New Delhi: When the Delhi and Manipur police jointly arrested Kangujam Karnajit Monday for alleged forgery and cheating, following a complaint from a Nepalese student, it marked a major turn in a long-running saga of similar charges levelled against him by students from many countries since 2018.
More significantly, it also throws the spotlight on the activities of his nine-year-old daughter Licypriya Kangujam — a young girl who has been in the global limelight as an activist warring against climate change, and has rubbed shoulders with the likes of Sweden’s Greta Thunberg.
Karnajit, more commonly known as K.K. Singh, keeps a low profile even as his daughter has gained fame. But activists have pointed out that several of the awards Licypriya has received in the past have been from organisations her father was associated with, raising concerns that her claims may not be authentic, and that he might be using her as a front to further his own ambitions.
In an interview with ThePrint last year, Licypriya and K.K. Singh had both denied any wrongdoing when it came to how she was awarded. Attempts to contact him before his arrest through calls and messages did not elicit a response, and so far, no lawyer had come forward to represent him.
The case that led to his arrest
Students from around the world have repeatedly alleged that K.K. Singh duped and swindled them into paying him large sums of money.
At least three people have written to Indian missions and to the government, notifying them of K.K. Singh’s activities. Another letter, signed by five activists allegedly “duped” by him, was addressed to the ministries of Home Affairs, External Affairs, and Women and Child Development in March last year, imploring them to initiate action. ThePrint has accessed all these letters.
On 16 February this year, the Ministry of External Affairs’ northern division took cognisance of one of these complaints, from Nepal, and forwarded the complaint to the Ministry of Home Affairs, requesting that the “facts of the case may kindly be ascertained and action may be taken”.
An officer in the Manipur Police told ThePrint that based on the complaint, a case had been registered against Singh under sections 406 (criminal breach of trust), 420 (Cheating and dishonestly inducing delivery of property), 468 (Forgery for purpose of cheating) and 34 (Acts done by several persons in furtherance of common intention).
“The investigation is ongoing,” said the police officer, who declined to comment further.
Singh is also being investigated in two other cases under similar sections. On 25 April 2016, the Chief Judicial Magistrate of Imphal East had called Singh an “absconder” in another criminal case on charges of cheating, among other offences.
More charges of ‘cheating’ against Singh and IYC
The International Youth Committee (IYC), of which K.K. Singh is chairman, is an organisation headquartered at a non-existent address in New Delhi, and found its clientele among young people from modest backgrounds looking to better their lives. The organisation was set up to hold seminars and conferences, and give young people a chance to participate.
Everything about the IYC, from the language encasing its vision and mission to the importance of resolution-making, imitates the United Nations and its affiliate organisations.
Its acronym and mission is similar to the International Youth Council, a civil society organisation founded in the 2007 UN Youth Assembly, which seeks to “build a global forum and platform where all young people can develop a unified voice and take collective action toward social, economic, and environmental progress”.
On its website, the IYC describes itself as an organisation working to “provide a policy framework and practical guidelines for national action and international support to improve the situation of young people around the world.”
For young people looking for a better future — for themselves and the world — the IYC seemed like the perfect fit.
“The appeal is that it is an opportunity to network, to meet ministers and important government officials and dignitaries across the world,” Shreya Bali, a second-year law student from Delhi who paid over $600 in participation fees, told ThePrint.
In 2018, the IYC held an event in Sri Lanka, where the Sri Lankan government was a “co-organiser”, according to the event’s concept note. Called the South Asian Youth Summit, it invited participants to speak about topics related to the summit’s theme: ‘Creating a Sustainable Future in a Fractured South Asia’.
The event was attended by the youth and sports ministers from various countries, including the Maldives, Malaysia, and Mauritius.
Bali was among the students who attended, and found the experience positive, and decided to enrol for another IYC summit planned for the next year. She wasn’t alone — scores of young people signed up for the five major international summits planned for 2019 — The Europe Exchange Programme, Paris Youth Summit, Japan Exchange Programme, World Youth Conference in Mauritius, and the third edition of the South Asia Youth Summit in the Maldives.
