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Covert Indian operation seeks to discredit Modi’s critics in the U.S.

(Illustration by Shubhadeep Mukherjee for The Washington Post; J. Scott Applewhite/AP; Simon Dawson/Bloomberg News/Getty Images; mbell/Getty Images)

NEW DELHI — Since 2020, an opaque organization calling itself the Disinfo Lab has published lengthy dossiers and social media posts claiming to reveal the personal relationships and funding sources behind U.S.-based critics of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The Disinfo Lab has combined fact-based research with unsubstantiated claims to paint U.S. government figures, researchers, humanitarian groups and Indian American rights activists as part of a conspiracy, purportedly led by global Islamic groups and billionaire George Soros, to undermine India.

In each instance, these allegations have gone viral on Indian social media after they were amplified by pro-Modi influencers, who at times used the group’s findings to validate their own positions. Its reports have been cited by Indian officials on television and presented on Capitol Hill. Despite its reach, the Disinfo Lab does not disclose its affiliation, describing itself on its website as a “separate legal entity” that seeks to offer “completely unbiased research.”

In reality, however, the Disinfo Lab was set up and is run by an Indian intelligence officer to research and discredit foreign critics of the Modi government, according to three people who worked in the organization or were familiar with its establishment. While claiming that it aimed to uncover anti-India disinformation, the Disinfo Lab itself is running a covert influence operation, they said.

The organization’s material is among the most widely circulated by right-wing Indians and Hindu nationalists. Its reports gain global reach, partly because they are spread on social media by high-profile figures with large followings on X, previously known as Twitter, including current and former officials in Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, former intelligence and military brass, and a cabinet minister, according to a Washington Post analysis of nearly 100,000 reposts of Disinfo Lab content on X. While it is unclear how many of them, if any, are aware of the Disinfo Lab’s intelligence ties, these top retweeters give the Disinfo Lab a stamp of authority and, some of its targets say, boost its ability to intimidate individuals overseas.

The Disinfo Lab’s activities show how the online propaganda campaigns waged by the BJP and its allies have been expanding beyond their traditional, domestic aims of shoring up popular support and denigrating opposition parties — and now seek to influence attitudes far beyond India’s borders. Moreover, the organization’s ties to an Indian intelligence officer could blur the line traditionally observed by the country’s security apparatus between operations that serve the strategic interests of India and those that advance the political objectives of the ruling party, analysts said.

Sumit Ganguly, an expert on Indian diplomacy and national security at Indiana University at Bloomington, said undermining foreign governments and their officials is “routine” work for intelligence agencies around the world. But if Indian intelligence is “besmirching American critics and civil society organizations, it would be crossing a line reminiscent of KGB tactics during the Cold War,” he said. “It would be part and parcel of the Modi government’s attitude toward dissent, whether at home or abroad.”

The Disinfo Lab, which at one point consisted of about a dozen private contractors working out of a four-story whitewashed building on a leafy street in New Delhi, was created in mid-2020 by Lt. Col. Dibya Satpathy, now 39, an intelligence officer who has worked to shape international perceptions of India, said the three people familiar with the operation. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive intelligence activities.

Satpathy was initially commissioned as an infantry officer and served in the army’s intelligence and public information units, said a person briefed on his military personnel record. That person and another source close to the military said Satpathy was later detailed to his current posting with India’s external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). Over the years, Satpathy has introduced himself to Western journalists and commentators under fake identities — including his preferred alias, Shakti, meaning “power” in Hindi — and sought favorable coverage of India or critical coverage of its adversaries, Pakistan and China, according to five additional people who have had contact with Satpathy.

In an emailed response to questions from The Post, the Disinfo Lab said, “We are in no form associated with any govt agency, nor with any of its personnel. Nor are we associated with any other organization — Indian or International.” The organization said it was created by individuals who had met in an anti-corruption political movement and were concerned about “the massive disinformation targeted at India to sow divisions in society.”

