The assassination of a Canadian Sikh citizen – allegedly at the behest of the Narendra Modi government – and its alleged plot to kill an American Sikh citizen are sending shock waves across the Sikh community and the larger Indian diaspora. Many believe that these two instances are merely the tip of the iceberg in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s plan to silence critics abroad, which now includes frontal attacks on Hindus for Human Rights (HfHR).
We’re glad that several US lawmakers recognise the seriousness of the situation and are beginning to question President Biden’s cozy and unconditional relationship with Modi.
This was evident at the recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing titled, ‘Transnational Repression: Authoritarians Targeting Dissenters Abroad,’ where several senators brought up their concerns about the transgressions of the Modi regime.
Also, in an unprecedented move, five Indian-American lawmakers came together for the first time to issue a joint statement expressing their concerns about the plot to assassinate an American Sikh citizen.
Unfortunately, there are disturbing signs that the Biden administration, anxious to put bilateral relations back on the rail, may be ready to settle for a mere promise by the Modi government to investigate the foiled plot – which will, in all probability, result in finding scapegoats and absolving the government of all responsibility.
That would send a terrible signal to activists who have been speaking out against the Modi regime’s systematic violations of human rights and religious freedom. Without a public demand by the US administration that the Indian government stop targeting US citizens, its long arm will continue to reach across the seas to punish its critics, by any means necessary.
Many activists are now compelled to ask, “Are we next on Modi’s target list?” and “Will the Biden administration care two hoots about us if we’re targeted by the Modi government on American soil?”PlayNextUnmute
Disinfo Lab: Major enabler of transnational repression
A lot of the attacks on HfHR by the Modi government and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are fuelled by reports published by the Twitter handle ‘Disinfo Lab’ (DL) – not to be confused with EU Disinfo Lab – which was the subject of a detailed exposé in the Washington Post recently.
HfHR had hitherto steered clear of DL’s so-called dossiers, which are mostly personal attacks dressed up as investigative journalism. Neither did we have any reason to take DL’s social media attacks seriously. And, we had brushed off DL’s elaborate flow charts purporting to prove non-existent conspiracies as the work of a fringe group crying out for attention.
So it was a wake-up call for us when Smriti Irani, a senior minister in the Modi government, went on India’s national TV in June 2023 to embellish and broadcast DL’s claim that Sunita Viswanath, our executive director, was part of an international conspiracy with Rahul Gandhi and George Soros to “destroy India.” It is only then that it dawned on us that DL is more than a fringe group and has many blind followers (andh bakhts) among India’s political elite and Modi supporters.
That’s it? It’s astonishing that the BJP would uncritically broadcast such an outrageous theory that has put Sunita, me, and many others in harm’s way.
Following Irani’s attacks on Sunita, the BJP has repeatedly tweeted false claims about her, in a Goebbelsian attempt to make her and HfHR an example in its plan to shut down dissent. Besides increased trolling that have followed these attacks on us, they have resulted in something even more insidious: close family members and friends are beginning to wonder if the stories about us and HfHR are true?
The imminent danger of Disinfo Lab’s fake conspiracy theories hit home in mid-October, when our Twitter account, as well as that of the Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC), were blocked in India, citing violations of the Information Technology Act, but without any explanation of how and when we had violated that Act. Requests for details from the Indian government as well as from Twitter have elicited no response.
The fact of the matter is that Section 69 of the IT Act allows the government to block information on the internet that impinge on the “sovereignty or integrity of India, defence of India, security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States or public order,” but there is no provision in the Act to allow the government to block information merely deemed to be critical of its policies.
We’re challenging the block in Indian courts and hope to be back on Twitter, soon.
Why would the mighty Indian government target a small diaspora organisation such as ours, with just four full time staff and no more than 30,000 regular followers across the world? Does it honestly believe that we’re a threat to national security and public order? Or is it fearful that our bold message as progressive Hindus – that many of the policies of the Modi government are against the very spirit of Hinduism and are “ani-Hindu” – is starting to resonate with ordinary Hindus?
The danger of the BJP’s public attacks on us became even more personal to me on December 3rd, when I found this abusive and threatening email in my Inbox. Calling me a “traitor to the Hindu cause,” the attacker not only outed my street address (redacted here) but also issued an implied threat to my safety. The FBI and the local police are currently investigating.
Disinfo Lab’s response to Washington Post
On December 11, the Disinfo Lab tweeted a long response to WaPo’s revelations, which can only be described as an ad-hominem attack on the newspaper, rather than credible rejoinders to the core allegations in its exposé.
For example, responding to the detailed coverage of attacks on Sunita, Disinfo Lab tweeted:
We find this response hugely problematic at several levels.
