When singer Rihanna and climate activist Greta Thunberg tweeted Feb. 2 in support of farmers in India, their combined superstardom led to a global spike in attention to the months-long protests against new agriculture laws.
This infuriated Indian government supporters, but rather than targeting the celebrities, almost every right-wing television network and publication in the country blamed one Canadian man instead.
Mo Dhaliwal, a digital marketing startup director and co-founder of the grassroots rights advocacy group Poetic Justice Foundation, is accused of paying Rihanna $2.5 million to support the farmers.
Earlier, this Vancouver-based group had worked with members of the South Asian diaspora to launch a website with information on the protests called AskIndiaWhy.com, which was referenced as part of a much larger list of online resources shared by Thunberg on Twitter.
“This turned into a convoluted conspiracy theory that was spun out of thin air by pro-government media. A day later, I learned that we paid Rihanna $2.5 million. That was an utter invention. I think they picked a reasonable number and added a decimal, and many people believed it,” Dhaliwal told the Star.
“That’s part of the mastercraft of fake news in India. It’s 100 times worse than Fox News.”
To top it off, police in India’s capital city, New Delhi, opened an investigation into the package of resources shared in Thunberg’s tweet, and without citing evidence, named Dhaliwal’s group as instigators. Police also accused them of supporting Khalistani “Sikh separatists,” who are seen as terrorists in India.
“Preliminary enquiry has revealed that the tool kit in question appears to have been created by a pro-Khalistani Organisation ‘Poetic Justice Foundation,’ ” Praveer Ranjan, Special Commissioner of Delhi Police said in a statement.
Dhaliwal told the Star his group had facilitated a webinar conversation on the Sikh self-determination movement in India. Poetic Justice Foundation creates room for dialogue about Khalistan, but doesn’t take a position on the issue. He said the police statements only further fuelled conspiracy theories and threats against him and his group members.
Dhaliwal, who is Sikh and has many friends and relatives in India, now fears he will never be able to return to the country. In recent weeks, he has received a torrent of death threats in abusive messages and phone calls.
“The calls came at all hours of the day and night, and a couple numbers had Toronto area codes. One man told me, ‘If you come to India, we’ll kill you.’ ”
Dhaliwal said he is only one of many in Canada who have voiced support for Indian farmers. His targeting seems symbolic, he says, as an attack on the South Asian diaspora as a whole to deflect attention away from the Indian government’s repression.
The farmers they support — many of them minority Sikhs from the major agricultural states of Punjab and Haryana — are demanding the repeal of new laws they say will favour large corporate farms, devastating the earnings of many farmers by cutting price supports as big corporations win out.
India’s agriculture sector employs about half of the country’s workforce. In Punjab, considered the bread basket of the country, the average farm size is approximately nine acres.
The government insists the laws will benefit farmers and boost production through private investment, but, in the face of protests, it has offered to suspend them for 18 months. The farmers want nothing less than a full repeal.
In addition, India has seen a rising tide of Hindu nationalism under Prime Minister Narendra Modi that has rankled minority groups. India is predominantly Hindu while Muslims comprise 14 per cent and Sikhs nearly 2 per cent of its nearly 1.4 billion people.
It has become increasingly difficult for Indian journalists to document these growing tensions, as they are subject to arbitrary arrest for their reporting. In 2020, Reporters Without Borders had listed India as No. 142 out of 180 countries and regions in its global press freedom ranking, having dropped two places since Modi took office in 2014.
The ongoing disputes have stirred concern among Canada’s two-million-strong South Asian community. Many have voiced opposition to India’s heavy-handed police response using water cannons, tear gas, barricades and police batons against unarmed farmers.
A significant cohort of Canadians of South Asian heritage hail from the Punjab region, with many being Sikhs with strong ties to farming communities. The issue has galvanized the diaspora to stand with the movement in social media posts, as well as through peaceful protests in cities such as Vancouver, Toronto, Sydney and Amsterdam.
In recent weeks, right-wing media sources in India have promoted unsupported theories that Sikhs overseas are responsible for instigating the farmers’ protests as a whole, as well as an unusually violent rally in late January at Delhi’s historic Red Fort complex. This narrative has been supported by official government sources in India.
After Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke out in December against the treatment of protesting farmers by Indian police, India’s foreign ministry said in a statement that the Canadian prime minister’s “intervention … encouraged gatherings of extremist activities in front of our High Commission and Consulates in Canada.”
This video was filmed in the former Star Vancouver office in 2019. Videographer: Geoff Webb
In recent weeks, many Canadians of South Asian heritage, particularly Sikhs, have felt the overwhelming weight of disinformation from propaganda outlets in India, which spurred nationalist trolls to send them threats on social media as well as other channels.
Ajay Rao, Director of the Centre for South Asian Civilizations at the University of Toronto, said this kind of harassment has been happening in Canada for years, often when individuals share research or voice opinions on political issues in India.
“Speakers invited to events at our university and others in Canada have been harassed by right-wing audience members who engage in heckling and attempts to silence critical perspectives on the Indian government,” Rao told the Star.
“It is clear that such responses are not spontaneous but are co-ordinated attempts at disruption by members of (pro-Indian government) organizations. Several of our students have also been subjected to abuse online by Hindu nationalist groups.”
Indian citizens or members of the diaspora who get smeared online as terrorists face grim repercussions, says Malavika Kasturi, a professor of South Asian history at the University of Toronto.
“They can be put in jail indefinitely under India’s draconian laws,” she said in an email to the Star.
“From the very beginning of the farmers’ protest they were falsely called terrorists, which they were not. Things reached such a stage that farmers were holding placards saying ‘We are farmers not terrorists.’ ”
While Canadians who receive abuse and smears online could pursue defamation cases, this unfairly puts the onus on victims to protect themselves, said Yousuf Syed, co-founder of the NGO Canadians Against Oppression and Persecution.
He said Canadian authorities, as well as international social media companies, should take proactive measures to respond to the dangerous effects of pro-Indian government nationalist activities.
The Canadian government should strengthen its regulations on digital platforms to increase monitoring of hate speech, while taking a close look at whether existing criminal laws are adequate, while social media companies should “come up with a framework to identify the source of propaganda, track and work with the government and police in enforcing stricter online media policies,” Syed told the Star.
In the meantime, Dhaliwal worries that the majority of the Canadian public would prefer to ignore these problems.
“Because we’re a minority in Canada, there seems to be a sense that this is some weird sectarian issue. I don’t think people register that these are Canadian citizens being attacked by a foreign nation.
“If tomorrow, the Norway government and Norwegian nationals turned around and started harassing the s— out of the Norwegian diaspora in Canada, I think we would look at it differently,” he said.
A spokesperson for Bill Blair, Minister of Public Safety, told the Star the Canadian government “takes threats to the security of individuals living in Canada very seriously.”
“While we cannot comment on any individual cases, anyone who feels threatened online or in person should report these incidents to their local police.”
Dhaliwal has filed a report about the threats he received to Vancouver police, so that there is “at least a record if something happens to me,” he said.