Silencing the lambs — desi style

Farrukh Khan Pitafi June 22, 2024
The writer is an Islamabad-based TV journalist and policy commentator. Email him at


One privilege of writing for as long as I have is that when you mention a book or a podcast by a living author, the author or the podcaster finds a way to communicate their appreciation. Usually, it used to happen via Twitter or email. With X now suspended in the country and talk of a firewall going up anytime now, I hope to receive such communications telepathically. One such work is the Australian TV series, Secret City. When I praised the series, one of the authors of the novels it is based on found me online and expressed his pleasure in seeing me enjoy his work. The series is a fast-paced and breathtakingly well-told political thriller which deals with foreign influence campaigns and espionage in the country. Given Australia’s geographic sensitivities, you can tell that the foreign power would have to be China. But the concerns about China’s influence are yesterday’s news. Now another spectre is haunting Australia. That of Modi’s “nest of spies”.

This week, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) aired a documentary titled “Infiltrating Australia — Spies, secrets and threats: How the Modi regime targets people overseas”. A strong indictment of the Modi government’s international influence and assassination campaigns, the documentary seeks to do justice to many layers of the Indian government’s secret international projects. It starts by showing how jealously the ruling party guards its image at home and expels foreign journalists if they do not fall in line. From there, it returns to Australia, where it frames at length the incursion of the pro-Modi elements within the Indian diaspora into Australian politics.

Then, the documentary refers to a 2021 statement by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO)’s Director General Mike Burgess about his organisation’s crackdown on a foreign nest of spies. Without disclosing the country behind the operations, he had said, “One of ASIO’s investigations focused on a nest of spies, from a particular foreign intelligence service, that was operating in Australia. The spies developed targeted relationships with current and former politicians, a foreign embassy and a state police service.” In a high-profile briefing, he had also described how the foreign operatives monitored their diaspora community in Australia. The ABC report at the time did not even disclose whether the country in question was a hostile power or a friendly one. In the end, it added one clarification: “The ABC has confirmed the country behind the foreign spy ring was not China.” Other news sources were not as circumspect, and one was left with the impression that the spying country was a hostile power. I had flagged this issue at the time and pointed out the possibility of Indian involvement.

It was on April 30 of this year that an ABC report officially disclosed the country in question. The report was titled “India’s Modi government operated ‘nest of spies’ in Australia before being disrupted by ASIO”.

The documentary doesn’t stop there. It proceeds to Canada, where a Sikh dissident was assassinated, and Indian elements were arrested. It sheds some light on a similar attempt in the US and returns to Australia to highlight the concerns of Sikh dissidents there.

This devastating documentary should have stirred some debate in India, but it hasn’t. The Modi government still strictly controls what the country’s inmates (read citizens) are allowed to see. In fact, in the run-up to the election a John Oliver segment on Indian censorship was also censored in the country. And the BBC’s experience was telling when it aired a documentary blaming Modi for his complicity in the 2002 riots, which was immediately banned in India. But that was not enough. Indian tax authorities soon raided the network’s offices in the country on the pretext of investigating “tax evasion”. In the meantime, certain high-ranking MPs of Indian origin came down hard on BBC. And a couple of months later, BBC chairman Richard Sharp had to step down in an ostensibly unrelated scandal. Are there any lessons there?

India censoring international media is not a new thing. In 2018, the American Broadcasting Corporation (different ABC) cancelled a television series called Quantico starring Priyanka Chopra after it aired “The Blood of Romeo” in which she is shown to foil a terror plot initially blamed on Pakistanis ahead of a summit about Kashmir, but which is in fact orchestrated by Hindu nationalists trying to frame the Pakistanis. The hypernationalist Indian anchors tried to shame Chopra for defaming India’s name, but very soon, the BJP’s online trolls found a new mark. A Muslim Bangladeshi American writer, Sharbari Zohra Ahmed, who had left the team long before this episode was even conceived, became the immediate target of online harassment and hate. Three guesses why? The series was soon cancelled, citing low ratings. Likewise, for a decade, Google has been filtering out results critical of Modi and his government.

The Western intel agencies might have picked up the trail now, but this scribe has been warning all and sundry for a decade in this space and has paid a heavy price. Remember, this comes from someone who wrote “America needs constant vigilance” on November 14, 2020, almost two months before the January 6 attack.

So far, we have only discussed the threat to Indian dissidents. But what about the law-abiding Indian diaspora? People who are not particularly fans of Modi but are somehow forced to toe the line? You might think Modi is very popular among the Indian community abroad, but how different can this community be from their relatives in India? In the past three elections, Modi and his party never crossed the 38 per cent mark in the vote share. I know the number is still incredible, but bear in mind that 62 per cent of voters never voted for him. This makes you realise that save some out-and-out government supporters, the rest of the community must be under immense pressure and in grave danger.

But wait for the cherry on the top. The masterstroke in manufacturing consent. The Modi government’s similar campaigns in South Asia. Remember the Sri Lankan economic crisis? Too bad it happened after a presidential candidate, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, whom the Indian government was not particularly a fan of, won by a landslide. And the IMF did nothing. In fact, to understand this bit, you have to travel a bit further back in time. In 2018, when a new government came to power in Islamabad, and reports surfaced in Indian media that the fund was ready to bail out the new government, Mike Pompeo appeared on air and instructed the fund not to do so because this money could end up in China’s pocket. Then we learned that the fund’s chief economist was stepping down prematurely. He was quickly replaced by Gita Gopinath, a Harvard professor of Indian origin. After that, the fund assumed a tough posture towards Pakistan. And that is not all. Since then, judging by its role in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh negotiations, it seems to have been acting as Adani Group’s enforcer. Apart from exporting expensive power to the client nations, the group shows particular interest in acquiring operations of sea and airports worldwide and in the region. So what if it is under investigation? Gita Didi hai na!


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