The email, signed by “Disinfo Lab,” said the group did not side with Modi’s government. “We are equal opportunity exposers, even calling out the ruling party. Disinformation is our arch-nemesis, irrespective of political allegiance,” the group said.

Efforts to reach Satpathy through the Disinfo Lab and separately through an intermediary did not yield a response. India’s national security adviser, Ajit Doval, who helps oversee the country’s intelligence agencies, did not respond to a request for comment.

‘New player’ on the world stage

Over the past five years, social media researchers have uncovered large Indian online networks that promote the BJP’s foreign policy positions to domestic and foreign audiences. Coordinated social media accounts have been found to play a role, for instance, in spreading identical posts in support of Russia, an important supplier of weapons and energy to India, and of Israel, an increasingly close partner.

“The Indian right wing is a new player that has arrived on the world stage and wants to shape global discussion,” said Joyojeet Pal, a professor of information at the University of Michigan who studies disinformation in India. “So far, much of it is done in the same way it’s done within India — through crude, blunt force. But it’s getting smarter.”

The Disinfo Lab has emerged as one of the more sophisticated players. In 28 reports it has published so far, the organization has often painted a picture of an India under attack by a sprawling “nexus” of conspirators funded by Pakistani intelligence, the Muslim Brotherhood and Soros.

The Disinfo Lab’s narrative alleges that these funds have found their way to Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), an Indian American and outspoken critic of Modi; Indian American activists who criticized the Modi government for discrimination against Muslims and low-caste Hindus; and members of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedoms (USCIRF), a bipartisan panel that has recommended the State Department designate India a “country of particular concern” for the Modi government’s treatment of Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and other minority groups.

The Disinfo Lab often cites publicly available U.S. lobbying and campaign finance records and produces complex flowcharts to illustrate alleged relationships. But the group draws tenuous connections, claiming, for instance, that a USCIRF commissioner was influenced by Islamists because she once worked on a conservative fundraising committee alongside a lobbyist who went on to represent Muslim American groups.

When the Disinfo Lab released its first major report, in early 2021, it created a template for the kind of attacks that would be repeated in the coming years. The organization released a dossier nearly 100 pages long alleging that Pieter Friedrich, a California-based activist and journalist who has written magazine articles and given public speeches critical of the BJP and affiliated Hindu-nationalist groups, had ties to the Sikh separatist movement and Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency. The Disinfo Lab burrowed into California state records to uncover Friedrich’s employment history, published his parents’ names and plotted detailed graphs about his social media activity.

A prominent Indian official among others spread the dossier on Twitter, amplifying the allegations. Police officials in New Delhi called a news conference and distributed the dossier, telling reporters that the “carefully researched” report showed Friedrich had been “on the radar of Indian security establishment.” Citing Disinfo Lab research, pro-government television channels ran reports alleging Friedrich and Pakistan had masterminded a 2021 protest by farmers at New Delhi’s Red Fort that erupted into violence and represented a major challenge to the Modi administration.

In a recent interview, Friedrich said that many personal and work details reported by the Disinfo Lab were true but that other claims — that he fomented an anti-government riot or had ties to Pakistani intelligence — were fabricated. The attacks made him fear for his safety, he said.

“It felt like the earth shook,” he said. “I understood it as a warning shot across the bow saying, ‘You need to stay in your lane, stop poking your nose in our business and keep your mouth shut.”

The Disinfo Lab also published a lengthy report in April denouncing Sunita Viswanath, the New York-based founder of the rights group Hindus for Human Rights who has criticized the BJP’s Hindu-nationalist ideology as antithetical to Hinduism. The Disinfo Lab dug into her past and reported that a nonprofit she launched to help female Afghan refugees had received funding from Soros’s Open Society Foundations.

