Discover more from Baaz
Jungfateh Singh: The Sikh Response In The Age of Indian Disinfo
"There has been an increase in online genocidal threats targeting Sikhs, but there has also been a concerted effort to undermine our people and our way of life."
April 5, 2023 | 15 min. read | Opinion
In 2020, the EU Disinfo Lab revealed a vast disinformation wing operated by an Indian entity to further India's interests over a 15-year operation beginning in 2005. This vast network contained 750 phony media outlets from 119 different countries. This would be one of the most extensive disinformation networks ever discovered. This network would not only be used to criticize Pakistan and further India's foreign affairs objectives but also to spread propaganda against non-Hindu communities.
Despite this revelation, very little has changed in how Indian disinformation works. The barrage of various "news" outlets and fake accounts propagating degrading vitriol against dissenting voices grows and has deadly consequences for targeted communities.
These disinfo ecosystems have three objectives.
First, sway non-local players, governments, and the press. Second, create an intimidating environment that amounts to harassment of a minority group. Third, incite panic among the Hindu majority by making them believe they are threatened by the "other," which must be treated with suspicion and, at times, violence.
This is essentially an Indian version of "Der Stürmer" (The Attacker). Known for his anti-Semitic attitudes and propaganda, Julius Streicher, a prominent member of the Nazi Party, started the publication in 1923.
The Jewish people and other groups were regularly maligned in the sensationalist stories and illustrations published in Der Stürmer, a weekly tabloid newspaper. The publication regularly published false claims and conspiracy theories regarding Jews, their claimed impact on German society, and hideous and degrading caricatures of Jews.
It is hardly surprising that Indian media outlets, under the growing influence of Hindutva (fascist Hindu nationalism), would adopt this tactic.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is the political arm of the RSS, a right-wing Hindu nationalist group created in the 1920s. There is clear evidence that the RSS was inspired by fascist and anti-Semitic ideology from the 1930s and 1940s Germany.
M.S. Golwalkar, who led the RSS from 1940 until he died in 1973, was a crucial player in the organization's history. Golwalkar's publications lauded Hitler's ideas and tactics.
In his book "We, or Our Nationhood Defined," Golwalkar wrote that India should model itself on Nazi Germany, stating that "to keep up the purity of the race and its culture, Germany shocked the world by her purging the country of the Semitic Races—the Jews. Race pride at its highest has been manifested here. Germany has also shown how well-nigh impossible it is for Races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindusthan to learn and profit by."
Many Westerners, however, remain oblivious to the power of the RSS in India and the BJP's heavy effect on the country's present political climate. The RSS provides the doctrinal foundation for the political agenda of the BJP, and the two groups collaborate closely as members of the Sangh Parivar to further their goal of creating a Hindu Rashtra (Hindu Nation) in India.
This does not mean that Western governments are entirely unaware, either. They are pretty familiar with India's current course, including how they utilize disinfo and foreign interference to malign minority groups around the world.
Among the nations where religious freedom is being consistently and severely violated, India was seriously flagged in 2022 by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).
“In 2021, religious freedom conditions in India significantly worsened. During the year, the Indian government escalated its promotion and enforcement of policies—including those promoting a Hindu-nationalist agenda—that negatively affect Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Dalits, and other religious minorities. The government continued to systemize its ideological vision of a Hindu state at both the national and state levels through the use of both existing and new laws and structural changes hostile to the country’s religious minorities,” the report states.
The recent US State Department’s human rights report on India also flags India’s rapidly deteriorating situation, particularly how it relates to attacks on minorities in the country.
In the meanwhile, a largely obscure e-petition to the Canadian government in 2021 asked that Canada “acknowledge the Indian government’s discriminatory anti-minority laws, the rising threat of genocide against Muslims and persecution of Christians, Dalits and other minorities; Include human rights experts in all trade and bilateral agreements with India to safeguard the freedom, justice, and human rights of persecuted minorities; Invoke Magnetsky sanctions on Indian government officials responsible for, or complicit in, gross human rights violations against Muslims and other minorities in India; and Develop a multilateral strategy for the Indian government to take immediate measures to protect its vulnerable minorities and repeal discriminatory laws and other acts targeting Muslim, Christian and Dalit minorities.”
