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India, fascism and the mirror world — journalists and activists are particularly at risk

India, fascism and the mirror world — journalists and activists are particularly at risk
Student activists and activists of various leftist organisations protest against the arrest of NewsClick journalists in New Delhi, India, on 4 October 2023. Delhi Police’s Special Cell searched 30 locations connected with the online news portal and its journalists in a case under the anti-terror law, Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, with an allegation that NewsClick received money for pro-China propaganda. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Harish Tyagi)

Following police raids on the offices of Indian media outlet NewsClick, associated with wealthy Marxist-Leninist Roy Singham and the International People’s Assembly, some of the individuals embroiled in this group have been scapegoating people on the left who are concerned about this appalling behaviour and the toxic influence Stalinism is having on the broader left.

On Tuesday morning, Delhi police conducted raids on the offices of the online publication NewsClick, as well as the homes of numerous journalists and activists thought to be affiliated with the site. Several individuals were arrested, including NewsClick editor Prabir Purkayastha and HR head Amit Chakravarty.

Chakravarty and Purkayastha were allegedly arrested under a draconian anti-terrorism law known as the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), which could see them and others held in prison for a substantial amount of time without evidence or formal charges. The UAPA has already been used to imprison many Indian activists.

The situation in India has become increasingly dire. Under the fascist-leaning Hindutva nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), headed by Narendra Modi, Islamophobia has been normalised across society, evolutionary theory that clashes with Hindu supremacism has been removed from school textbooks and India has slipped towards the very bottom of the Press Freedom Index, where it is currently nestled between the highly restrictive regimes of Venezuela and Russia at 161 out of 180 countries.

Journalists and activists are at particular risk in Modi’s India, and their brave work exposing corruption and challenging Hindutva nationalism is frequently met with brutal repression. As activist Kavita Krishnan, the author of Fearless Freedom, noted in a recent personal communication, the NewsClick raids do not come as a surprise — many progressive and left voices in India have, in her words, been “prepared for just such a dawn raid for years”.

A global propaganda project

In this instance, however, NewsClick has long been on the BJP’s radar. It was originally raided by the Indian state in 2021, with Purkayastha allegedly interrogated for several days about tax offences, money laundering and the site’s “pro-China” funding. This funding, it is suggested, came from Roy Singham, the US tech entrepreneur who sold his company Thoughtworks for an unknown sum — thought to be at least $800-million several years back.

On a rosy view, Singham, a Marxist-Leninist, is a benevolent hard-left equivalent of George Soros, and has spent the past few years distributing the proceeds of the Thoughtworks sale to various media projects and activist organisations around the globe, many of which form part of the innocuous-sounding International People’s Assembly (IPA).

On a more cynical view, Singham, along with his right-hand man Vijay Prashad, a well-known author and the director of the think tank Tricontinental, are more like a leftist version of the notorious Koch brothers.

For years now, they have been quietly cultivating a global propaganda project that straddles numerous media organisations, publishing houses, activist spaces, political parties, unions and grassroots movements. The various nodes in this project serve as relays — oftentimes unsuspecting — for the content produced by Tricontinental, along with Prashad’s Globetrotter syndication platform.

This content ranges from relatively uncontroversial and often important staples of the contemporary left — Palestine, pro-union solidarity, grassroots environmentalism and anti-oppression politics — to what numerous commentators have described as “tankie” disinformation and Communist Party of China (CPC) propaganda.

Tankies, in case you’ve never met one, are a uniquely cultish breed of dogmatic leftists who are known for their fetishisation of 20th-century “socialist” tyrants like Mao and Stalin, and equally well known for their perennial denialism of the violent excesses associated with these regimes, excesses that include, ironically, the repression of the media.

It’s hard to avoid adopting the more cynical position when IPA-associated publications regularly feature Tiananmen Square massacre revisionism, denialism around China’s cultural genocide of Uyghurs (a Muslim minority which, unlike India’s Muslims, is apparently not worth defending from Islamophobia) and Bucha massacre conspiracy theories that come directly from the Kremlin. Tacit support for the Wagner Group’s vicious neocolonial project in Africa via the well-worn tactic of whataboutery is also par for the course, and forms part of the discourse of multipolarity — a realpolitik-style international relations worldview that intuitively appeals to the reductive US-only anti-imperialism of the tankie crowd.