Two months later, after Indian opposition leader Rahul Gandhi attended a meeting in Washington with Viswanath as part of a U.S. tour, Amit Malviya, the head of the BJP’s social media team, tweeted a photo of the meeting and shared a flowchart stamped with the Disinfo Lab logo illustrating Viswanath’s connections to Soros.

“Who is she exactly?” Malviya wrote on X. “She is nothing but a proxy of George Soros, who has committed $1 billion to meddle in India’s internal affairs, through a network of opposition leaders, think tanks, journalists, lawyers and activists.” The post was retweeted 7,800 times.

And last month, after The Post published an article about the Indian government’s efforts to censor X, the Disinfo Lab took to that platform and accused The Post, falsely, of waging psychological warfare against India at the behest of the CIA. The thread also went viral.

Until at least 2021, the Disinfo Lab shared its office with a separate team headed by a career RAW intelligence officer who specialized in China and carried out information operations related to Tibet, said the three sources who described the activities to The Post. The Disinfo Lab itself was headed by Satpathy, whose work has focused mostly on countering Pakistan and the unrest it allegedly foments in the Indian border state of Punjab and Indian-controlled Kashmir, these people said.

Much of the Disinfo Lab’s work reflected the thinking of its founder, Satpathy, who was described by journalists, a government official and a person close to the military as a deeply patriotic officer who is fascinated by geopolitical intrigue and concerned by threats he sees India facing.

When he self-published a novel in 2016, Satpathy gave book talks and interviews, describing himself as a 2002 graduate of India’s National Defense Academy who loved writing, theater, single-malt whisky and his motherland. In 2019, he penned an article for a defense journal analyzing how India used a “carefully scripted narrative” to justify to the world an airstrike conducted against Pakistan earlier that year.

By late that year, the Indian government was coming under intense international criticism for revoking the semiautonomous status of Muslim-majority Kashmir, and around that time, four journalists recalled, a polished national security official began introducing himself as “Shakti” to foreign correspondents in New Delhi, telling them he wanted to help them understand India’s perspective.

They said Satpathy offered to arrange a meeting for them with Modi’s national security adviser, Doval, coordinated a rare visit to Kashmir, which was then off-limits to foreign reporters, and pitched story ideas about Kashmir’s economic recovery under India’s direct rule. “Shakti” refused to disclose his name or affiliation, said the journalists, but they later identified him as Satpathy when shown photographs of him.

One of Satpathy’s former associates recalled working with him to feed Pakistani documents to Bruno Macaes, a former Portuguese diplomat who has written books about China’s Belt and Road Initiative and maintains a large following on X. Macaes, who confirmed he had been approached by men claiming to be Pakistani dissidents, said he was not aware they were connected to Indian intelligence, but he shared screenshots showing he was forwarded documents from a Telegram user named “Shakti.” Macaes said he ultimately did not write about the documents.

One person who played a role in the Disinfo Lab’s formation said the operation emerged from a world view in which India is besieged by “information warfare” from foreign countries that stoke religious divisions and grievances within India. For years, government officials, including Modi, have also pointed a finger at Western human rights and other nonprofit groups and news media, alleging they unfairly criticize India and conspire to hold back its development.

“The Indian government felt it was not having its views conveyed in the international media,” the person said. He added that, initially, the goal was for the Disinfo Lab to be viewed as a neutral organization on a par with well-known Western disinformation research groups and cited by mainstream news outlets. Like other people cited, he spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of Indian government retribution.

Another person, a former employee, said the Disinfo Lab named and modeled itself after groups such as the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab and the EU DisinfoLab, a Brussels-based nonprofit that researches disinformation targeting Europe.

The office operated under the name “Root and Wings Media,” which describes itself online as a social media marketing company, said the three sources familiar with the operation and Rohan Mehta, the landlord of the building where the operation was located until mid-2021. The Post could not locate company registration records for Root and Wings or its current address. Employees who picked up at its publicly listed phone number declined to provide their address or comment.

