the state to persecute its critics,” he said, via email.

“It adversely affects the rights of Adivasis, Dalits, Muslims, as well as of independent writers, journalists and civil society activists of all backgrounds.”

Meanwhile, lawyers involved in the case fear they are still being surveilled.

“I assume that my mobile phone is tapped,” said Desai. “With the present government, anybody in my line of work— human rights that is — would assume it.” 

Health and Parkinson’s 

When Adivasi activist Dayamani Barla first met Swamy in Ranchi 20 years ago, she noticed his involuntary tremors. 

“He was holding a glass of water but his hands shook so much that it wouldn’t reach his mouth,” she said.

Those movements are caused by Parkinson’s disease. 

His detention has united thousands of prominent Indians to push for his release. Immediately after Swamy’s arrest, a group of 2,000 scholars and activists signed a statement calling for his release. Recently, several high-profile individuals, including UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, member of parliament Shashi Tharoor and Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren have made similar appeals

The courts have rejected bail applications from all of the accused, including Swamy, multiple times. Right-wing Hindu nationalists have described Swamy and his 15 co-accused and their educated supporters as “invisible enemies” of India. 

Desai spoke to Swamy by telephone in mid-November. “Stan said he was doing ok but he didn’t sound very well. Stan is a bold man; he was trying to sound bold.” 

In a handwritten letter to his friends in January to mark 100 days in prison, Swamy expressed gratitude for the public goodwill he has received. “At times, news of such solidarity has given me immense strength and courage, especially when the only thing certain in prison is uncertainty,” he said.

The story you just read is a small piece of a complex and an ever-changing storyline we are following as part of our coverage. These overarching storylines — whether the disinformation campaigns that are feeding the war on truth or the new technologies strengthening the growing authoritarianism, are the crises that Coda covers relentlessly and with singular focus. But we can’t do it without your help. Support journalism that stays on the story. Coda Story is a 501(c)3 U.S non-profit. Your contribution to Coda Story is tax deductible.

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Monica Jha

Monica Jha is an independent journalist based in Bangalore, India. She writes about marginalization, gender, and technology.