Jaison Cooper is a Malayali social activist, actively involved with Janakiya Manushyavakasha Prasthanam, roughly translated as People’s Human Rights Front. In 2015, he got arrested by the then Congress-led govt in Kerala under a UAPA case and was later released on bail. The case is still going on in Ernakulam sessions court. On May first week, Jaison got a call from The Wire office. They informed him that his phone number was among the leaked database of phone numbers listed as potential targets in an Israeli spyware Pegasus attack, reportedly commissioned by the Indian government. They told him that his phone might be affected by Pegasus, a malware that allows a hacker to access and control a phone.
On 2 August, Maktoob interviewed him.
How did you get to know that your phone was targeted under the Pegasus attack?
Ans: Around May second week, I got a call from the Wire Delhi office through the signal app saying that they got a list of phone numbers in India which were being snooped with the help of Israeli spy software, Pegasus. And being listed in it, they called to verify and to inform me about the attack.
Suspecting the Union government’s involvement in the snooping, they informed me that my phone was being tapped continuously for at least a year. And that a team of journalists and forensic experts are investigating the case and soon the findings will be made public.
Therefore they kept me in the loop and contacted me frequently. My phone was asked for a forensic test. But then, I had changed my phone a few days ago as the old one was dead. Therefore, I could not give the old phone for forensic analysis to confirm the snooping.
During this one-year period of using the old phone did you ever suspect anything suspicious on your phone due to pegasus?
Ans: No, I never noticed anything suspicious. Even though I am aware of the fact that smartphones are being used as a surveillance tool by the state, I am not an expert on technology so I didn’t notice anything suspicious. But daily we read about cyber hacking and state surveillance. So I was sure that almost all of us are under surveillance.
You are the only activist in Kerala who was targeted in the Pegasus attack. What might be the reason?
Ans: I am sure more people are targeted. Only 300 names have been confirmed so far. More activists, journalists, and academicians might be subjected to such spyware attacks. Only Pegasus got exposed. There might be several other spying and surveillance programs by the state which are still yet to be exposed.
The Wire article suggests that you were targeted because of your relationship with the Bhima Koregaon accused and Dalit intellectual, Anand Teltumbde. Can you tell me about your relationship with Teltumbde?
Ans: Teltumbde is a renowned public intellectual and human rights, activist. He had cooperated for many initiatives with Janakiya Manushyavakasa Prasthanam, the organisation that I am actively part of.
Every time he visited Kerala for any anti-caste and human rights campaigns, I used to go and meet him. Janakiya Manushyavakasa Prasthanam is part of the coordination of rights organisations in the country. And Teltumbde is also a member of the coordination.
I follow his anti-caste writings. But I don’t think that might be the sole reason for state surveillance. Janakiya Manushyavaksha Prasthanam, roughly translated as People’s Human Rights Forum, has been consistently campaigning for political prisoners and intervening in human rights violations in Kerala for the past several years. As a reason, our organisation was constantly targeted by the state.
Previously, along with other members, I too was earlier slapped with UAPA cases. The Kerala state government imposed UAPA on me, advocate Tushar Nirmal Sarathi, CP Rasheed and Hari. Four of us were involved in Janakiya Manushyavakasha Prasthanam. Even if we got bail, the case is still going on.
Can you brief me more about the activities of Janakiya Manushyavakasha Prasthanam?
Ans: As I said earlier, we used to actively campaign against UAPA and also intervene in human rights violations, police atrocities, State repression in Kerala. We once organised a strike to repeal UAPA in front of the secretariat.
Back in September 2009, following the murder of a 60-year old upper-caste man Shivaprasad, police had unleashed a series of atrocities in Dalit colonies in Varkala in Thiruvananthapuram.
However, Dalit Human Rights Movement (DHRM) activists were accused of murder. Following the accusation, police raided Dalit homes, thrashed innocents, and fabricated a false narrative with the help of mainstream media that Dalit terrorism was on the rise in Kerala. What more, many police officials and administrators supported the claim and carried out a campaign to vilify those dissenting Dalits.
Unfortunately, even some Dalit identity-politics intellectuals fell into the trap and took the state’s side believing their version. They even wrote articles denouncing DHRM’s activities. That is when Janakiya Manushyavakasa Prasthanam took the initiative to form a fact-finding team by collaborating with other rights organisations and activists. Through our ground research, we managed to break the police narrative by exposing the police brutalities and violations.
