India struggles to deny plot to kill Sikh secessionists

Shougat Dasgupta

 

On December 10, Arindam Bagchi, the frequently blunt spokesperson of India’s Ministry of External Affairs, perhaps disgruntled by the need to work on a Sunday, posted a bad-tempered official response to allegations published on news website The Intercept. Reporters Murtaza Hussain and Ryan Grim said that a leaked memo provided evidence that Indian intelligence services were cracking down on Sikh separatists living in North America. Among the dissidents listed in the memo, supposedly written in April, was Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Canadian citizen who was murdered in Vancouver in June.

Such reports, thundered the Ministry of External Affairs, “are fake and completely fabricated.” If a tweet can be described as frothing at the mouth, this one surely was. “This is part of a sustained disinformation campaign against India,” the ministry’s statement read. “The outlet in question is known for propagating fake narratives peddled by Pakistani intelligence.” While the Ministry of External Affairs did not clarify the basis for its claim, it could have been referring to a report in The Intercept last month that alleged, based on leaked documents from Pakistani intelligence,  that India’s Research and Analysis Wing (roughly equivalent to the CIA) were “planning assassinations targeting Sikh and Kashmiri activists living in foreign countries.”

By attempting to foment conspiracy theories about “fake narratives peddled by Pakistani intelligence” and anti-India disinformation campaigns, the Indian government leaves itself open to suggestions that it is throwing stones from a glass house.  

In September, Justin Trudeau, the prime minister of Canada, directly accused the Indian government of being involved in Nijjar’s assassination, adding that such extrajudicial killings on foreign soil were “contrary to the fundamental rules by which free, open and democratic societies conduct themselves.” The Indian government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, reacted to Trudeau’s claims with outrage and contempt, calling them “absurd,” accusing Canada of sheltering terrorists and alleging that the Canadian leader was acting out of political desperation, seeking to ingratiate himself with the influential Sikh diaspora.

Canada’s Western allies initially appeared to distance themselves from Trudeau, and analysts in the Modi-friendly Indian media began to crow that this lack of support was indicative of India’s growing global clout. But on November 29, United States prosecutors revealed that an unnamed Indian government official was connected to a bid to assassinate a Sikh separatist leader in New York City.

India has promised a high-level investigation into the plot laid out in the U.S. prosecutors’ indictment. Speaking to the Canadian press this week, Trudeau, perhaps feeling vindicated, said that “too many Canadians were worried that they were vulnerable.” And that “all the quiet diplomacy” had to be bolstered by a “further level of deterrence” that “put a chill on them continuing or considering doing anything like this.”

Bagchi, India’s Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson, responded to the U.S. indictment by saying such a plot was “contrary to government policy.” His statement qualified as a “non-denial,” according to Sushant Singh, an Indian Army veteran, journalist, writer and current visiting lecturer at Yale University. It may not be government policy, Singh said, quoting a character from the 1980s British political satire “Yes Minister,” but “it appears to be government practice.”

The specter of Sikh separatism has been repeatedly raised during Modi’s nine years in office, particularly in his second five-year term, which began in 2019. A movement for a separate Sikh homeland, named Khalistan, reached its peak in the 1980s and early 1990s; its embers still glow in Western countries where there is a substantial Sikh diaspora. In March and April, the Indian media was captivated by the story of radical Sikh preacher Amritpal Singh who, wanted on charges of attempted murder, evaded the Punjab police for 35 days. He was, the police said, a Pakistani intelligence plant with links to the global Khalistan movement. 

For decades, that movement has been dormant. The calls for Khalistan, a state that could potentially straddle areas in both India and Pakistan, now seem fanciful and the security threat posed to India’s sovereignty negligible, but evoking Sikh separatism plays well for Modi domestically, Singh argued. “The government likes to appear strong in its response to ‘anti-India’ forces,” he told me. Modi’s Hindu nationalist supporters are eager to believe that India is no longer a soft touch, but a country that takes its enemies on, wherever they may be, including the West. As Singh points out though, only Russian President Vladimir Putin has been proven to assassinate his critics in Western capitals — company that Modi, given his growing closeness to Western leaders keen to position India as a rival to China, might want to avoid. Western governments will also look askance at a partner in India that is willing to sow discord and exacerbate ethnic and religious tensions among diasporic communities living in allied nations. 

