Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is preparing for national elections in India by mid-year, and central to its message is a wild range of conspiracy theories making the rounds on social media and even in traditional news outlets. The Washington Post released a stunning exposé last month about what appears to be a propaganda operation started and run by an Indian intelligence officer that fuels those theories. The operation, Disinfo Lab, reportedly created elaborate conspiracy theories, based on half-truths, about a supposed shadowy network of political activists and “enemies” of India, including in the United States. The conspiracy theories have been circulated by Indian officials at the highest levels. The U.S. government must take urgent action to forestall an ever-more dangerous slide, not only for India but also for Americans aiming to support India’s democracy.

For the past few years, Indian human rights organizations based in the United States, such as Hindus for Human Rights (HfHR, my organization) and the Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC), have been at the epicenter of Disinfo Lab conspiracy theories circulated by Hindu nationalist groups. They have alleged variably that our groups have ties to terrorists, Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence agency, Christian Evangelical missionaries, and George Soros.

In early June, Amit Malviya, who describes himself in his Twitter (X) bio as head of the BJP’s National Information and Technology Department, circulated these conspiracy theories in an apparent attempt to malign the party’s political opponents. These clearly antisemitic and Islamophobic accusations directed internet and media attention against Americans criticizing the BJP. This attention intensified a few weeks later, when Indian Cabinet Minister Smriti Irani repeated these smears at a press conference on national television. India’s major news outlets, including Hindustan Times and Zee News, spent an entire week uncritically repeating Irani’s attacks on HfHR and IAMC leaders. In the Washington Post article, Disinfo Lab denied association with any government agency or personnel, despite the evidence the Post presented.

In the fall of 2022, I would regularly check the official BJP account. I’d find a new video about how George Soros, HfHR, and opposition leader Rahul Gandhi are supposedly conspiring to destroy India. As election season heats up, we anticipate more attacks, more videos, and more danger.

Then, on Oct.14, the Indian government apparently directed the social media site X, formerly known as Twitter, to “withhold,” meaning block, Indians’ access to HfHR’s and IAMC’s accounts. At HfHR, X later informed us that our account supposedly violated India’s Information Technology Act of 2000. Malviya celebrated this development on X, where he, yet again, repeated antisemitic and Islamophobic conspiracy theories about us.

More Brazen

While both HfHR and IAMC receive more than our fair share of attacks from Modi supporters in India and abroad, we’ve noticed over the past year that the Indian government has become more brazen in going after our organizations. Previously, Twitter and email trolls harassed HfHR and IAMC members for supporting an academic conference, “Dismantling Global Hindutva,” which sought to explore how to address growing Hindu nationalism around the world. And though trolling attacks from India may seem organic, these appear to be part of a state-supported disinformation campaign, as the Washington Post documented in September:

“[B]eyond the party’s official online efforts, there was also a shadowy parallel campaign, according to BJP staffers, campaign consultants and party supporters. In rare and extensive interviews, they disclosed that the party quietly collaborates with content creators who run what are known as “third-party” or “troll” pages, and who specialize in creating incendiary posts designed to go viral on WhatsApp and fire up the party’s base. Often, they painted a dire — and false — picture of an India where the nation’s 14 percent Muslim minority, abetted by the secular and liberal Congress party, abused and murdered members of the Hindu majority, and where justice and security could be secured only through a vote for the BJP.”

HfHR and IAMC are not alone. Several Indian American and broader human rights groups have reported increasing repression and scrutiny by the Indian government. In June 2023, after she asked Modi about human rights in India, Wall Street Journal reporter Sabrina Siddiqui faced trolling so intense, including from Malviya, that even the White House had to publicly condemn the harassment she faced. In 2022, Vice News journalist and documentarian Angad Singh was refused entry into India; he wasn’t given a reason, but he previously had made documentaries on two iconic protest movements in India against controversial “reforms” to agriculture laws and opposing Islamophobic citizenship laws. Last year, Kashmiri journalists and activists with Indian passports, including some who live outside of India, reported that the Indian government was suspending their passports.

And then there are the Indian government’s attacks on the Sikh community. In March 2023, a Canadian Sikh organization told the CBC that it received a notice from Twitter that the Indian government had urged it to block the accounts of several prominent Canadian Sikhs, including leaders of the New Democratic Party, after they had shared information on large-scale internet shutdowns in Punjab. The Sikh organization’s own account was blocked as well.

