• July 19, 2024

While you were sleeping

(First appeared on December 26, 2020)

The recent exposé by the EU DisinfoLab pertaining to an Indian propaganda network functioning around the world is mindboggling. Since the publication of the report, many good commentaries have been written and I will not bore you with repetition. Suffice it to say that for 15 years some 750 fake media outlets and 10 UNHRC accredited zombie non-governmental organisations kept fooling various UN and international fora with their operations in 119 countries. The purpose of the disinformation campaign bankrolled by one mysterious Srivastava Group: to discredit Pakistan, build India’s image and impugn all actors it views as threats. The work of the DisinfoLab is proof that in an open society equipped with critical thinking such a massive charade cannot go unnoticed indefinitely. While a commendable work that is not what preoccupied my mind while reading the report. The single question haunting me since then is this: what was Pakistan, the main target of this campaign, doing to defend itself, and why it did not notice it for 15 years despite very clearly being on the receiving end of the effort.

I am not a paranoid man. But I learned early on that there can be healthy uses of paranoia. So, when it comes to matters of national security occasionally, I do let my imagination run wild for a bit before bringing sanity back to the system. In case you have not noticed the world is a broken place these days and something is seriously impairing the world’s judgment, not just Pakistan’s. Then why should we not be extra cautious and seek to understand what goes wrong? Therefore, I allowed my mind to take a deep dive into the world of the obscure. If an influence campaign was going on around the world against you and you did not notice, is it possible that a similar if separate effort was underway to ensure you do not notice? And if yes, how? There exists in this country a regular set of usual suspects, the bogeymen, thus branded fifth columnists, mostly liberal, even if your average, everyday whipping boys. This shouldn’t be that difficult. Right? Nah. The problem with this set is that no matter how vocal it is, it firmly remains a marginalised minority. It definitely does not control the levers of the country’s threat perception.

In my quest to understand this systemic failure I came across some remarkably blasé excuses. It was a very sophisticated operation and Pakistan did not have the resources to deconstruct it. Sure, but have you visited any of the websites in question? Half of their hyperlinks (mostly pertaining to other parts of the world) do not function. Their names are also often oxymoronic. You are telling me that as a chief victim of their vitriol you never came across these websites and never noticed anything funny about them? The entire scheme might be sophisticated but its public presence was not. And in the end, it was a Western organisation that unmasked it. We were left again in a reactive mode, redistributing the published work when it had already surfaced.

Speaking of paranoia, let us talk about the odd coincidences that have become a norm and nobody among us even thinks about trying to connect these dots no matter how random they might be. In the contingency planning class back in the college days we were taught that among other participants of the contingency planning committee there sits a person called the devil’s advocate whose job it is to discuss the most far-fetched scenarios just to ensure that no avenue is left unexplored. Are we left with none? Have you totally failed to notice that every time there is a horrid incident in India which brings the world’s attention to Modi’s authoritarian politics, something similarly awful happens in Pakistan almost immediately as if to balance the matter?

Here are some random coincidences for your kind consideration. On April 5, 2017, the Alwar mob lynching of Pehlu Khan brought global scorn to India. As if on a cue, on April 13, in a university named after the man often referred to as Frontier Gandhi, a flash mob lynches Mashal Khan on trumped-up charges. In India, every cow-related lynching is an instrument of the Hindutva policy of repression. Mercifully in Pakistan blasphemy-related lynchings have gone down substantially over the years. But I find it odd that many disruptions take place soon after something big happens in India. You inaugurate the Kartarpur Corridor earning plaudits from the Sikh community, visibly unnerving the Indian ruling elite and the next thing you know flash mobs start appearing at Gurdwaras to pelt stones and the Sikh community comes under attack in Pakistan. India is ridiculed internationally for the BJP’s ghar wapsi (forced conversion) drive and suddenly the reports of Hindu girls being kidnapped or eloping only to convert start skyrocketing. And this one might sound really really far-fetched but humour me. On September 7, this year, the world was shocked to learn that an 86-year-old woman was raped in India’s capital. We were trying to wrap our heads around this sad tragedy when lightning strikes our own home and on September 9, the horrendous motorway gang rape incident takes place and from the beginning to the very end it remains shrouded in mystery. I know the dates do not exactly correspond partly because the FIR was registered arbitrarily by the police in IIOJ&K obscuring the date of abduction but the Kathua gang rape and Zainab murder also took place too close to each other.

Here is another interesting angle. India bans TikTok to punish China for the Ladakh showdown and lobbies to get it banned in the United States. Suddenly we also start noticing that there is too much obscenity in the app. Likewise whenever the Indian government notices that Pakistani social media handles are hurting its image and they cannot be banned on its request, suddenly controversies emerge in Pakistan about social media giving way to emotive arguments in support of banning social media entirely. Right when India is again attracting global attention for its mishandling of farmers and its disinformation campaigns, out of the blue Omar Saeed Sheikh is cleared of all charges, and Bernard Henry Levi, a RAW adjacent French intellectual once again calls Pakistan a rogue state. And I don’t know whether you have noticed that in the past six years whenever the Indian government is confronted with agitation, unrest starts simmering in Pakistan too?

I know many of the above might be purely coincidental but they are only a few of the examples. Go through the last six years of any credible Indian newspaper and then one from Pakistan and you may come across enough incidents to convince you that we are trapped in a mirror world with a delayed impact. All of this brings me back to the original question. Why have we stopped questioning things? The questions may sound silly at times, but they are unlikely to harm you. Only indifference will.

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