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Political Briefing | Hard to escape the (Nepali) surveillance state

Biswas Baral

Biswas Baral

Political Briefing | Hard to escape the (Nepali) surveillance state

Nepali VVIPs’ phones have long been snooped on. The cat came out of the bag during Lokman Singh Karki’s tenure as CIAA chief

I recall a year-old conversation with a reporter with a Nepali daily who covers security issues. He had just come back from the National Investigation Department under the Prime Minister’s Office. There, as I was told, an official of his acquaintance sat him down and after a few taps on his computer keyboard proceeded to tell the astounded reporter about his personal life, things like his education qualifications, the details of his immediate relatives, the location of his residence, his work history, and all his phone numbers. Had they also recorded his calls? That, he was not told.

Back at our meeting place, the exasperated reporter asked: “Imagine the kind of details they must have on VIPs and VVIPs if an ordinary reporter like me is so closely tracked!”

I was reminded of the conversation by the latest scandal around Pegasus, the Israeli spyware that can be surreptitiously installed in cell phones. Its Israeli developer, NSO Group, had apparently sold the software to many governments, including Narendra Modi’s. Among the Modi government’s targets were resident ambassadors in New Delhi, from China, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia—and Nepal.

The spyware’s presence on the cell phone of Nilambar Acharya, the Nepali envoy to India, indicates the mistrust that has developed between the two countries since the promulgation of the constitution in 2015. This mistrust reached new heights when then-Prime Minister KP Oli in May 2020 issued a new map incorporating the disputed territories of Kalapani. Although the relationship was beginning to thaw in the latter stages of Oli’s premiership, things are far from hunky-dory, as the Indian prime minister still refuses to accept the final Eminent Persons’ Group (EPG) report.

The Pegasus revelations also make me wonder, again in light of the above conversation with the security reporter, about the extent of phone tapping in Nepal.

Big Kathmandu-based embassies—the US, China and India—are widely suspected to be running their own intelligence programs to keep tabs on vital Nepali actors. All three embassies closely monitor the press—who writes and says what—and send detailed reports back to their capitals. Each has a list of people working for and against their interests, often prepared on flimsy grounds. As the geopolitical rivalry between them heats up, it wouldn’t at all be surprising if they have also upped their spy games in Nepal.

The best evidence of the US surveillance mechanism are perhaps the detailed cables the American embassy routinely sends to Washington, many of which are now publicly available on Wikileaks. The Indian Embassy has time and again released compromising audio recordings of Nepali communist leaders, most famously of Maoist leader Krishna Bahadur Mahara asking for money from his Chinese contact to ‘buy Nepali MPs’.

Before that, Prachanda had found himself in trouble over the Shaktikhor tapes (again courtesy the Indian Embassy) where he can be heard boasting about hoodwinking UNMIN. It would also be surprising if the Chinese, the world leaders in 5G, didn’t snoop around in Kathmandu, to keep Uncle Sam honest, if nothing else. Others may be in it too.

A new parliamentary bill aims to legalize tapping of phones under the garb of ‘national interest’. But phones of Nepali VVIPs have long been snooped on. The cat came out of the bag during the tenure of Lokman Singh Karki as the CIAA chief, when he started brazenly tapping the phones of his critics.

Even PM Oli, during his latest stint, dropped hints that he was privy to the phone conversations of his political opponents. At a time when Google knows more about us than we know about ourselves, perhaps we can all stop pretending that we can lead neatly siloed private lives anymore.