This cynicism is further warranted by recent critical media coverage of Singham and Prashad’s media network. A seminal 2022 article in New Lines by anti-fascist researcher Alexander Reid-Ross, author of Against the Fascist Creep was followed earlier this year by a lengthy investigation in the Daily Beast, culminating in an excoriating New York Times exposé of Singham and Prashad in August, the consequences of which have been tenuously depicted by various IPA associates as “the new McCarthyism”.

While this is an egregious overstatement in the case of the US, the New York Times article did create a significant stir in right-wing Indian circles and ostensibly provides a convenient excuse for the BJP to enact a renewed round of repression against journalists and activists that have long been a thorn in the side of the Hindutva nationalists. Many of those facing repression are associated with the CPI(M) — the Communist Party of India (Marxist) that Prashad is apparently a member of.

Singham’s SA link

Perhaps it’s worth pausing to remind readers of why Singham’s name may sound familiar. As detailed in investigations last year in amaBhungane and Daily Maverick, Singham was the funder of the short-lived but sorely missed non-profit progressive news website New Frame, which disappeared from the internet shortly after the publication of the New York Times article.

Here’s where it gets personal. I was New Frame’s technology manager from 2018-2022, during which time I frequently collaborated with the highly skilled technical team at NewsClick. I was also interviewed for the New York Times article, where I described how Singham, whose proximity to New Frame and other IPA projects is perennially downplayed, had personally interviewed me for my job (this was not a formal interview, but when the likely-billionaire funder of the non-profit you’re seeking employment at meets you at the Rosebank Starbucks for two hours to drill you on technical questions, it’s probably, by any reasonable definition, a job interview).

As a vocal left critic of the campist politics of the IPA, it was alarming to learn earlier today that some of the individuals embroiled in this group have been suggesting — in a manner strongly redolent of how New Frame’s sudden closure was framed — that various disgruntled ex-New Frame journalists, as well as a shadowy “anarchist type of individual” in fact bear responsibility for what is currently unfolding in India due to having expressed their views in the New York Times article.

They mean me, dear reader. I am that most troubling of all political spectres, the “self-described” anarchist or, as Prashad once memorably but confusedly put it, a “white-wing anarcho-trot”.

Regardless of my personal convictions and my discomfort with the disinformation that has been spread by NewsClick and other projects in the IPA orbit, there is absolutely nothing to celebrate in a right-wing regime arresting journalists. Journalists and progressive voices should stand in unreserved solidarity with those whose lives are at stake and speak out about the chilling effects this will have on whatever remains of press freedom in one of our major BRICS+ partner countries.

That said, to shift the blame to the journalists and activists who have been emboldened to publicly speak out against the IPA project is violently dishonest. Similarly, it is remarkably simplistic to mischaracterise the situation as the direct result of one article in the New York Times, unless, unlike contemporary media studies scholars, one regards the so-called hypodermic model of propaganda popularised by Herman and Chomsky in their 1988 book Manufacturing Consent as still credible. Given the discourse that is prevalent within the IPA media network, however, it does seem as though the Cold War geopolitics of the Stalinists is coupled with an approach to propaganda that is equally anachronistic.

Beyond this, it is in fact strikingly ironic for the tankies to claim that South African journalists, along with their ghoulish comrades, the anarchists, are the ones enabling fascist repression. These, after all, are people who deny the Holodomor (Prashad), who fraternise with fascists and celebrate far-right political victories (Medea Benjamin, who heads up “activist” group Code Pink along with Singham’s partner Jodie Evans), who collaborate alongside Aleksandr Dugin, one of the world’s most famous and dangerous fascists, for a Chinese state propaganda outlet (many of the IPA inner circle) and who regularly defend the most authoritarian regimes around the planet, including Assad’s Syria, Putin’s Russia, Maduro’s Venezuela and, of course, Xi’s China.