Apart from this, our organisation has been actively advocating for the rights of political prisoners in Kerala. Many undertrial prisoners are languishing in Kerala jails under draconian laws. We also stood actively in environmental issues. We collaborated with the locals in Kerala’s Chellanam, a coastal area that is constantly under the threat of sea erosion and flood, to form a people’s committee to demand a permanent solution to the issue.
The government, instead of solving the issue, was interested in displacing the residents through its rehabilitation schemes. All these interventions are against the capitalist interest of the state and corporations. So we are considered a threat and therefore under state surveillance.
You mentioned that a UAPA was slapped against you and your comrade advocate Tushar? Can you tell me more about the case?
Ans: I was jailed by the then Kerala government, ruled by Congress-led UDF, for 50 days in 2015 along with JMP secretary Tushar in a UAPA case. The police alleged that we were Urban Maoists, and arrested me by breaching all those procedures they had to follow while arresting a government employee. They treated me as a criminal. Tushar was arrested from Calicut Press Club on his way back after completing a press meet.
Following a social media campaign demanding our release, we got bail in the case. Even after six years, the case is still going on in the Ernakulam session court. We are still being treated as UAPA convicts and under surveillance since 2015.
We even need permission from the trial court to travel outside the state. Even if the government and political leaders say that they are against UAPA, many people are getting arrested in UAPA cases.
You mentioned that you were under surveillance for the last five years. What is your take on the state surveillance mechanism?
Ans: Pegasus is just the tip of an iceberg. I assume that most of the citizen’s phones are illegally being taped by the authorities. Unfortunately, the advancement in technology is resulting in the shrinking of democratic spaces.
Advanced technologies are used to centralise power by the authorities. Technological tools are being used rampantly to surveil and hunt the citizens. The policing and student police concept are in a way turning every citizen into spies.
Everybody is observing one or another. The people who led or actively participated in people’s movements are being put under the radar and all of their movements and action got observed by the intelligence.
8.Although CPM and many of its senior leaders had taken a strong stand against UAPA, the law is being widely used by the CPM-led LDF government to incarcerate political activists and radical left activists. What is your comment on this tendency?
Ans: Although CPM had criticised draconian laws such as UAPA, the CPM-led government supported the recent amendments made to the law. In Kerala, people are getting arrested under UAPA for pasting posters, reading political literature, and distributing pamphlets. The main accusation against Allan and Thaha, student activists, were they pasted posters calling to boycott elections. Both of them got arrested under UAPA for committing this offense. Most of the cases in Kerala, registered under UAPA, are for such small offenses.
None of them was arrested for murder or violence. Instead of those sugar-coated words, CPM must show its political will by reconsidering the UAPA in cases registered by the Kerala Police.
Have you been subjected to surveillance before? Did you have any such experiences?
I can recollect an incident that happened two years after my UAPA case. I went to meet my friend and during the conversation, I asked about a mutual friend. I asked the friend to let the other friend know that I would like to meet him. On the next day, I got a call from this mutual friend asking if it was an emergency to meet.
Two months later, when I met this mutual friend he told me that two hours after he talked to me he got a call from intelligence. They told him that Cooper is under observation and they asked about our friendship. They told him that the call seemed suspicious. Many of our friends had told us that they were interrogated by the police asking to clarify their relationship with us.
Even in Kerala, police are widely tapping our phone calls. Surveillance is the policy of the Indian state. Be it left, right, or centre, all of them rely on technology to spy upon their own people. Any political parties, operating under the parliamentary system, have no option but to participate in it.
Are you planning to challenge the Pegasus attack legally?
Already some who were subjected to the attack had moved to the Court. The Arsenal Consulting report had clearly revealed that evidence was planted on the accused Rona Wilson’s and Surendra Gadling’s computer. It shows that it is a fabricated case.
Unfortunately, the Court had not considered it. It is an irony that our last resort of justice courts which reportedly had assisted or legitimized many fascist behaviors. If we file a case, there is a chance of backfiring too. We might be prosecuted. I am still studying the possibilities of challenging it legally. Will proceed further if needed.
Such surveillance tendencies can only be challenged through people’s resistance. People need to come out and question such violations. Our tax money is used by the government to snoop upon their political opponents. Only people’s resistance can counter the surveillance mechanism by the security state.