The Minister of International Development and Minister responsible for the Pacific Economic Development Agency of Canada would respond with a dull obfuscation stating that “Canada recognizes that India is a highly diverse country known for the democratic values enshrined in its constitution...” and that “Canada continues to monitor issues of human rights such as freedom of religion or belief and the protection of the rights of persons belonging to minority groups around the world.”
Our governments understand the situation in India, as well as the global reach of the RSS. They know it ranks 150 in RSF’s Press Freedom Index. They know that V-Dem Institute has ranked India as an “electoral autocracy.” They know about the lack of civil liberties and democratic rights. Yet, they have made limited or half-hearted efforts to openly condemn the country as it continues attacking and maligning minority communities.
Although these findings are alarming, they are rarely mentioned in the media or public, especially compared to other countries often scrutinized in the West - such as Iran, China, or Russia. Instead, the dark realities of India are covered up or glossed over with unassuming language in the pursuit of bilateral trade agreements with a “secular and democratic” India.
Fortunately, some reporters and talking heads have chosen far more accurate and forthright language to describe the issue with a Hindu nationalist India and hateful disinfo from the state. Rana Ayyub, for example, defiantly writes, ”our descent into fascism is complete. India is now officially a fascist, Hindu-fundamentalist state, and impotent superpowers like America have blood on their hands.
Many Sikh journalists and outlets have also regularly reported on the issue, including most of those that have now been censored or banned in India throughout the operation against Amritpal Singh and other Sikh activists.
And today, under this Hindutva regime, Sikhs (and other minorities) face a dreadful and dismal future: genocide. The Indian media is centrally situated to facilitate and encourage such activities.
Following the recent siege of Punjab, there has been a rise in pro-India and Hindutva accounts targeting Sikhs online. It is likely reasonable to infer that most of these are “real” in some ways, as reported by Baaz in a previous investigation on the BJP IT Cell during the Farmers’ Protest. A combination of bots and sockpuppet accounts operating in tandem with one another by actual human beings under government actors in an organized system to spread hate and disinformation from the state.
Every time I have posted recently about my worries about Punjab or criticisms of the Indian state, I have been met by scores of bot accounts chiding me, threatening me, or diverting the conversation to something else.
From what can be gleaned from a quick scan, there appear to be thousands of these accounts active across all social media sites, but predominately Twitter, which is, more than other platforms, home to political decision-makers and journalists from around the world. But even this should not come as a shock. The push of disinfo is routine practice before India carries out an act of violence, implements a new policy targeting a group, or seeks to sway a specific community.
Many of you have probably noticed that in the last few years, not only have bot accounts attacked Sikhs but so have dozens of accounts pretending to be Sikhs, including some with fake profile pictures. They use Hindutva nationalist language, arbitrarily accusing anyone who disagrees with them of being unpatriotic, extremists, or terrorists.
They also use religious arguments, such as suggesting that anyone who shares a dissenting opinion is not a true Sikh or following the teachings of the Gurus and, therefore, rightly dehumanized or threatened with violence. These accounts are going as far as publishing and spreading disinformation and misrepresentations of Sikhi.
There is currently an active campaign on Twitter going by the hashtag #sikhnotkhalistani, with obvious bot accounts pretending to be Sikhs and condemning Khalistan as an alien political ideology. This, too, is routine.
In 2022, researchers at the Stanford Internet Observatory in the United States uncovered an unknown online network conducting influence operations, complete with a horde of bot accounts pretending to be Kashmiri users publishing pro-Indian Army propaganda. Around 1,198 accounts were identified.
According to Shelby Grossman of Stanford Internet Observatory, who spoke with The Wire, “these networks are problematic because they are pretending to be someone they are not and can make it appear like Kashmiris have certain political opinions when, in fact, they are fake personas.” Further adding, “The network wasn’t just about the fake personas. There was a lot of other dangerous stuff as well.”
More than 53 Muslims were killed by Hindu Mobs in the February 2020 pogrom in Delhi. In the months leading up to the violence, there was a 300% spike in inflammatory postings on WhatsApp and Facebook targeting Muslims.
