Covert Indian operation seeks to discredit Modi’s critics within the U.S. | EUROtoday

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(Illustration by Shubhadeep Mukherjee for The Washington Post; J. Scott Applewhite/AP; Simon Dawson/Bloomberg News/Getty Images; mbell/Getty Images)

NEW DELHI — Since 2020, an opaque group calling itself the Disinfo Lab has revealed prolonged dossiers and social media posts claiming to disclose the private relationships and funding sources behind U.S.-based critics of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The Disinfo Lab has mixed fact-based analysis with unsubstantiated claims to color U.S. authorities figures, researchers, humanitarian teams and Indian American rights activists as a part of a conspiracy, purportedly led by international Islamic teams and billionaire George Soros, to undermine India.

In every occasion, these allegations have gone viral on Indian social media after they had been amplified by pro-Modi influencers, who at occasions used the group’s findings to validate their very own positions. Its experiences have been cited by Indian officers on tv and introduced on Capitol Hill. Despite its attain, the Disinfo Lab doesn’t disclose its affiliation, describing itself on its web site as a “separate legal entity” that seeks to supply “completely unbiased research.”

In actuality, nevertheless, the Disinfo Lab was arrange and is run by an Indian intelligence officer to analysis and discredit overseas critics of the Modi authorities, in accordance with three individuals who labored within the group or had been conversant in its institution. While claiming that it aimed to uncover anti-India disinformation, the Disinfo Lab itself is operating a covert affect operation, they mentioned.

The group’s materials is among the many most generally circulated by right-wing Indians and Hindu nationalists. Its experiences acquire international attain, partly as a result of they’re unfold on social media by high-profile figures with giant followings on X, beforehand generally known as Twitter, together with present and former officers in Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, former intelligence and navy brass, and a cupboard minister, in accordance with a Washington Post evaluation of practically 100,000 reposts of Disinfo Lab content material on X. While it’s unclear what number of of them, if any, are conscious of the Disinfo Lab’s intelligence ties, these high retweeters give the Disinfo Lab a stamp of authority and, a few of its targets say, increase its capacity to intimidate people abroad.

The Disinfo Lab’s actions present how the net propaganda campaigns waged by the BJP and its allies have been increasing past their conventional, home goals of shoring up widespread assist and denigrating opposition events — and now search to affect attitudes far past India’s borders. Moreover, the group’s ties to an Indian intelligence officer may blur the road historically noticed by the nation’s safety equipment between operations that serve the strategic pursuits of India and those who advance the political targets of the ruling get together, analysts mentioned.

Sumit Ganguly, an knowledgeable on Indian diplomacy and nationwide safety at Indiana University at Bloomington, mentioned undermining overseas governments and their officers is “routine” work for intelligence companies all over the world. But if Indian intelligence is “besmirching American critics and civil society organizations, it would be crossing a line reminiscent of KGB tactics during the Cold War,” he mentioned. “It would be part and parcel of the Modi government’s attitude toward dissent, whether at home or abroad.”

The Disinfo Lab, which at one level consisted of a couple of dozen personal contractors figuring out of a four-story whitewashed constructing on a leafy road in New Delhi, was created in mid-2020 by Lt. Col. Dibya Satpathy, now 39, an intelligence officer who has labored to form worldwide perceptions of India, mentioned the three folks conversant in the operation. They spoke on the situation of anonymity to explain delicate intelligence actions.

Satpathy was initially commissioned as an infantry officer and served within the military’s intelligence and public data items, mentioned an individual briefed on his navy personnel document. That particular person and one other supply near the navy mentioned Satpathy was later detailed to his present posting with India’s exterior intelligence company, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). Over the years, Satpathy has launched himself to Western journalists and commentators below faux identities — together with his most well-liked alias, Shakti, that means “power” in Hindi — and sought favorable protection of India or important protection of its adversaries, Pakistan and China, in accordance with 5 extra individuals who have had contact with Satpathy.

In an emailed response to questions from The Post, the Disinfo Lab mentioned, “We are in no form associated with any govt agency, nor with any of its personnel. Nor are we associated with any other organization — Indian or International.” The group mentioned it was created by people who had met in an anti-corruption political motion and had been involved about “the massive disinformation targeted at India to sow divisions in society.”