In India, with elections looming in 2024, Modi will continue to promote himself as the only leader in independent India’s history strong enough to defend the country’s national interests and security, strong enough to confront not only Pakistan but also China and the West, if necessary. It appears that the Modi government is willing to burn diplomatic bridges in the service of a parochial, internally focused agenda. According to Singh, it is this possible use of “sensitive intelligence operations for domestic political propaganda that is the most dangerous aspect of the whole saga.” 

Disinformation about Khalistani activism was especially ramped up after farmers in Punjab proved to be the most obdurate opposition that Modi has faced in his two terms in office. The so-called farmers’ protests, which lasted through 2020 and 2021, put Modi on the back foot, forcing his government to repeal legislation as pictures were broadcast across the world of protests in Delhi. It was a rare moment of weakness in the face of determined domestic opposition. In 2021, India’s attorney general even argued before the Supreme Court that “Khalistani elements” had “infiltrated” the farmers’ protests. 

Now, India waits to find out if a court case in New York can show that politically motivated disinformation by the Indian government has tipped over into politically motivated assassination.

Free speech absolutists come for Ireland

Rocked by scenes of violent disorder in Dublin on November 23, after rumors spread that a man who had stabbed three schoolchildren and a teacher’s aide was living in the country illegally, the Irish government said it would fast-track proposed new hate speech laws. “I think it’s now very obvious to anyone who might have doubted us,” said Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, “that our incitement to hatred legislation is just not up to date. It’s not up to date for the social media age.” It turned out that the attacker was an immigrant but had lived in Ireland for a couple of decades and was a naturalized Irish citizen. Platforms, like X and TikTok, refused to accept blame for the disinformation being disseminated about the stabbings. In fact, X owner Elon Musk was quick to respond to Varadkar’s talk of new hate speech legislation in the wake of the riots by tweeting provocatively: “Ironically, the Irish PM hates the Irish people.”

Conservatives, particularly in the U.S., have expressed concern about the new Irish laws, even though implementation will be delayed until some time next year. “I urge your government to consider the impact of this legislation on Ireland’s proud tradition of free speech,” wrote Republican Senator J.D. Vance to Geraldine Byrne Nason, the Irish ambassador to the U.S. And writing in Newsweek, Kristen Waggoner, the president of the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian advocacy group, argued that it was “not hard to imagine Ireland rapidly descending into an authoritarian state with the passage of this law.”

A couple of newsletters ago, I pointed to the research of Eileen Culloty, a professor at Dublin City University, whose work has documented the exponential growth of  disinformation in Ireland since the pandemic and the close ties that it has to disinformation trends in the U.S. and the U.K. “There is,” she told me over the phone last week, “a disconnect between American ideals of free speech and how free speech is understood in Europe.” In Europe, she said, free speech is a “fundamental, not absolute right.”

Musk, she added, is a self-declared free speech absolutist “and goes further than the First Amendment.” The influence on public conversation in Ireland, the evidence suggests, is pernicious. Culloty argued that governments should renew their commitment to funding media that reports in the public interest as a counter to the disinformation that is rife on Big Tech platforms. But publicly funded media is a model, she acknowledged, that is “attacked and undermined by conservative governments” and increasingly lacks authority.   

WHAT WE’RE READING:

  • The Indian government has frequently alleged that it is the target of a disinformation campaign undertaken by a comically wide range of enemies, from Pakistan and Chinese intelligence services and the billionaire philanthropist George Soros to lawyers, journalists, writers and academics who are classified as not just ideological opponents but seditionists. So it was with a sense of grim irony that I read The Washington Post’s investigation into “Disinfo Lab.” According to the Post, the website is a “covert influence operation” run by Indian intelligence to spread the Modi government’s talking points and propaganda.
  • Early this year, the Indian government declared a two-part BBC documentary about Narendra Modi to be “hostile propaganda” and “anti-India garbage.” But has the BBC, or at least its Hindi service, been brought to heel by the government? “Our stories are not different from any other Indian media house,” a BBC journalist tells Indian magazine The Caravan. “We are forced to operate like them — majoritarian ideological bent and all.

Disinfo Matters looks beyond fake news to examine how the manipulation of narratives and rewriting of history is reshaping our world.