Indian Pro-Government Activists Burn Photos of Greta Thunberg over Farm Protests

Activists of United Hindu Front (UHF) burn an effigy with a picture of Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg during a demonstration in New Delhi on February 4, 2021, after she made comments on social media about ongoing mass farmers' protests in India. (Photo by Money SHARMA / AFP) (Photo by …
MONEY SHARMA/AFP via Getty Images

Activists supportive of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government in India burned teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg in effigy on Thursday, while Indian police filed sedition charges against the creators of a protest toolkit Thunberg shared on Twitter.

Indian farmers have been demonstrating since November against a package of agricultural reforms they regard as unfair and damaging to their livelihoods. A huge number of protesters have camped around the Indian capital of New Delhi. The demonstrations have included some violence, vandalism, and fatalities, while the Indian government’s response has been criticized as heavy-handed and transgressive of free speech rights.

The Indian government has denounced foreign advocates and “vested interest groups” who express support for the farm protesters, including celebrities like pop singer Rihanna and climate activist Thunberg. Thunberg’s support included a tweet on Wednesday in which she shared links to a “protest toolkit” that drew the ire of Modi’s government and its supporters.

The cybercrime unit of the Delhi police on Thursday filed charges of “sedition, criminal conspiracy, and promoting hatred” against the creators of the toolkit, which they identified as a Canada-based organization called the Poetic Justice Foundation (PJF). Indian security officials accuse the foundation of being in league with a Sikh separatist group called the Khalistan Movement.

Thunberg was not charged by the Indian police, but the charging documents mention her tweet, which she later deleted and said was a mistake. The Times of India (TOI) described the toolkit, which numerous Indian social media users screencapped before Thunberg could remove it:

The PowerPoint presentation detailed the list of tasks aimed against India. Some of the head[ings] mentioned in the toolkit were “disrupt ‘yoga and chai’ image of India in general,” “unified global disruption in the diaspora on January 26,” and “repeal of farm laws.”

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“The documents shared mistakenly by Greta shows how tweets by Rihanna and others weren’t organic and were part of a larger campaign to malign India. This makes it important to see all such statements/tweets by important people in India and abroad in the context of the planned and pre-scripted campaign,” a senior government functionary who insisted on remaining anonymous said. He cited the investigation launched by Delhi Police into the origin of the toolkit, which BJP [Modi’s party] on Thursday slammed as a “schoolkit of anarchy.”

The toolkit portrayed the Indian farm protests as just the “first wave” of a “global farmers strike,” denounced India’s democracy as “failing” and Modi’s party as “fascist,” and urged standing against “unregulated corporatization of the farming sector.” January 26 was proposed as a “global action day,” and the authors urged keeping the protest movement going even if India decides to repeal its controversial farm laws.

More details were published by the Indian Express on Friday:

In the Urgent actions section, the toolkit asks those interested to start a ‘Twitter storm’ on February 4 and 5; share a solidarity photo/video message by email to scrapfarmacts@gmail.com; call/email government representatives and ask them to take acton; divest from “monopolists and oligopolists like Adani-Ambani”, and organise protests “on-ground” “near the closest Indian Embassy, Media House or your local government office on February 13 and 14”.

The toolkit had five links, titled ‘More Information — Important Links’, which are still working. One leads to a website that talks about holding protests, donating, using social media to support the cause of farmers. The website’s ‘about’ section says: “We are a volunteer group of individuals in Canada, the USA and the UK, who are passionate about social justice issues affecting the Indian agricultural community. We feel distressed being far away from our Elders, Brothers and Sisters who are fighting for autonomy over their land.”

Another link is for a website described as a “digital home to exploring geopolitics & ideas about freedom through data, writing, & technology”. The link provides leads to a page titled ‘Do I own products linked to Ambani?’, and mentions Mukesh Ambani and Gautam Adani.

Thunberg later reposted a sanitized, much shorter version of the toolkit, with some of the more aggressive material removed, and insisted she still supports the farm protesters. She claimed the original version she posted was “outdated.”

Most Western news reports are stepping very lightly around the exact contents of the document Thunberg accidentally shared, but those who screencapped it before she deleted it noted the presentation is fairly explicit about waging all-out political warfare against India, including a great deal of material concerning issues that have nothing to do with the farm protests. Part of the toolkit included templates for rapidly manufacturing social media posts. It was very clearly never meant to be made public; Thunberg was chided by detractors for posting the entire presentation online rather than surreptitiously following its instructions, as intended.

Critics charge the toolkit was created as part of an international conspiracy to destabilize India, as outlined at The Print on Thursday:

According to sources, Canada-based organization Poetic Justice Foundation (PJF) played a “vital role” in “starting a global campaign”, with backing from “political leaders and activists based out of Canada”.

The people that are on the radar of Indian agencies include Mo Dhaliwal, founder of the PJF and director of a PR firm named Skyrocket, Marina Patterson, who worked as a relationship manager with PR firms, Anita Lal, director of the Canada-based World Sikh Organisation, and co-founder of PJF, and Canadian parliamentarian Jagmeet Singh.

According to sources, it was Skyrocket that allegedly paid $2.5 million to popstar Rihanna to tweet in support of the farmers’ protest in India. Dhaliwal, the sources said, is a Canada-based Sikh who is a “self-proclaimed Sikh separatist” and is also close to Jagmeet Singh. 

Dhaliwal has indeed voiced public support for the Khalistan Movement. A viral video purportedly shows him agitating for the movement, in language very similar to the first toolkit accidentally posted by Thunberg, during demonstrations that were held on January 26 as the toolkit envisioned.

“If anybody tells you that this battle is going to end with the repeal of the farm bills, that is because they are trying to drain energy from this movement. They are trying to tell you that you are separate from Punjab, and you are separate from the Khalistan movement. You are not. And at some point, you have to understand the feeling and the emotion that the Khalistan group is bringing to this,” Dhaliwal ostensibly said in the video, whose authenticity could not be immediately confirmed by journalists.

Some Indians believe the first toolkit’s odd instruction to “disrupt the yoga and chai image of India in general” is actually a coded instruction to overthrow the Indian government, noting that Modi sold tea before he became prime minister, is sometimes contemptuously referred to as “Chai” by his detractors, and is a noted yoga enthusiast.

Supporters of the Indian government burned posters of Thunberg and Rihanna during their own demonstrations on Thursday.

“Foreign powers are conspiring to challenge the sovereignty and unity of my country. They are encouraging and funding farmers protests. They are trending the farmers protest and provoking the people of our country through social media. We have come here to protest against them,” one member of a Hindu nationalist group explained.

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