The e mail, signed by “Disinfo Lab,” mentioned the group didn’t facet with Modi’s authorities. “We are equal opportunity exposers, even calling out the ruling party. Disinformation is our arch-nemesis, irrespective of political allegiance,” the group mentioned.

Efforts to succeed in Satpathy by way of the Disinfo Lab and individually by way of an middleman didn’t yield a response. India’s nationwide safety adviser, Ajit Doval, who helps oversee the nation’s intelligence companies, didn’t reply to a request for remark.

‘New player’ on the world stage

Over the previous 5 years, social media researchers have uncovered giant Indian on-line networks that promote the BJP’s overseas coverage positions to home and overseas audiences. Coordinated social media accounts have been discovered to play a task, for example, in spreading similar posts in assist of Russia, an necessary provider of weapons and power to India, and of Israel, an more and more shut associate.

“The Indian right wing is a new player that has arrived on the world stage and wants to shape global discussion,” mentioned Joyojeet Pal, a professor of data on the University of Michigan who research disinformation in India. “So far, much of it is done in the same way it’s done within India — through crude, blunt force. But it’s getting smarter.”

The Disinfo Lab has emerged as one of many extra subtle gamers. In 28 experiences it has revealed to this point, the group has usually painted an image of an India below assault by a sprawling “nexus” of conspirators funded by Pakistani intelligence, the Muslim Brotherhood and Soros.

The Disinfo Lab’s narrative alleges that these funds have discovered their option to Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), an Indian American and outspoken critic of Modi; Indian American activists who criticized the Modi authorities for discrimination towards Muslims and low-caste Hindus; and members of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedoms (USCIRF), a bipartisan panel that has really helpful the State Department designate India a “country of particular concern” for the Modi authorities’s therapy of Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and different minority teams.

The Disinfo Lab usually cites publicly obtainable U.S. lobbying and marketing campaign finance data and produces complicated flowcharts for instance alleged relationships. But the group attracts tenuous connections, claiming, for example, {that a} USCIRF commissioner was influenced by Islamists as a result of she as soon as labored on a conservative fundraising committee alongside a lobbyist who went on to characterize Muslim American teams.

When the Disinfo Lab launched its first main report, in early 2021, it created a template for the type of assaults that might be repeated within the coming years. The group launched a file practically 100 pages lengthy alleging that Pieter Friedrich, a California-based activist and journalist who has written journal articles and given public speeches important of the BJP and affiliated Hindu-nationalist teams, had ties to the Sikh separatist motion and Pakistan’s premier intelligence company. The Disinfo Lab burrowed into California state data to uncover Friedrich’s employment historical past, revealed his mother and father’ names and plotted detailed graphs about his social media exercise.

A distinguished Indian official amongst others unfold the file on Twitter, amplifying the allegations. Police officers in New Delhi known as a information convention and distributed the file, telling reporters that the “carefully researched” report confirmed Friedrich had been “on the radar of Indian security establishment.” Citing Disinfo Lab analysis, pro-government tv channels ran experiences alleging Friedrich and Pakistan had masterminded a 2021 protest by farmers at New Delhi’s Red Fort that erupted into violence and represented a serious problem to the Modi administration.

In a current interview, Friedrich mentioned that many private and work particulars reported by the Disinfo Lab had been true however that different claims — that he fomented an anti-government riot or had ties to Pakistani intelligence — had been fabricated. The assaults made him worry for his security, he mentioned.

“It felt like the earth shook,” he mentioned. “I understood it as a warning shot throughout the bow saying, ‘You need to stay in your lane, stop poking your nose in our business and keep your mouth shut.”

The Disinfo Lab also published a lengthy report in April denouncing Sunita Viswanath, the New York-based founder of the rights group Hindus for Human Rights who has criticized the BJP’s Hindu-nationalist ideology as antithetical to Hinduism. The Disinfo Lab dug into her previous and reported {that a} nonprofit she launched to assist feminine Afghan refugees had acquired funding from Soros’s Open Society Foundations.