There has been an increase in online genocidal threats targeting Sikhs, but there has also been a concerted effort to undermine our people and our way of life.
Again, they are modelling their attacks on Sikh religious rituals and traditions after those of the Nazis. The Nazis portrayed Jewish religious customs, such as food restrictions and circumcision, as archaic and barbarous. The Jews were called "primitive" and "backward," and their religion was held up as proof of their inferiority.
Many Hindutva and pro-India commentators have spent the better part of the last two years debating whether or not the Panj Kakars is indeed a component of the Khalsa on the internet. This group includes commentators like Puneet Sahani.
Before his sudden rise as a "Sikh commentator" on Twitter, with support and amplification from Hindutva accounts and platforms, likely gaming Twitter’s algorithms via IT cells, he was well-known for his travelling escapades.
His claim to fame now is misrepresenting Sikhi and Sikh beliefs for a Hindutva and Indian nationalist audience that attempts to erase Sikh’s unique identity, essentially arguing that Sikhs are Hindus and anyone who disagrees is an enemy of the (Hindu) state.
According to historical revisionists like Sahani, it was only during the era of British colonial rule, which lasted approximately 100 years, that Sikhs and Hindus began to be seen as distinct groups. Then, to top it all off, they push the extraordinary conspiracy theory about how the British invented the Panj Kakars. Sahani has set himself up as the lone Sikh who has discovered this massive scheme that has duped the whole Sikh community for over 100 years.
The intentions of accounts like Sahani’s are not to offer a substantial critique of Sikh views; in fact, his theories are so far-fetched that it is almost pointless even to examine them in an academic context. The only reason we have any reason to reply is to address the support accounts like Sahani do receive from influential Hindutva and anti-Sikh players.
Since most of these historical revisionists are not part of the Sikh community, they instead establish themselves as the go-to voice on Sikh issues inside the ecosystem of Hindu nationalists. They achieve this in part by "challenging" Sikhs - including the Akal Takht's leader and the SGPC - on the internet, but then block, ignore, or attack Sikhs that challenge their deranged musings with actually historically relevant explanations, sources, and citations.
These historical revisionists also give the ecosystem of Hindu nationalists the "Sikh academic" fuel, as false as it may be, they need to aid the campaign of disinformation, dehumanization, and assimilation of the Sikh people, othering dissenting voices in the process.
These are all planned campaigns to encourage violence against Sikhs (and other non-Hindu groups) with the goal of normalizing an elevated prevalence of violence over time. These Hindutva actors are essentially claiming that “the Sikhs we are targeting with genocidal musings are not real Sikhs.”
An ominous indictment of a government and a community united by a common goal: Hindu Rule or Rashtra.
It is this violent Hindu nationalist ambition, not the movements that oppose it, that pose the greatest danger in India.
In his book "We: or Our Nationhood Defined," M.S. Golwalkar would categorically reject the idea of a secular India, arguing that its minorities “either to merge themselves in the national race and adopt its culture or to live at its mercy so long as the national race may allow them to do so and quit the country at the sweet will of the national race. That is the only sound view on the minorities’ problem… [The] foreign races in Hindusthan must either adopt the Hindu culture and language, must learn to respect and hold in reverence Hindu religion, must entertain no idea but those of the glorification of the Hindu race and culture, i.e., of the Hindu nation and must lose their separate existence to merge in the Hindu race, or may stay in the country, wholly subordinated to the Hindu Nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment—not even citizen’s rights.”
The establishment of a Hindu Rasthra as a state policy in India is contingent upon there being no significant opposition to it. In this context, India has been engaged in a protracted struggle against these groups, which has manifested itself militarily (through decades of armed violence against Sikhs) and culturally (through various campaigns to destroy the Sikh way of life), and which is now being waged online against our community.
This online disinfo war may not be one we can win outright, and it may feel like there is little point in investing much in it. The BJP enjoys widespread support across India from its more than 180 million members. Solely fighting their IT Cells and an endless supply of bots and sockpuppets directly on Twitter can become an exercise in futility, if not foolishness. Furthermore, the corporate interests of Facebook and Twitter have proved that they are more than eager to accommodate the wants of the Indian government in silencing the voice of dissidents and activists while doing nothing to dampen the escalating hate speech against them.
