New Delhi: The toolkit that was tweeted and then deleted by environmental activist Greta Thunberg, 18, to garner support for the ongoing farmers’ protest was allegedly “fed to her” as part of a “larger conspiracy to create disharmony”, sources in the security establishment told ThePrint.
According to sources, Canada-based organisation Poetic Justice Foundation (PJF) played a “vital role” in “starting a global campaign”, with backing from “political leaders and activists based out of Canada”.
The people that are on the radar of Indian agencies include Mo Dhaliwal, founder of the PJF and director of a PR firm named Skyrocket, Marina Patterson, who worked as a relationship manager with PR firms, Anita Lal, director of the Canada-based World Sikh Organisation, and co-founder of PJF, and Canadian parliamentarian Jagmeet Singh.
According to sources, it was Skyrocket that allegedly paid $2.5 million to popstar Rihanna to tweet in support of the farmers’ protest in India. Dhaliwal, the sources said, is a Canada-based Sikh who is a “self-proclaimed Sikh separatist” and is also close to Jagmeet Singh.
The Canadian MP, who lauded Rihanna’s tweet, has often courted headlines for allegedly supporting the Sikh separatist movement — his participation in a 2015 rally in the US where a poster of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was reportedly put up remains especially controversial. However, he denies these allegations.
The PJF, which describes itself as an organisation that “challenges structures of oppression and discrimination through intersectional grassroots advocacy”, claims on its website that “currently we are most actively involved in the #FarmersProtest”.
On Twitter, the organisation has been actively tweeting about the farmers protest with the hashtag “AskIndiaWhy”, which has also spawned a website by the same name (the hashtag finds reference in the revised toolkit tweeted by Thunberg Wednesday).
“India’s farmers and citizens need the global community to pay attention,” the website states. “International focus on these protests may be the only thing preventing state-sponsored violence and another string of massacres in the country,” it adds.
In October last year, the sources said, Dhaliwal was a panelist for a webinar named ‘Khalistan, a conversation on trauma, racism and sovereignty’. Organised by the Poetic Justice Foundation, the programme involved a discussion on the Sikh separatist movement, sources said.
Marina, who was allegedly “live-editing” the toolkit that was finally posted, played a key role in drafting it, sources added.
ThePrint has reached Dhaliwal and Jagmeet Singh through email, and Lal through a Twitter message, for comments on this report.
The sources also referred to Thunberg association with Pune-based Extinction Rebellion India and Delhi-based Fridays for Future, for “promoting the campaign”.
The toolkit tweeted by Thunberg sought to lay down different ways people can participate in the farmers protest. The first one included references to “tweet storms” on or before Republic Day, and protests around Indian missions. She deleted this version before uploading another one, saying the earlier document was “outdated”.
“Point 4 of the objectives that were listed in the toolkit (the one Thunberg deleted) said they want to ‘disrupt yoga & chai image of India in general’. This shows the intention behind this campaign,” one of the sources said.
Delhi Police Thursday filed a case in connection with the toolkit, booking unknown persons under sections for sedition, criminal conspiracy, promoting enmity between religions, and provocation with intent to cause a riot.
India had Wednesday tweeted a statement saying “it is unfortunate to see vested interest groups trying to enforce their agenda on these (farmers’) protests, and derail them”.
“Some of these vested interest groups have also tried to mobilise international support against India,” it added. “Before rushing to comment on such matters, we would urge that the facts be ascertained, and a proper understanding of the issues at hand be undertaken. The temptation of sensationalist social media hashtags and comments, especially when resorted to by celebrities and others, is neither accurate nor responsible.”
‘Why the sudden action?’
The farmer protest, which has been going on since Parliament passed three new farm laws in September, erupted in violence on Republic Day as many protesters violated the route map set out by Delhi Police — in consultation with farmer leaders — for their planned tractor rally and reached the heart of the capital.
The episode involved a breach of the Red Fort as some protesters hoisted the Nishan Sahib on its lawns.
In the wake of the violence, the government imposed restrictions on internet services in some pockets and installed patches of nails around the sites of protest on Delhi’s outskirts.
The current round of controversy began as Rihanna, who has over 100 million followers on Twitter, tweeted a CNN report about the restrictions and asked why “are we not talking about it”.
A tweet by Thunberg came soon afterwards, and many prominent international celebrities followed suit.
According to sources, all these icons have some “linkages” to the PJF and the government is probing as to why these celebrities have “suddenly sprung into action” on an issue that “does not impact them directly”.
India has also alerted all its missions based in the US and Europe to identify the organisations that are working to create a “negative campaign against India”, the sources said.
The PJF has been running a “form” on its website since a couple of months before the Republic Day, calling for people to join the “Global Day of Action”, sources said.
On Thursday, the PJF urged people to post matters related to the farmers’ protest by “tagging a celebrity, politician, or influencer…” “We’re stronger together. Let’s make some noise,” it said.