Two months later, after Indian opposition chief Rahul Gandhi attended a gathering in Washington with Viswanath as a part of a U.S. tour, Amit Malviya, the pinnacle of the BJP’s social media crew, tweeted a photograph of the assembly and shared a flowchart stamped with the Disinfo Lab emblem illustrating Viswanath’s connections to Soros.

“Who is she exactly?” Malviya wrote on X. “She is nothing but a proxy of George Soros, who has committed $1 billion to meddle in India’s internal affairs, through a network of opposition leaders, think tanks, journalists, lawyers and activists.” The Post was retweeted 7,800 occasions.

And final month, after The Post revealed an article concerning the Indian authorities’s efforts to censor X, the Disinfo Lab took to that platform and accused The Post, falsely, of waging psychological warfare towards India on the behest of the CIA. The thread additionally went viral.

Until a minimum of 2021, the Disinfo Lab shared its workplace with a separate crew headed by a profession RAW intelligence officer who specialised in China and carried out data operations associated to Tibet, mentioned the three sources who described the actions to The Post. The Disinfo Lab itself was headed by Satpathy, whose work has centered totally on countering Pakistan and the unrest it allegedly foments within the Indian border state of Punjab and Indian-controlled Kashmir, these folks mentioned.

Much of the Disinfo Lab’s work mirrored the considering of its founder, Satpathy, who was described by journalists, a authorities official and an individual near the navy as a deeply patriotic officer who’s fascinated by geopolitical intrigue and anxious by threats he sees India dealing with.

When he self-published a novel in 2016, Satpathy gave guide talks and interviews, describing himself as a 2002 graduate of India’s National Defense Academy who cherished writing, theater, single-malt whisky and his motherland. In 2019, he penned an article for a protection journal analyzing how India used a “carefully scripted narrative” to justify to the world an airstrike performed towards Pakistan earlier that 12 months.

By late that 12 months, the Indian authorities was coming below intense worldwide criticism for revoking the semiautonomous standing of Muslim-majority Kashmir, and round that point, 4 journalists recalled, a elegant nationwide safety official started introducing himself as “Shakti” to overseas correspondents in New Delhi, telling them he wished to assist them perceive India’s perspective.

They mentioned Satpathy supplied to rearrange a gathering for them with Modi’s nationwide safety adviser, Doval, coordinated a uncommon go to to Kashmir, which was then off-limits to overseas reporters, and pitched story concepts about Kashmir’s financial restoration below India’s direct rule. “Shakti” refused to reveal his title or affiliation, mentioned the journalists, however they later recognized him as Satpathy when proven images of him.

One of Satpathy’s former associates recalled working with him to feed Pakistani paperwork to Bruno Macaes, a former Portuguese diplomat who has written books about China’s Belt and Road Initiative and maintains a big following on X. Macaes, who confirmed he had been approached by males claiming to be Pakistani dissidents, mentioned he was not conscious they had been linked to Indian intelligence, however he shared screenshots displaying he was forwarded paperwork from a Telegram person named “Shakti.”

One one that performed a task within the Disinfo Lab’s formation mentioned the operation emerged from a world view wherein India is besieged by “information warfare” from overseas international locations that stoke spiritual divisions and grievances inside India. For years, authorities officers, together with Modi, have additionally pointed a finger at Western human rights and different nonprofit teams and information media, alleging they unfairly criticize India and conspire to carry again its improvement.

“The Indian government felt it was not having its views conveyed in the international media,” the particular person mentioned. He added that, initially, the aim was for the Disinfo Lab to be considered as a impartial group on par with well-known Western disinformation analysis teams and cited by mainstream information shops. Like different folks cited, he spoke on the situation of anonymity for worry of Indian authorities retribution.

Another particular person, a former worker, mentioned the Disinfo Lab named and modeled itself after teams such because the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab and the EU DisinfoLab, a Brussels-based nonprofit that researches disinformation focusing on Europe.

The workplace operated below the title “Root and Wings Media,” which describes itself on-line as a social media advertising and marketing firm, mentioned the three sources conversant in the operation and Rohan Mehta, the owner of the constructing the place the operation was situated till mid-2021. The Post couldn’t find firm registration data for Root and Wings or its present deal with. Employees who picked up at its publicly listed telephone quantity declined to supply their deal with or remark.

