The EU DisinfoLab, an NGO working on investigations related to disinformation campaigns targeting EU member states has released a 90-page long report, which provides details of an international network consisting of 265 fake media outlets, multiple dubious think tanks and NGOs, supported and funded by pro-Indian entities and are working to undermine Pakistan’s interests and its image at the global level. The investigations labelled as the “Indian Chronicles” uncovered massive Indian sponsored operation which targeted international institutions and served Indian interests by resurrecting dead media, think tanks, NGOs and even dead people by using their names and identities to give legitimacy to the fake stories that were subsequently circulated through mainstream Indian media outlets to give more legitimacy.
India’s efforts to shape international opinion and use every possible mean to discredit its adversaries is a result of the growing influence of conservative and nationalist ideology emanating from Hindutva, which is based on centralized and intolerant Hinduism, and could be described as the neo-Hinduism. Promoted by organizations called Sangh Parivar comprising of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), neo-Hinduism emphasizes on religious extremism and advocates for a ‘pure’ Hindu nation that is devoid of other religions.
Due to its growing importance for several western major powers, India feels more emboldened to indulge in illicit disinformation operations and even intervene in the election campaigns of other countries. PM Modi’s support for Trump’s re-election in a rally that was attended by 50,000 members of the Indian diaspora in Houston in Sep 2020, was seen as one such blatant interference in the US presidential elections. The BJP supporters have also been accused of influencing the elections in the UK where India has a large diaspora that was mobilized by suspicious entities against the Labour party and its candidates for their anti-India stance and taking a principled position on the Kashmir issue.
India’s obsession to discredit Pakistan at the international level by using dubious sources of funding is a well-known fact, but most countries remain reluctant to intervene and stop these illicit activities to avoid angering India. More recently, 44 Indian banks were identified for Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) by the US and reported to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN). These banks were allegedly laundering money that may have been used for India’s covert disinformation campaigns and operations that are aimed to destabilize other countries. The likelihood of international financial institutions, like the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) taking punitive measures against India, nevertheless, is remote due to India’s political and economic clout in such institutions.
Indian diaspora living abroad also plays a key role in shaping public opinion in various western capitals and some of the major Arab countries. Almost all major international think tanks have scholars of Indian origin, who are engaged to provide input on South Asian issues from the Indian perspective. Several well-reputed universities have dedicated India Institutes or South Asian study centres that are either headed by Indian origin academics or western scholars with visible leaning towards India.
These entities are used as a base to sponsor promising Indian students to pursue higher education and join the western stream of think tanks. Funded and supported by entities associated with the Indian government these institutes are engaged for commissioned studies and book projects with associated perks and privileges and generous funding offers. As the EU DisinfoLab report has revealed, several scholars and lawmakers are often willing to lend their names to the articles in return for monetary benefits or support by the Indian diaspora. These articles are then published at dubious sources and later given wide circulation by the mainstream Indian media.
Some of the institutes focussing on South Asia located at very reputable international universities are also engaged by the foreign governments to give lectures and organize courses for their diplomats and government officials working on South Asia desks or are designated to take on diplomatic assignments as part of their career. These courses and engagements play an important part in shaping pro-India narrative amongst the future policymakers in these countries.
According to the recent EU report, several fake think tanks are operating in various capitals. Some of these that are located in London, Washington, Brussels, and Geneva are operating without proper office spaces, but manage to organize activities by receiving funds from suspicious sources, which leaves little doubt about the intent and purpose of such think tanks. These platforms are often made accessible to several anti-Pakistan elements and other academic mercenaries to spread disinformation. Most of these entities are working with the full knowledge of western governments but no serious effort is being made to prevent such illicit practices.
India’s anti-Pakistan obsession is deep-seated and is unlikely to recede in the foreseeable future, especially under the current wave of militant nationalism that is promoted by the BJP leadership. The next generation of politicians who are slated to take over the party is more radical and vocal in their hatred towards Pakistan and hold it responsible for every problem that India faces today. India is in the mid of serious domestic unrest as a result of a controversial bill that has forced the Indian farmers to march towards Delhi, but some Indian ministers have accused Pakistan of inciting this unrest.
Instead of restraining India, the western powers seem to be accepting India’s drift towards extremism. More recently, some of the foreign diplomats posted in New Delhi were seen visiting the BJP headquarters and meeting the RSS leadership. This normalization of relations with extremist organizations accused of inciting anti-Muslim hatred and openly preaching Hindutva reflects the growing influence of these entities in India’s pollical decision making.
The growing tide of militant nationalism in India hasn’t spared the military either, which had always taken pride in its secular traditions and of being apolitical. The current Chief of Defense Staff (CDS) Bipin Rawat, in a show of solidarity, opted to attend a college function presided over by BJP’s vocal anti-Muslim Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh Yogi Adityanath instead of participating in an annual Navy Day function. CM Yogi, who is also the founder of Hindu Yuva Vahini, an organization that faces allegations and police charges for its involvement in communal riots. Sharing a stage with a controversial personality is against the military norms and ethics, but sensing the new direction that India has taken the senior military leadership considers it useful to maintain good relations with the BJP and its militant wing RSS for their promotions and post-retirement benefits, which according to Lt Gen H S Panag, needs a course correction and the senior leadership must “set an example for the rank and file, which is being seduced by neo-nationalism.”
India with the world’s second-largest army once radicalized by the RSS ideology could become a danger for India’s existence as well as for the region. The growing turmoil within India owing to its suppressive policies against the Muslims and Sikhs indicate that India is not at peace with itself. Instead of blaming its neighbours and wasting substantial money and resources on creating false narratives about itself and its neighbours, India needs a serious course correction. This nevertheless is unlikely under the current wave of neo-Hinduism that is being promoted by the next breed of RSS.