On a YouTube show in 2021, the founder of Root and Wings, Ajayendra Tripathi, described himself as a social media expert who specialized in busting fake news and inauthentic accounts. “You can’t tell outright lies if you want to spread fake news,” Tripathi explained to his interviewer. “You have to tell lies that are somewhat close to the truth.”

When reached by The Post via text messages, Tripathi denied any association with the Disinfo Lab and said he now works for a political consultancy. He declined further comment.

Asked by The Post about its offices, the Disinfo Lab said, “The place we worked from had multiple other offices including a co-working space. We do not and did not work for any other firm.”

The Disinfo Lab has often served as a rapid-reaction force to counter criticisms of the Modi government that have attracted international attention or to preempt anticipated flak.

In February, Soros, a frequent critic of Modi, warned in a speech at the Munich Security Conference that the Indian leader was undemocratic and would lose his “stranglehold” over the Indian government. A day later, the Disinfo Lab posted a lengthy tweet thread alleging that Soros had ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and manipulated “fake” U.S.-based advocacy groups to smear India. A spokesperson for Soros’s Open Society Foundations called the Disinfo Lab’s claims “entirely baseless” and said they were part of a “campaign by this site and others in India against advocates of human rights, democratic governance and the rule of law in the service of the political aims of the BJP and its allies.”

When Jayapal arranged to have House and Senate members in June write a letter pressing President Biden to raise human rights issues with Modi days before his state visit to Washington, the Disinfo Lab published a lengthy X thread — retweeted more than 1,000 times — claiming Jayapal was influenced by Pakistan and “Islamist funding.” Jayapal did not respond to requests for comment.

The Disinfo Lab’s reports and social media posts often gain an enhanced veneer of authority as they propagate online because of the prominence of their retweeters.

The Post analyzed the 250 most-followed accounts that reposted content from the Disinfo Lab. Of those, The Post identified 35 current or former BJP officials, 14 government or military leaders, 61 journalists, authors or thought leaders, and 140 influencers or content creators, including Indian and American right-wing ideologues. Many had hundreds of thousands or millions of followers, and shared Disinfo Lab content dozens or even hundreds of times.

These retweeters included Tajinder Bagga, the national secretary of the BJP youth wing; Sanju Verma, a BJP national spokeswoman; and Kapil Mishra, the vice president of the BJP’s Delhi unit who has 1.5 million followers on X. Government- and military-linked amplifiers have included Rajeev Chandrasekhar, the junior information technology minister; Kanchan Gupta, senior adviser to the information ministry; Ved Malik, a retired chief of army staff; and Vikram Sood, a former RAW chief and author of “The Ultimate Goal,” a book about how shaping narratives at home and abroad is a key responsibility of intelligence agencies.

“Great work,” Sood said in tweeting a 108-page Disinfo Lab report detailing how Pakistan allegedly funded American academics, activists and retired CIA officials to criticize India’s governance of Kashmir. Sood also shared the report on Koo, an Indian homegrown alternative to X.

When contacted by The Post, Bagga, Mishra and Malik said they were not familiar with the Disinfo Lab’s background. Verma, Chandrasekhar, Gupta and Sood did not respond.

Other key spreaders, The Post analysis found, were U.S.-based groups advocating for Hindu-nationalist causes. Some of the Disinfo Lab’s frequent retweeters included HinduPACT and Hindu Action, two initiatives of the U.S. branch of the Vishva Hindu Parishad, a right-wing Hindu organization that is ideologically allied with the BJP. Sudha Jagannathan, an American activist who lobbied to block a California bill banning caste-based discrimination, retweeted the Disinfo Lab 120 times.

Ajay Shah, the convener of HinduPACT, said the group disseminates surveys, research reports and news items from “a wide variety of sources if we consider them to have impact on the American Hindus.” He said he does not know who runs the Disinfo Lab, adding, “We do believe that their analysis, unless unequivocally proved inaccurate, is highly relevant to American Hindus … and American national security.”