Participants paid up to Rs 60,000 as fees for the programme according to their complaints and receipts and other documentation they’ve attached. Some have even made verbal allegations.
The Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act did not apply, since participation fees for events are exempted from the law.
ThePrint spoke to 15 young people from India, Nigeria, Serbia, Bhutan, Nepal, and Afghanistan who were among those who signed up for the events.
One by one, however, each event was indefinitely “postponed”. Participants were promised a spot on the next summit, conference, or programme, only to face a second, sometimes third indefinite postponement. The money was never returned to them, despite several of them asking for refunds.
“My family had to ask for a loan from a family friend. We repaid the money later, but the amount is around my fee for a semester. Losing that big sum of money (30,000 Indian rupees) has really caused many difficulties and challenges for a person of the middle class like me,” Prajesh Khanal, the 20-year-old student from Nepal, whose complaint was acknowledged by the MEA, told ThePrint. Khanal had written to the Indian Embassy in 2020.
Aleksandar Stankovic, a 34-year-old social worker and psychologist from Serbia, paid $830 to the IYC — two months’ pay for him — and later wrote to the IYC asking for a refund, saying: “Every cent is important for me in a poor country like Serbia is. Thank you in advance.”
Tshering Dorji, a 30-year-old Bhutanese sustainability advocate, who, along with nine other people, paid over Rs 2 lakh to the IYC, had a similar experience and said: “I feel very sad for this. How can someone cheat poor people?”
A WhatsApp group with over 90 people from India and abroad, claiming to have been duped by K.K. Singh, was created as a forum to exchange experiences and mobilise action against him.
Reached for comment, the IYC distanced itself from Singh, even though he is still listed as the organisation’s chairman on its website and registration documents.
“Mr Singh is not active with IYC since March 2020. His personal or local problems in Manipur are not related with the work or activities of any members of the IYC in any case,” a media coordinator for the IYC said.
“We had decided to form a refund committee last month to sort out the matter by June 2021, and all the planned events will go virtual later this year,” the coordinator said.
A history of ‘forgery’
In 2014, K.K. Singh allegedly posed as a director in the ‘UNESCO Youth Foundation’ and got in touch with Samarjit Singh, an engineer with the Arunachal Pradesh government, to rent an “office space” in Imphal.
“He met me and showed me a badge and a hoard of certificates and medals from the UN, UNESCO, and other international humanitarian organisations. He even brought a bodyguard with him. I had no reason to suspect him,” Samarjit told ThePrint.
“He asked that the rent be paid at once annually, instead of monthly, because of the way UNESCO paid its employees. He seemed so qualified and trustworthy, so I went ahead with the rent agreement,” he recalled.
When the time to pay rent came, K.K. Singh asked Samarjit to bring him land ownership documents, citing UNESCO’s rent allowance policy. Samarjit handed over the documents “in good faith”, adding that the property was listed in his wife’s name.
Months later, after K.K. Singh failed to pay the full amount, Samarjit discovered he had allegedly sold the property to two different people.
“I was shocked. I went to the land disputes department right away, and I found out that Karnajit Kangujam had brought in a woman to impersonate my wife and sold my property to two different people. I filed a case against him right then and there,” the engineer claimed.
In 2016, in a separate case, K.K. Singh was arrested on charges of fraud, assault, and criminal breach of trust.
Paojel Chaoba, an investigative journalist, who, along with Chitra Ahanthem, wrote a series of articles on Singh’s activities for the Imphal Free Press had told ThePrint last year: “In 2014, K.K. Singh hosted an event called the Global Youth Meet using the UNESCO acronym. He failed to pay a caterer for the event, and a case was lodged against him. He was finally arrested in January 2016. After paying bail, he left Manipur, and hasn’t been back since. He’s a con artist, and he can deal with immense pressure.”