However, this does not mean that Sikhs do not fight back against this disinformation, especially when it shapes the way the West sees Sikh struggles and, by extension, shapes Western domestic and foreign policy, with potentially devastating effects for Sikhs.
There are models that work in fighting Indian disinfo effectively and efficiently, which we need to lean into instead.
Veteran CBC journalist Terry Milewski authored a report for the Canadian Macdonald-Laurier Institute (MLI) in 2020 titled "Khalistan: A Project of Pakistan." The forward of the report suggests that “The Milewski report should be essential reading for any who wish to understand Pakistan’s influence in guiding the Khalistan proposition, its perversion of the Sikh faith, and its ongoing campaign of extremism and terrorism in two of the world’s important democracies.”
The report caused an uproar among Sikhs and gave India and its Hindu nationalist base the justification and ammunition they needed to further isolate and vilify the Sikh community, dismissing its aspirations toward Khalistan as part of Pakistan's broader project to undermine India's sovereignty.
Over 50 Sikh academics came together to pen an open letter to the board of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute (MLI), critiquing the report and stating that they were “concerned to read a report that contains a litany of conclusory statements and allegations without any substantiation,” and that the report “lacks adequate academic rigor, historical and contextually-based journalistic analysis, and balance.” The letter would garner mainstream media attention and cause waves within the academic and policy-making community, causing considerable damage to MLI’s reputation in the halls of power and quickly shutting down its spread.
The Khalistan Centre would author a robust report of their own, arguing that “this biased narrative fails to recognize the centrality of sovereignty to the Khalsa panth and the political realities of grassroots advocacy for Khalistan today,” and concluding that, “While it is not possible to educate or convince a bad faith actor, it is important to reject and combat the narratives being spun by Indian intelligence operatives and recycled by racist platforms. Terry’s report fits within a pattern driven by covert Indian intelligence initiatives to push a manufactured narrative. By distorting and repressing the Sikh struggle, these manufactured narratives lead to racist national security measures and compromised foreign policy based on the distortion of facts.”
It wasn't only this report that caused the outrage; there were deeper underlying issues. Terry has been the "authoritative" voice in Canadian media about Sikhs and Khalistan for decades. When Sikh opinion is consistently dismissed, marginalized, and pushed aside—especially at the hands of a conservative white man who has proven incapable of understanding the complexities facing the Sikh community or providing a nuanced and fair assessment of the Indian government and the violent Hindu nationalist movement—a form of traumatic stress can develop.
Two years before the report's release, the Canadian Liberal government led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau travelled to India with a large delegation of government officials, supporters, and others. The Indian state used the opportunity to unleash a disinformation campaign against Sikhs via the Indian state media and other platforms, which was then picked up and parroted by the Canadian media.
Gurjiwan Singh, a Sikh activist in Canada, estimated that over 150 pieces would be written in February of that year about the purported growth of Sikh "radicalism" and "extremism" in Canadian media. Canadian media figures at the time would either be silent and uncharitable or react violently to any attempts to contradict this reporting.
Terry Glavin, a columnist for the Ottawa Citizen and National Post and a Senior Fellow at the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, would even attack me in a Twitter debate, saying: “You're a liar and a champion of theocratic fascists who have murdered untold numbers of innocent Sikhs and Hindus. We're all sick of you. Fuck off.”
The World Sikh Organization of Canada (WSO) was so alarmed by this development that it arranged a series of editorial meetings with leading Canadian media outlets and journalists to brief them on the problem of Indian disinformation and interference - a successful drive which continues to pay dividends till today. During this time, Sikhs also started an online viral grassroots campaign, #askcanadiansikhs.
During that trip, an issue arose over an invitation to Jaspal Atwal, a resident of BC, who was convicted of attempting to assassinate an Indian cabinet minister in 1986, to attend two events with the Liberal prime minister in India. While Sikhs were aware that the Indian media would react negatively to any association with a "Khalistan terrorist," they were alarmed by the rapid and overwhelming coverage the story received in Canada.