Hindu Action did not respond to a request for comment. But after being contacted, the group tweeted that the “material that we have shared are concerning and should be taken seriously by our American law enforcement agencies.” Jagannathan did not respond to a request for comment.

Disinfo Lab reports have also made their way into American halls of power.

Amid the covid pandemic in 2021, a senior U.S. congressman in the House India caucus received a Disinfo Lab report from a group in his district claiming that Islamic humanitarian agencies were receiving federal aid and sending it to Pakistan to fuel terrorist activities targeting India and the United States, said a congressional staffer speaking on the condition of anonymity to share details of private conversations.

The staffer said the lawmaker’s Hindu constituents insisted the office provide updates about what Congress would do about the claims made in the Disinfo Lab report and, a member of the office forwarded the report to law enforcement for further review and investigation.

The group’s work also showed up in the debate this year over California legislation to outlaw caste-based discrimination. Opponents of the measure gave lawmakers a slide presentation suggesting, in part, that they read a Disinfo Lab report attacking the group leading the push for the legislation, a person familiar with the lobbying efforts recalled, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters. The dossier painted that group — a U.S.-based civil rights organization called Equality Labs — as a radical outfit funded by Pakistan to orchestrate caste-related protests in the United States and included personal information about the group’s director, her divorce and her father.

“This is a situation where the American government needs to protect American citizens that are being targeted for foreign influence, simply because we want to have rights like other Americans,” said Thenmozhi Soundararajan, director of Equality Labs.

Ria Chakrabarty, a policy director for pro-pluralism Hindus for Human Rights, a group critical of Modi, said lobbyists working for U.S.-based Hindu nationalist groups have disseminated Disinfo Lab dossiers in other venues.

She recalled attending the 2022 International Religious Freedom Summit at the Renaissance Hotel in Washington when a lobbyist from HinduPACT walked around distributing a thick, bound Disinfo Lab report that claimed to connect the Indian American Muslim Council, an Indian diaspora group critical of Modi, to Pakistani intelligence. The lobbyist knew that Chakrabarty often collaborates with the IAMC, Chakrabarty recalled, and warned her to “know who you’re sitting next to.”

In its response to The Post, the Disinfo Lab pointed to its record of forcing “activists” and “human rights fronts” to shut down by exposing them, saying, “We take our craft very seriously, and we make sure that our claims stand. In our understanding, fake news/ fabricated data is the core of any info-war.”

The ‘Disinformation Age’

Ajai Shukla, a retired Indian Army colonel and a military affairs journalist, said that former prime ministers such as Indira Gandhi also painted her critics as national security threats. But the Modi government has gone further, sometimes blurring the line between its political foes and those who should be targeted by the security apparatus, he said.

The defense establishment “exists to serve national and strategic interests, not political interests,” Shukla said. “But the BJP under Modi has seen critics as anti-Indian, the enemies of India itself.”

With its reports repeatedly cited by BJP officials and its profile rising, the Disinfo Lab gave its only interview to date, in written format, to the Indian freelance journalist Sandhya Ravishankar this summer.

In response to Ravishankar’s emailed questions, the organization explained that it was founded in 2020 by people with political and marketing backgrounds. The group said it relied mostly on conventional open-source intelligence-gathering methods, lots of Googling and its self-made data visualization tools. It warned that India was caught in a “narrative war” against many belligerents: the United States, China, Pakistan and “hydra-headed Islamist fronts, all operating under lofty human rights and other banners.”

“Left with no other choice, we are trying to do what we can with limited resources,” the Disinfo Lab said. “The world moved from the Information Age to the Disinformation Age long back.”

Morse and Verma reported from Washington.

Design by Anna Lefkowitz. Visual editing by Chloe Meister, Joe Moore and Jennifer Samuel. Data editing by Anu Narayanswamy. Copy editing by Christopher Rickett. Story editing by Alan Sipress. Project editing by Jay Wang.

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