The fact that George Soros’ Open Society Foundation (OSF) had years ago funded Women for Afghan Women (WAW), cofounded by Sunita, has been a matter of public record and needed no “digging.”
WAW was dedicated to education of girls in Afghanistan, a society stymied by conservative views on women and the influence of the Taliban. She was recognised by President Obama as a ‘Champion of Change’ for her courageous work in Afghanistan as well as for her work in Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus, which she had cofounded. When the Taliban came back to power in 2022, she risked travelling to Afghanistan to plead with the rulers to allow girls to go back to school. Unfortunately, despite impassioned pleas from her and others, Afghan girls remain at home.
The fact that the OSF chose to fund such an important cause, at a time when most funders were afraid of getting involved in a war zone, should be a matter of celebration, not boorish attacks. As I see it, a bit more honest “digging” by Disinfo Lab would have shown that the OSF has a record of supporting pro-democracy initiatives in many parts of the world. One among them that I am personally familiar with is Malaysiakini, the only news portal in Muslim-majority Malaysia that does not toe the party line and is unafraid to defend the rights of minority Hindus.
Disinfo Lab may have very well succeeded in convincing itself and Modi acolytes that Soros is bent on destroying democracies. But OSF’s long record of giving tells a very different story.
In a similar vein, convincing Modi acolytes that the IAMC has terror links must have been quite easy given that those obsessed with Pakistan and ISI – including Disinfo Lab’s founder, Lt Col. Dibya Satpathy – are willing to believe just about anything negative about a Muslim organisation, no questions asked. A very low bar indeed for those whose very foundations are built on Islamophobia.
Rahul Gandhi ‘joins’ Disinfo Lab’s conspiracy theory
How and when did Rahul suddenly become a part of Disinfo Lab and Bharatiya Janata Party’s ‘Sunita-IAMC-Soros’ fake conspiracy theory?
As best as I can tell, it was triggered by a photograph of Sunita sitting close to Rahul during his appearance at a Washington think tank event. Even though there were more than 60 people in the room, the BJP’s IT cell mischievously broadcast the selective photo of Sunita and Rahul as evidence of a meeting between them to conspire against India. That very photograph was brandished later on Indian national TV by Irani as proof of a Rahul-Soros-Sunita conspiracy!
So here in a nutshell is Disinfo Lab’s theory: OSF funding for Sunita’s Afghan women’s organisation “proves” that she’s a “close associate” of George Soros. HfHR’s partnership with IAMC “proves” that Sunita has “deep connections with anti-India Islamist forces.” A photograph of her sitting next to Rahul in a large meeting “proves” that she was conspiring with him to “destroy” India!
It’s astonishing that the BJP would uncritically broadcast such a malevolent conspiracy theory that has put Sunita, me, and many others in harm’s way.
Long before the attacks on HfHR by the BJP, proxies of the Indian government in the diaspora have been actively harassing those of us who have been critical of the Modi government. We have been subjected to incessant social media attacks, disrupted meetings, attacks in our academic conferences, and even death and rape threats. Some of these proxies have also been amplifying and supporting the work of DL.
The Hindu American Foundation (HAF) has been at the forefront of such efforts. Its highlight was a SLAPP lawsuit filed against Sunita, me, and three others, who were accused of conspiring to defame HAF, for merely – and independently – opining against the emergency COVID-19 funding received by Hindu nationalist groups. The lawsuit was thrown out by the judge as lacking any merit, but not before the HAF had spent several hundred thousand dollars in legal fees.
Not surprisingly, the HAF was also the first group to come to Disinfo Lab’s defence following the WaPo story, confirming for me that the BJP’s proxies in the diaspora are every bit as guilty as the BJP itself in their efforts to shut down dissent overseas.
I strongly believe that the Modi government has done itself a great disservice by signalling that it is ready to go to any lengths to silence anyone in the diaspora who’s unafraid to speak the ugly truth about Modi’s authoritarian rule.
But HfHR is not deterred in the least and will continue to speak truth to power and make a case for saving Indian democracy. Our support base is already expanding since the Irani attack, and our young team of warriors is energized and is ready to welcome the new year by rededicating ourselves to the task of speaking up for the oppressed all across the world.
We can only hope that our work will speak for itself and we will reach ever wider audiences in America and will in turn make the Biden administration see the light about its faulty India policy.
The hard truth is that Modi, aided by propaganda groups like the Disinfo Lab, do not need any external enemies to destroy Indian democracy. They are doing a pretty good job of it already. As we enter the new year, it’s our earnest hope that the majority of Hindus in India will wake up to the imminent danger of the Modi rule to India and to Hinduism itself before it’s too late.
Republished from The Wire.