The Pulse | Security | South Asia

EU Non-Profit Unearths Massive Indian Disinformation Campaign

The revelations show how India seeks to spread disinformation, leveraging identify theft and murky media networks.

Abhijnan Rej
EU Non-Profit Unearths Massive Indian Disinformation Campaign
Credit: Flickr/Valerie Everett

A European non-profit organization specializing in combating disinformation targeting the European Union has unearthed a massive campaign orchestrated by an Indian entity to spread disinformation, mainly around Pakistan. In a report released on December 9, EU DisinfoLab claimed that a 15-year old operation, which started in 2005, had used more than 10 United Nations Human Rights Council affiliated non-governmental organizations, misappropriation of names of EU politicians and more than 750 fake media outlets “to discredit nations in conflict with India in Asia, in particular Pakistan but also China to a lesser extent.”

The EU DisinfoLab points out to four elements of the operation led by the Srivastava Group, a New Delhi-based entity of obscure provenance: support for human rights NGOs; appropriating the names of EU members of parliament “to create a mirage of institutional support from European institutions”; leveraging the United Nations’ Human Rights Council in Geneva; and finally, creation of fake media outlets in Europe and across the world whose “reporting” is picked up by Asian News International (ANI), a mainstream Indian news agency, and media networks in at least 97 countries to amplify anti-Pakistan and pro-India content.

EU DisinfoLab believes that the operation is ongoing.

The Srivastava Group first appeared in the public eye last year when news surfaced that it was behind an equally obscure think tank, the International Institute of Non-Aligned Studies, that funded a Kashmir trip for certain Members of European Parliament (MEP), mostly from the far right, after the August decision of the Narendra Modi government to revoke Jammu and Kashmir’s constitutionally protected autonomy.

What raised eyebrows at that time was that even when this ostensibly private delegation of MEPs was visiting Kashmir amid a harsh security crackdown, India’s opposition leaders were not being allowed to visit the region, while Jammu and Kashmir’s politicians – including former chief ministers – were imprisoned. Access to the region for foreign embassies in New Delhi was also restricted. Stunningly, the delegation had also met with Modi and India’s National Security Adviser – and old intelligence hand – Ajit Doval in New Delhi.

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While EU DisinfoLab has not found any evidence of a direct involvement of Indian intelligence services in the disinformation campaign, prominent Indian media outlets have pointed out the mysterious modus operandi of the Srivastava Group, with offices in Belgium, Switzerland, and Canada. Quite simply, the group looks like a (poorly masked) cutout acting at behest of Indian state actors to maintain a plausible veneer of deniability.

It is likely that the campaign unearthed by EUDisinfo Lab is only tip of the iceberg, as India aggressively – but often amateurishly – acts to shape global conversations around Pakistan and Kashmir. That effort includes dedicated campaigns – bordering on spamming editors – to place stories favorable to New Delhi’s point of view in global outlets, in one instance bearing the byline of a prominent Indian politician but not submitted by the individual or their office.

While it is important to keep in mind that such campaigns predate the Modi government by many years (the Srivastava Group operation started when the center-left coalition government led by Manmohan Singh was in power), it has enthusiastically taken to promoting its point of view abroad through non-governmental channels. Speaking at an event around the Indian diaspora on December 9, Minister of State for External Affairs & Parliamentary Affairs V. Muraleedharan described it as “bridges, mediators, facilitators, lobby and advocacy groups for taking primacy of India’s national security and economic interests and soft power projection,” language that will likely raise more than a few eyebrows in many Western capitals.

In August this year, the U.S. wing of the Overseas Friends of BJP (OFBJP-USA) registered with the U.S. Justice Department as a foreign agent under the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). According to the OFBJP-USA certificate of incorporation, one of its stated goals is to “work towards projecting a positive and correct image of India and its people in the U.S. and foreign media, and correct any distortions in the media’s reporting of current events taking place in India.”

A recent book by a former Research and Analysis Wing chief, Vikram Sood, details historical examples of how secret services shape global narratives, where Sood points out the Central Intelligence Agency’s crucial role in this regard during the Cold War.

But at the moment, most of this ideation is – as with many things Indian – largely aspirational. As Praveen Swami, an Indian journalist well known for his coverage of sensitive intelligence issues, sardonically commented on Twitter earlier today about the EU DisinfoLab report, “I hope someone in the Indian spook world actually audits the yields on these so-called operations: IMHO, these silly India-Pakistan propaganda games have achieved zip and will achieve zip.”