A B.C. man is defending his reputation after being hurled into the headlines of every major national news network in India on allegations that he says are absurd.
Mo Dhaliwal is accused of being involved in an alleged international conspiracy to divide India with the help of celebrities like pop singer Rihanna and climate activist Greta Thunberg, both of whom tweeted in support of farmers protesting the country’s new agriculture laws.
“I’m told by my relatives in India that I’m on every channel and it’s just been constant,” Dhaliwal told Global News. “There are TV debates and entire panel conversations trying to uncover this really convoluted conspiracy that we are behind the Republic Day protests in India. It’s pretty incredible.”
Dhaliwal co-founded the Poetic Justice Foundation last March. The non-profit created a website called AskIndiaWhy.com to draw attention to the farmers’ protest movement.
He and the organization are now the subjects of an investigation by Delhi police who say they are the centerpieces in a driving division in India.
“They’re drawing incredibly huge conspiracy theories right down to accusing us of personally paying Rihanna $2.5 million for a tweet, which is ridiculous and not even worthy of any sort of rebuttal,” Dhaliwal said.
The attention may also stem from his speech outside the Indian consulate in downtown Vancouver on Jan. 26, when tensions and fears about possible bloodshed in India were heightened after clashes between police and farmers broke out in the country’s capital.
Many farmers have expressed confusion over how the events, including the storming of the historic Red Fort, unfolded on India’s Republic Day after some demonstrators deviated from a planned route and stormed the site. Farmers’ unions have condemned the violence and returned to their peaceful protest in camps on the outskirts of the capital.
At the solidarity rally in Vancouver that day, Dhaliwal spoke about Khalistan, a push for an independent state in northern India that peaked in the 1980s and 1990s, and has since been relatively dormant. He said he brought up the divisive subject to recognize everyone’s right to be a part of the demonstration after some protesters tried to shun Khalistan supporters.
Dhaliwal said his message about freedom of expression has been taken dangerously far out of context.
“It’s hard not to be nervous when you’re getting phone calls and death threats from local numbers,” he told Global News.
He said hundreds of messages, including images of dead Sikhs, are flooding his inboxes. The born-and-bred Canadian has many connections with friends, family and farming in India. He now wonders if he’ll ever be able to safely go back there again.
“We’re not spreading any hateful messages about India. We’re not trying to deride India in any way, (or) the people or the country or the culture. We are just asking people to pay attention here and ask India why it’s treating its own citizens this way,” he said.
India’s government has maintained its commitment to negotiating with farmers and said its controversial internet blackouts are in the interest of public safety.
“It is unfortunate to see vested interest groups trying to enforce their agenda on these protests and derail them,” India’s national Ministry of External Affairs said in part of a Feb. 2 statement. “Some of these vested interest groups have also tried to mobilize international support against India.”
Concerns around press freedoms
For B.C. journalist Gurpreet Singh, who has been protesting the press clampdown in India, the rhetoric around this story is familiar in what he and others refer to as state-backed media.
“‘Modi media’ is an expression that is widely used for these kind of elements (and) these kind of people in the media industry who are not holding the government of the day accountable. Rather, they are coming after those who are raising their voices against any repression or injustice.”
Rachna Singh, the Surrey-Green Timbers MLA and B.C.’s parliamentary secretary for anti-racism initiatives, said this kind of narrative points to a broader problem and an overall sad state of affairs.
“It is sad. I still feel that being an elected official, I’m privileged, I get a blanket of security that is around my elected official status. But obviously, I’m not immune to that,” she said, “in the last few days especially, with one tweet that Rihanna did that got the machinery into working overtime and trying to find … who’s behind it, how much she was paid, as if Rihanna needs to be paid.”
She said it’s disheartening to watch peacefully protesting farmers being portrayed as having ulterior motives.
“I think it’s one thing to ridicule the movement — to ridicule the sentiments that people have at this time, not realizing the anguish that the protesters are going through or their families are enduring at this time, so I think it’s downplaying everything and creating a narrative.”
She added she’s hopeful for a peaceful resolution and believes with so much international spotlight on India, this is a turning point.
“I’ve never seen coverage for any other event in India the way this has been covered … and I give credit to the farmers for that. With their persistence, with the way they’ve handled this protest, it is being covered all over the world.”
Meanwhile, Gurpreet Singh said Canadian journalists and the public should be paying closer attention to the issue involving an increasingly polarized society.
“Right now, the mainstream media here in Canada should pay more attention, they were so enamored by Trump,” he said. “We are talking about racism across the border. We are not talking about racism which is happening in India right now against Muslims and other minorities all the time.”
He added that’s part of the message from members of the Punjabi Press Club of B.C., who’ve been trying to raise awareness about detained journalists in India — several of whom have been charged with sedition — through ongoing protests outside the Indian consulate in Vancouver.
-With files from Neetu Garcha