Last few days we've seen a lot of global support for the farmers of India facing legislated and physical violence. We ask everyone for one post using #AskIndiaWhy #FarmersProtest and tag a celebrity, politician, or influencer. We're stronger together. Let's make some noise. pic.twitter.com/FfdNEHrjod
— Poetic Justice Foundation (@PoeticJFdn) February 3, 2021
The Delhi Police said the toolkit had an “action plan” that said “digital strikes through hashtags on and before 26 January will be carried out”. It also talked about “tweet storms from 23 January onwards and physical action on 26 January”.
“This particular action plan was uploaded on the public domain. The action which has been delineated in this toolkit, is a copy cat execution of 26 January, which is a matter of concern,” Delhi Special Commissioner of Police for Crime Praveer Ranjan said.
“The intention of the creator of the toolkit is to create disaffection against government of India. It also aims at and mentions waging socio-economic war against government of India,” he said.
Experts, however, say not much should be read into the toolkit.
“Certainly, there may be organisations supporting Thunberg, one can’t rule that out, but then again there are plenty of perfectly innocuous groups — farmers’ rights outfits, climate organisations that would want to bring attention to what’s happening in India,” Michael Kugelman, Deputy Director and Senior Associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington DC, told ThePrint.
“As for the toolkit, from what I’ve seen of it, it just seems to be a description of how to organise global peaceful protests … The current protests tap into sentiment about social justice and corporatisation that resonate strongly with liberal and progressive celebrity activists,” he added.
Thunberg tweeted Thursday evening that “no amount of hate, threats or violations of human rights will ever change” her support for the farmers’ protest.
— Greta Thunberg (@GretaThunberg) February 4, 2021
India issues Mutual Legal Assistance Request to US
The US State Department has also weighed in on the internet restrictions, saying “unhindered access to information, including the internet, is fundamental to the freedom of expression and a hallmark of a thriving democracy”.
In general, it added, the US “welcomes steps that would improve the efficiency of India’s markets and attract greater private sector investment”.
It also said the US encourages “that any differences be resolved through dialogue”.
The statement was reiterated by the US Embassy in India.
Asked about the comments at the Ministry of External Affairs’ weekly briefing Thursday, spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said it is “important to see such comments in the context in which they were made and in their entirety”.
“As you can see, the US State Department has acknowledged steps being taken by India towards agricultural reforms. Any protests must be seen in the context of India’s democratic ethos and polity, and the ongoing efforts of the government and the concerned farmer groups to resolve the impasse,” he added.
As far as the US is concerned, sources said, the government has not ruled out links between the international campaign on the farmers’ agitation and efforts made by organisations like ‘Sikhs for Justice’ — a US-based body comprising members who support Sikh separatism.
Amid suspicions that they played an active role during the Republic Day incident, the matter has been taken up with the US Department of Justice by the Ministry of Home Affairs.
“India has issued a Mutual Legal Assistance Request to the USA for investigation in the matter of Sikhs for Justice/Referendum 2020. As per procedure, the request has been sent directly by the concerned authorities to the US Department of Justice (DoJ). You may wish to contact the Ministry of Home Affairs for further information,” Srivastava said Thursday.
ThePrint had reported earlier how Pakistan’s external intelligence wing, ISI, might be fanning disturbances in India under the garb of the farmers’ agitation.
BJP’s outreach programme
In light of the Twitter storm kicked up by the celebrities’ tweets, the BJP — which leads the central government — has intensified its outreach programme to dispel the “false notions” being spread about the government. The BJP sees the tweets as part a “well-orchestrated” campaign to tarnish the image of the Modi government.
The party has drawn parallels to last year’s Shaheen Bagh protest that had also garnered international attention. The sit-in protest that took place in the national capital was in response to the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which seeks to set a religious yardstick to grant citizenship to refugees.
“See, one thing is very clear that these are very concerted efforts, it is not that someone is impromptu making some comments. Especially, someone like Rihanna would never know, I don’t think she can even point out on the global map where India is,” said Vijay Chauthaiwale, in-charge of the BJP’s foreign affairs department.
“The toolkit essentially shows that it is a long-term plan. It is not something that has happened Monday. So, it is a very well-planned strategy to demonise India and the Indian government,” he added.
“And also basically to undermine the good work done by the Indian government especially on the vaccine front etc.”
Asked who they suspect to behind this “strategy”, he said, “To be honest, we don’t know. But I saw some reports that this website is registered in Canada. But there are forces like the FFF India (Fridays For Future India)… That organisation has been mentioned in the toolkit. It is an India-based organisation but how it was involved in the previous campaign also”.
“We are doing what we can do the best, communicating with the people, the entire diaspora and also the entire world about the real situation and also making them aware of all these conspiracies through social media,” he said. “You must have seen yesterday’s hashtag – #Indiaagainstpropaganda. We have good outreach over ground so we will use that outreach and connections on ground to give the right picture.”
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.