The mirror-world

Singham, Prashad, Benjamin and Co are perhaps best viewed as the denizens of the left hemisphere of what Naomi Klein, in her recent book Doppelganger, calls the mirror world. They are adept at the use of socialist rhetoric and red-and-yellow symbolism, and are undoubtedly, in some cases anyway, true believers in the dialectical unfolding of communism, but their politics has nothing to do with any of the principles of the left. They support the ruling classes in supposedly “anti-imperialist” regimes like China, Cuba and even North Korea, and their political praxis is grounded in spin, disinformation, front groups and opaque, unaccountable hierarchies.

If, like many progressively minded people watching the radicalisation of the online left towards multipolarism, you’d like to know what narrative arc leads from Chomsky memes and vaguely anti-capitalist social media feels to marching down the streets of central London chanting “Ho, Ho, Ho, Chi Minh, Che Guevara, Stalin!”, well, these are the chief narrators.

If anyone on the left is enabling fascism, therefore, it is the red-brown Stalinists, with their incessant Putinist dogwhistling and their cosiness with autocrats, conservative theocracies and would-be dictators.

When you practise a politics of fundamental dishonesty, when you spend vast sums of money setting up disinformation relays across the globe, when you mislead large numbers of people about the nature of the projects you have embroiled them in, when you encourage people in vulnerable contexts to spread lies, sometimes subtle, sometimes not, about the Uyghur cultural genocide, Tiananmen Square, Ukraine, or Russia’s neocolonial role in Mali, Burkina Faso and other parts of Africa via the Wagner Group, and when you seek to pollute the history and principles of the left with noxious Stalinist revisionism, then you are to blame when this serial underhandedness is exposed and weaponised in politically volatile contexts.

Scapegoating people on the left who are concerned about this appalling behaviour and seek to draw attention to the toxic influence Stalinism is having on the broader left — not to mention journalists who wish to defend the integrity of their craft — is both predictable and, some may argue, a classic case of projection.

Perhaps most galling of all, however, is how the various media projects associated with the IPA have exploited the news cycle, opportunistically appropriating vital grassroots reporting platforms and issues to spread an authoritarian Cold War-era politics while running roughshod over journalistic integrity and the hard-won media freedoms that are under increasing threat in many parts of the world with all the ethical disregard of ambulance chasers. All this while surreptitiously lashing out at reputable journalists and precariously funded media outlets as fronts for US imperialism.

History has demonstrated time and time again that a politics that rewards dishonesty and disinformation makes for terrible bedfellows and horrifying repercussions. Horseshoe theory, the old trope that the far left and the far right meet at their edges, may be patently false, but it is clear that, increasingly, the distorted doppelgangers of the mirror-world left are making common cause with the logic, and in some cases the figureheads, of a resurgent global fascism.

That this fascism frequently emerges at the blurry intersection of right-wing ethnonationalism and left-wing decoloniality should serve as a stark reminder that it is becoming increasingly easy to slip into the mirror world. DM

Aragorn Eloff is the digital coordinator of amaBhungane. From 2018 to 2022 he was the technology manager of New Frame. This article is written in his personal capacity.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Cornay Bester says:

    BRICS+ fascism part 2.

  • Martin Smith says:

    Stalin and Mao ‘polute’ the left… what an understatement!

  • T'Plana Hath says:

    Journalists and activists, as you conflate them here, and with reference to the other DM-related New Frame article that you linked, are at risk largely due to their own hubris and naivety.
    “There’s no such thing as a free lunch”. That’s Real-World 101; how did they not see that?
    “I’m going to pay your bills and you haven’t to worry about a thing.”
    Rule 102, if it’s too good to be true, it is a lie.
    This is basic stuff. You are as free as a train on a track or a fish underwater.
    Strutting and fretting about how ‘Big Media Daddy’ wouldn’t let them, the journos, of New Frame journos ‘colour outside the lines’ and then coldly kicked them to the curb (appalling reader stats notwithstanding) smacks of a bunch of coffeehouse revolutionaries/malcontents who are upset because the guy funding their all-expenses-paid ‘vegan coffee house’ (by analogy) is insisting that they only serve a certain type of ‘almond milk’!

    Play the long game. Read the room. Pace yourself.

    If you don’t like a rule, just follow it, reach the top, and then change it.

    Nevertheless, thank you for the inscrutable opinion piece.
    My takeaway is that, “left or right, you are probably wrong.”

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