On a YouTube present in 2021, the founding father of Root and Wings, Ajayendra Tripathi, described himself as a social media knowledgeable who specialised in busting faux information and inauthentic accounts. “You can’t tell outright lies if you want to spread fake news,” Tripathi defined to his interviewer. “You have to tell lies that are somewhat close to the truth.”

When reached by The Post by way of textual content messages, Tripathi denied any affiliation with the Disinfo Lab and mentioned he now works for a political consultancy. He declined additional remark.

Asked by The Post about its places of work, the Disinfo Lab mentioned, “The place we worked from had multiple other offices including a co-working space. We do not and did not work for any other firm.”

The Disinfo Lab has usually served as a rapid-reaction drive to counter criticisms of the Modi authorities which have attracted worldwide consideration or to preempt anticipated flak.

In February, Soros, a frequent critic of Modi, warned in a speech on the Munich Security Conference that the Indian chief was undemocratic and would lose his “stranglehold” over the Indian authorities. A day later, the Disinfo Lab posted a prolonged tweet thread alleging that Soros had ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and manipulated “fake” U.S.-based advocacy teams to smear India. A spokesperson for Soros’s Open Society Foundations known as the Disinfo Lab’s claims “entirely baseless” and mentioned they had been a part of a “campaign by this site and others in India against advocates of human rights, democratic governance and the rule of law in the service of the political aims of the BJP and its allies.”

When Jayapal organized to have House and Senate members in June write a letter urgent President Biden to boost human rights points with Modi days earlier than his state go to to Washington, the Disinfo Lab revealed a prolonged X thread — retweeted greater than 1,000 occasions — claiming Jayapal was influenced by Pakistan and “Islamist funding.” Jayapal didn’t reply to requests for remark.

The Disinfo Lab’s experiences and social media posts usually acquire an enhanced veneer of authority as they propagate on-line due to the prominence of their retweeters.

The Post analyzed the 250 most-followed accounts that reposted content material from the Disinfo Lab. Of these, The Post recognized 35 present or former BJP officers, 14 authorities or navy leaders, 61 journalists, authors or thought leaders, and 140 influencers or content material creators, together with Indian and American right-wing ideologues. Many had a whole bunch of 1000’s or tens of millions of followers, and shared Disinfo Lab content material dozens and even a whole bunch of occasions.

These retweeters included Tajinder Bagga, the nationwide secretary of the BJP youth wing; Sanju Verma, a BJP nationwide spokeswoman; and Kapil Mishra, the vp of the BJP’s Delhi unit who has 1.5 million followers on X. Government- and military-linked amplifiers have included Rajeev Chandrasekhar, the junior data expertise minister; Kanchan Gupta, senior adviser to the knowledge ministry; Ved Malik, a retired chief of military workers; and Vikram Sood, a former RAW chief and writer of “The Ultimate Goal,” a guide about how shaping narratives at dwelling and overseas is a key duty of intelligence companies.

“Great work,” Sood mentioned in tweeting a 108-page Disinfo Lab report detailing how Pakistan allegedly funded American lecturers, activists and retired CIA officers to criticize India’s governance of Kashmir. Sood additionally shared the report on Koo, an Indian homegrown different to X.

When contacted by The Post, Bagga, Mishra and Malik mentioned they weren’t conversant in the Disinfo Lab’s background. Verma, Chandrasekhar, Gupta and Sood didn’t reply.

Other key spreaders, The Post evaluation discovered, had been U.S.-based teams advocating for Hindu-nationalist causes. Some of the Disinfo Lab’s frequent retweeters included HinduPACT and Hindu Action, two initiatives of the U.S. department of the Vishva Hindu Parishad, a right-wing Hindu group that’s ideologically allied with the BJP. Sudha Jagannathan, an American activist who lobbied to dam a California invoice banning caste-based discrimination, retweeted the Disinfo Lab 120 occasions.

Ajay Shah, the convener of HinduPACT, mentioned the group disseminates surveys, analysis experiences and information gadgets from “a wide variety of sources if we consider them to have impact on the American Hindus.” He mentioned he doesn’t know who runs the Disinfo Lab, including, “We do believe that their analysis, unless unequivocally proved inaccurate, is highly relevant to American Hindus … and American national security.”