Allegations of exploiting Licypriya
Several activists and students who have complained against K.K. Singh have also expressed worry that he could be using his daughter as a front for his own ambitions. She is said to have wilfully “dropped out” of school for at least one year to protest against climate change.
In March 2020, Madhish Parikh, a recipient of the government of India’s National Youth Award, along with a handful of those allegedly duped by K.K. Singh, wrote to several ministries raising this concern. “We sincerely request the Ministry of External Affairs in sync with concerned bodies to also ensure that the young girl child is not being exploited by her own father for his own vested interests and for his own career,” the letter stated.
Licypriya’s rise as an activist, which first hit national headlines in 2019, coincided with the IYC’s decline, which hasn’t conducted any workshops, summits, or events since then.
Among the controversial awards are ‘The World Children Peace Prize’, given to Licypriya in 2019 by a Maldivian organisation whose founder Aishath Rafiyya is the vice-president in the IYC’s executive council. The ‘India Peace Prize’, conferred to her the same year, was given to her by the IYC itself.
Most recently, Licypriya started a fundraiser for Rs 1 crore on the website Ketto, to buy and distribute oxygen concentrators across the country, as states reel under the second wave of Covid-19 infections. The campaign has already raised over Rs 75 lakh.
Licypriya’s social media accounts, where calls to raise money are emphatic, are not controlled by her directly, and require parental consent to operate, creating suspicion about K.K. Singh using her as a front.
The campaign — which puts out screenshots and pictures of transactions sporadically on social media — has been reported to Ketto multiple times for fear that Singh might misuse the funds.
The campaign has a few inconsistencies — apart from revising the total number of concentrators being ordered, from 200 to 100, the pieces were initially ordered from a China-based company, but the supplier was changed to an Indian one without explanation. The child activist announced she had opened a Bitcoin account to accept donations, but hasn’t publicly revealed how much — if any — was raised through this medium.
The procurement of the concentrators has been outsourced to a Noble Citizen Foundation, an NGO set up in 2020. The founder of Noble Citizen Foundation, Sahil Kausher, allegedly has a history with K.K. Singh and his organisation. Noble Citizen Foundation gave Licypriya its ‘Noble Citizen Award’, a year after the IYC gave him one of its ‘National Youth Icon’ awards.
Kausher denied any association with Singh, saying: “Yes, I was given an award, but I have been given over 50 awards; that doesn’t mean I have an association with each organisation. I am dealing with Licypriya’s team, not K.K. sir.”
He added: “We will release a report of how the funds were spent when our campaign comes to an end.”
Ketto’s founder Varun Sheth told ThePrint that the campaign furnished all the necessary documents and would not be taken down as long as it was compliant with its rules.
“When we get a report/complaints about any fundraiser, a dedicated team connects with the campaigner and asks for supporting information against the alleged claims. If the campaigner cannot share the supporting documents, then the fundraiser is closed and a refund is issued to the donors. In this case, the campaigner provided the proof of purchase and updated the tax invoice and bank statements in the fundraiser’s update section,” Sheth said in a statement.
Despite all these controversies, Licypriya’s popularity as a child activist has continued to grow and has earned her accolades that are beyond reproach. She was given the T.N. Khoshoo Memorial Award by the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and & the Environment (ATREE) last year, for “having achieved monumental impact while campaigning for climate change at the young age of 9”.
Her social media campaigns against climate change have also been promoted by the UK High Commission and the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) on Twitter.
In an interview with the Harvard International Review earlier this year, Licypriya was quoted as saying: “I have planted over 350,000 trees in my life in various places across India and many parts of the world with school children, which is equivalent to planting 100 trees every day since my birth.”
ThePrint reached COP26 for a comment on whether it had fact-checked the activists’ claim, but did not get a response.
A UK High Commission spokesperson, meanwhile, said: “As one of the biggest issues facing the world today, it’s important that all generations work together to tackle climate change. We cannot comment on individuals’ personal affiliations or activities.”
(With inputs from Nayanima Basu)
(Edited by Shreyas Sharma)