The Canadian government would conduct an internal inquiry into the trip to India after all this transpired. The inquiry would find that “Atwal's presence was arranged by factions within the Indian government,” and that these “factions within the Indian government were involved in sabotaging the prime minister's visit to India last week.” What the Sikh community in Canada has known all along was confirmed by this revealing and worrisome discovery: the Indian State has always exerted extensive influence within the country to malign Sikhs.
These Sikh responses, led by community institutions and grassroots organizations, have paid off in Canada. For instance, Terry Milewski's work is rarely discussed or reported on by any reputable media source or government besides Hindu nationalist actors.
The Canadian media has featured multiple Sikh perspectives in the lead-up to and coverage of the latest attack on the Sikh community in Panjab. This includes coverage of a newly released report by the British Columbia Gurdwaras Council and the Ontario Gurdwaras Committee regarding Indian foreign interference in Canada and another report from the World Sikh Organization (WSO) and The National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) regarding the RSS Network in Canada. Both reports have had the effect of proactively challenging Indian state narratives and disinformation.
All of this came about as a culmination of coordinated efforts by Sikh Jathebandis and other groups to combat Indian propaganda and promote authentic Sikh perspectives.
Direct lobbying of social media companies to challenge Indian disinformation networks has met with a lesser degree of success. As of this writing, social media accounts have been shut down in India for hundreds of Sikh activists, journalists, politicians, and others. Conversely, Facebook has been selective in removing incendiary messages, hate speech, and other content. Meanwhile, Twitter, according to a recent article in The Intercept,“is yet again collaborating with India to impose an extraordinarily broad crackdown on speech.” Given these challenges and realities, the question for Sikhs is how we can pull ourselves out of this poisonous stew of hatred and unrelenting bombardment of propaganda on Twitter and other social media sites.
Parmjeet Singh Gazi, a journalist with Sikh Siyasat News (he has also been censored on social media within India and was recently hounded by the Panjab Police), recently held a Twitter space in which he called for Sikhs in Panjab to unite with the Dalit and Gujjar people and those who share their resistance to Brahminism and capitalism. Sikhs in Panjab are no strangers to this call to action. Still, those of us in the diaspora should give it serious thought when considering how to respond to attacks from Hindutva ecosystems collectively.
Even more emphatically, Bhai Mandhir Singh of Panth Sewak Jatha Doaba) suggests that: "Gurbani and Sangat are the true source of strength for Sikhs. Nowadays people are detached from Gurbani and do not join (Gur)Sangat. One cannot attain calm and (internal) strength by engaging over social media all day. It will only lead to restlessness and (internal) chaos"
We need to start organizing ourselves within the realm of Sikhi and use this as our guiding light, building up community institutions and grassroots mobilization that have proven to work rather than solely becoming preoccupied with directly squaring off against an endless army of mindless online bots.
More than that, we must confront our misgivings about Khalistan and come to see it as our Nishaana toward the liberation of not only our people but of all oppressed peoples: gareeb di rakhiya, jarvanay di bhakhiya (protection of the poor, destruction of the tyrants).
Again and again, we have let the Indian state and Western nations decide for us what "Khalistan" means, how we may attain it, and what methods are acceptable - and then using that to anchor their disinformation and “othering” campaigns against Sikhs. For the innumerable Sikhs who committed Shaheedi, however, this was never in doubt, and the opinions of outsiders were irrelevant.
Often, our politics are defined by the victimhood that we have internalized through being swept up in the woes of our community. Still, we fail to take stock of the successes we have had and how we have forged our own path despite our oppressors' darkest fears, hopes, and resources. It is these Fatehs (victories) that should guide us as we move forward.
POOJA AKAAL KI, PARCHA SHABAD KA, DIDAR KHALSE DE (Worship the One True Lord, Use Gurbani as guidance, see the Guru through the Khalsa).
Jungfateh Singh is an organizer, writer and producer, and has worked on Sikh issues across the globe for over 15 years.
Baaz is home to opinions, ideas, and original reporting for the Sikh and Punjabi diaspora. Support us by subscribing. Find us on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok at @BaazNewsOrg. If you would like to submit a written piece for consideration, please email us at email@example.com.