Hindu Action didn’t reply to a request for remark. But after being contacted, the group tweeted that the “material that we have shared are concerning and should be taken seriously by our American law enforcement agencies.” Jagannathan didn’t reply to a request for remark.

Disinfo Lab experiences have additionally made their manner into American halls of energy.

Amid the covid pandemic in 2021, a senior U.S. congressman within the House India caucus acquired a Disinfo Lab report from a gaggle in his district claiming that Islamic humanitarian companies had been receiving federal assist and sending it to Pakistan to gasoline terrorist actions focusing on India and the United States, mentioned a congressional staffer talking on the situation of anonymity to share particulars of personal conversations.

The staffer mentioned the lawmaker’s Hindu constituents insisted the workplace present updates about what Congress would do concerning the claims made within the Disinfo Lab report and, a member of the workplace forwarded the report back to regulation enforcement for additional evaluation and investigation.

The group’s work additionally confirmed up within the debate this 12 months over California laws to outlaw caste-based discrimination. Opponents of the measure gave lawmakers a slide presentation suggesting, partially, that they learn a Disinfo Lab report attacking the group main the push for the laws, an individual conversant in the lobbying efforts recalled, talking on the situation of anonymity to debate delicate issues. The file painted that group — a U.S.-based civil rights group known as Equality Labs — as a radical outfit funded by Pakistan to orchestrate caste-related protests within the United States and included private details about the group’s director, her divorce and her father.

“This is a situation where the American government needs to protect American citizens that are being targeted for foreign influence, simply because we want to have rights like other Americans,” mentioned Thenmozhi Soundararajan, director of Equality Labs.

Ria Chakrabarty, a coverage director for pro-pluralism Hindus for Human Rights, a gaggle important of Modi, mentioned lobbyists working for U.S.-based Hindu nationalist teams have disseminated Disinfo Lab dossiers in different venues.

She recalled attending the 2022 International Religious Freedom Summit on the Renaissance Hotel in Washington when a lobbyist from HinduPACT walked round distributing a thick, certain Disinfo Lab report that claimed to attach the Indian American Muslim Council, an Indian diaspora group important of Modi, to Pakistani intelligence. The lobbyist knew that Chakrabarty usually collaborates with the IAMC, Chakrabarty recalled, and warned her to “know who you’re sitting next to.”

In its response to The Post, the Disinfo Lab pointed to its document of forcing “activists” and “human rights fronts” to close down by exposing them, saying, “We take our craft very seriously, and we make sure that our claims stand. In our understanding, fake news/ fabricated data is the core of any info-war.”

The ‘Disinformation Age’

Ajai Shukla, a retired Indian Army colonel and a navy affairs journalist, mentioned that former prime ministers comparable to Indira Gandhi additionally painted her critics as nationwide safety threats. But the Modi authorities has gone additional, generally blurring the road between its political foes and those that ought to be focused by the safety equipment, he mentioned.

The protection institution “exists to serve national and strategic interests, not political interests,” Shukla mentioned. “But the BJP under Modi has seen critics as anti-Indian, the enemies of India itself.”

With its experiences repeatedly cited by BJP officers and its profile rising, the Disinfo Lab gave its solely interview so far, in written format, to the Indian freelance journalist Sandhya Ravishankar this summer season.

In response to Ravishankar’s emailed questions, the group defined that it was based in 2020 by folks with political and advertising and marketing backgrounds. The group mentioned it relied totally on standard open-source intelligence-gathering strategies, plenty of Googling and its self-made information visualization instruments. It warned that India was caught in a “narrative war” towards many belligerents: the United States, China, Pakistan and “hydra-headed Islamist fronts, all operating under lofty human rights and other banners.”

“Left with no other choice, we are trying to do what we can with limited resources,” the Disinfo Lab mentioned. “The world moved from the Information Age to the Disinformation Age long back.”

Morse and Verma reported from Washington.

Design by Anna Lefkowitz. Visual enhancing by Chloe Meister, Joe Moore and Jennifer Samuel. Data enhancing by Anu Narayanswamy. Copy enhancing by Christopher Rickett. Story enhancing by Alan Sipress. Project enhancing by Jay Wang.