In September, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau alleged that agents of the Indian government were responsible for the June killing of a Sikh Canadian citizen, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, who had advocated for an independent Sikh state in Punjab via a referendum. Sikh American leaders reported that the FBI had informed them in the aftermath of the killing of credible threats to the Sikh community. And in late November, the U.S. Department of Justice announced charges against an Indian national who attempted to kill an American citizen at the instigation of an unidentified Indian government employee, in a plot that evidence indicates was linked to the Canadian killing.

Internal Repression – Chilling Effect

The Indian government’s emboldened attacks on critics abroad come at a time when it is brutally shutting down dissent in India. The chilling effect on Indian civil society is tangible. Twitter famously complied with Indian government requests to block access to the BBC’s documentary on Modi’s rise to power as part of a ban on the documentary, and the government raided BBC offices in New Delhi and Mumbai. Prominent Indian intellectual and author Arundhati Roy also faces criminal prosecution for a speech she made in 2010 about the relationship between India and Kashmir. India is ranked 161 out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index. And Freedom House rates India only “Partly Free” in both its “Freedom in the World” report on political rights and civil liberties and its “Freedom on the Net” report on internet freedom.

Few, if any, human rights defenders working in or on India feel safe enough to engage the international community in fora such as the United Nations Human Rights Council. Indian activists, journalists, and politicians know they are being surveilled and that they could be arbitrarily detained at any moment. Activists scrub their online presence for their safety and create alternative communications channels, using only the most secure modes of correspondence.

While the room to criticize Modi shrinks in India, the diaspora has to take up the fight against the country’s democratic backsliding. This is why Modi and his allies are stretching their tentacles into other countries — to try and stop the rest of the world from speaking out.

Those of us in the diaspora can feel the fear seeping into our communities. We are being systematically intimidated and censored. Some of us are facing death threats. Others, statelessness. One Sikh Canadian was killed for his support for separatism, and a Sikh American was almost killed for the same reasons. After these allegations first emerged, more than 100 civil society groups signed a statement of solidarity with the Sikh community, where this fear has been felt most acutely. In the statement, Indian organizations and allies asked for protection from the government authorities where we live, because only they have the power to defend our right to freedom of expression.

Reluctance to Press India on Violations

In the United States, this means President Joe Biden must use existing human rights tools, including Global Magnitsky sanctions and visa bans, to send a message that the Indian government cannot silence Americans for exercising their fundamental rights to free speech. This administration has used these tools before to combat transnational repression from hostile nations such as Iran, Russia, Belarus, and China.

The reluctance to do the same for ostensible – but clearly unreliable – partners such as India, is telling. Even the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom expressed “extreme disappointment” that the State Department “yet again failed to designate” India among Countries of Particular Concern (CPC), “despite its own reporting and statements,” and called for a congressional hearing to demand explanations from the administration.

Biden must move beyond expressing his concerns in private. He must publicly denounce partner governments who attack Americans on American soil.

Congress, too, has a role to play. Currently, the U.S. government does not have a specific policy to define or combat transnational repression. Congress must pass transnational repression bills, including the bipartisan Transnational Repression Policy Act, which would provide the executive branch with a pathway to address this increasing concern. Finally, as Senator Chris Van Hollen suggested at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing (time stamp 1:26:00) in early December, Congress should activate sections of the Arms Export Control Act to adequately address transnational repression.

The U.S.-India relationship, according to Biden, is one of shared values. If that’s the case, the United States must remind the Indian government that if India is truly a democracy, it must respect the fundamental right to dissent.

IMAGE: In this picture taken on Jan. 9, 2023, content creator Narendra Verma (C) speaks with his team members during the shooting of a scripted video in Sitapur, in India’s Uttar Pradesh state. The acting is dire and the scenarios fake, but staged videos are peddling disinformation and fanning sectarian tensions in India, which has seen rising Hindu radicalization under nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi. A different operation allegedly distributing false conspiracy theories targeting US-based groups critical of Modi’s policies and practices, Disinfo Lab, was the subject of a December 2023 investigative article in the Washington Post. (Photo by SANJAY KANOJIA/AFP via Getty Images)