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Delhi Police Terror FIR Against NewsClick Puts Lawyers in Crosshairs, Names Chinese Firms Xiaomi, Vivo

'Key person' identified by police as having provided "spirited defence" of Chinese companies, 'Gautam Bhatia', does not figure in any court proceedings as having represented them. The FIR invokes five sections of UAPA against Prabir Purkayastha, Gautam Navlakha and Neville Roy Singham.

New Delhi: The Delhi Police FIR against Prabir Purkayastha and NewsClick which became the trigger for the arrest of the 73-year-old veteran editor and raids on nearly 50 other journalists, writers and others, also alleges the existence of a ‘larger criminal conspiracy’ involving the “illegal infusion of funds” by Chinese companies Xiaomi and Vivo, and the “spirited defence of legal cases” against these telecom firms by “Gautam Bhatia” who is described as a ‘key person’.

The FIR does not provide any further details about the identity of Bhatia and court records involving the two Chinese companies named do not show a Gautam Bhatia as their counsel.

The best-known and most visible lawyer carrying that name is the author of widely acclaimed books on the constitution and free speech, and his court practice has tended to be narrowly focused on human rights-related cases. He is not known to have had any dealings with telecom firms, let alone Chinese ones.

Bhatia has also authored two books on science fiction though many in the legal fraternity are likely to place the police FIR in that category.

The FIR filed on August 17, 2023 names Purkayastha, the activist Gautam Navlakha and the US businessman Neville Roy Singham and invokes multiple sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act – 13/16/17/18/22C – i.e. unlawful activities, terrorism, raising funds for terrorism, conspiracy and offences by companies – besides section 153A and 120B of the Indian Penal Code (promoting enmity between groups, criminal conspiracy).

After outlining its principal claims against Purkayastha, NewsClick and Singham – the US businessman whose funding of the news portal through open banking channels now forms the basis for the police case – the FIR says:

“It is further learnt that big Chinese Telecom companies like Xiaomi, Vivo, etc. incorporated thousands of shell companies in India in violation of PMLA/FEMA for illegally infusing foreign funds in India in furtherance of this conspiracy.”

It then adds:

“Further Shri Prabir Purkayastha, Shri Neville Roy Singham, Ms. Geeta Hariharan, Shri Gautam Bhatia (key person) conspired to create a Legal Community Network in India to campaign for and put up spirited defense of legal cases against aforementioned Chinese Telecom Companies in return for benefits by these Chinese Companies.”

Xiaomi and Vivo have a large presence in India, as suppliers of mobile phones as well as investors. In 2022, Xiaomi, which had invested a lot of money in Indian startups like ShareChat, Kreditbee and ZestMoney, was reported to be planning to exit these. Since then, it has fully divested its share of Kreditbee, according to Adfactors PR, which represents the Indian fintech brand.

Both Chinese firms are currently the subject of an Enforcement Directorate investigation into money laundering and have had a substantial amount of their financial assets in India frozen by the authorities. Xiaomi’s counsel, Udaya Holla, mounted a spirited defence before the Karnataka high court earlier this year but failed to get the company’s funds that had been frozen released. Vivo has been represented in the Delhi high court by senior advocates Siddharth Luthra and Siddharth Aggarwal.

In 2020, Xiaomi donated Rs 10 crore to the PM Cares fund, and is currently  “planning massive production units in India”. Vivo, which has already invested Rs 2400 crore in India, is planning total investments of Rs 7500 crore.

A question mark is sure to be placed against these expansion plans since the Delhi Police has now placed both Chinese companies at the centre of an international terrorist conspiracy to destabilise India.

Criticism of Indian government policies

Elsewhere in the FIR, the police says a “large amount” of Chinese funding was used to publish “paid news” which criticised the policies of the Indian government and promoted the policies of the Chinese, though the FIR does not provide any details of these alleged paid news items:

“In furtherance of this conspiracy to disrupt sovereignty of India and to cause disaffection against India, large amount of funds were routed from China in circuitous and camouflaged manner and paid news were intentionally peddled criticising domestic policies, development projects of India and promoting , projecting and defending policies and programmes of Chinese government.”

As was mentioned in its remand request October 4, the FIR also names a now-defunct WhatsApp group that was formed several years ago as being part of a conspiracy with Purkayastha to “sabotage” the 2019 Lok Sabha elections:

“It is learnt that Prabir Purkayastha conspired with a group namely People’s Alliance for Democracy and Secularism (PADS) to sabotage the electoral process during 2019 General Elections. The key individuals of this group who were involved in this conspiracy are Battini Rao (Convenor, PADS), Dilip Simeon, Deepak Dhoulakia, Harsh Kapoor, Jamal Kidwai, Kiran Shaheen, Sanjay Kumar, Asit Das, etc.”

Simeon, a well-known historian who retired from Delhi University a few years ago, and Dholakia, a scholar and social activist, were both raided by the Special Cell on October 3 and their electronic devices seized.

Again, the FIR provides no details or corroborating information to bear out its serious charge.

FIR claims ‘false narrative against domestic pharma industry’

Another accusation against Purkayastha and Singham as well as the author Vijay Prashad is that they along with others “actively propagated false narratives to discredit the efforts of Indian government to contain Covid-19 Pandemic.” While this charge featured in the remand request, the FIR contains another, more sweeping allegation, though with no details provided:

“Moreover, they have acted against the national interest by promoting a misleading and false narrative about the domestic pharmaceutical industry and the policy and initiatives of  the democratically elected Indian government in cohorts with (sic) the Anti-National forces.”

Curiously, the FIR does not mention one of the more serious (though unsubstantiated) charges contained in the police remand report such as that “accused persons along with accused Neville Roy Singham conspired to create disaffection among various sections of the society and they are also found to be actively sympathising banned terrorist organisation so that unity, integrity, security, and sovereignty of the country can be threatened.” (emphasis in original).

So far, the police have not identified which banned terrorist organisation they are referring to.

The Delhi Police reports to the Union home ministry.

Incidentally, Gautam Navlakha, 70, was arrested in April 2020 in the controversial Bhima Koregaon case where he, along with 15 others, was charged with terrorist offences under the UAPA. After spending more than two years in Taloja jail, he was moved to house arrest in light of his deteriorating health.

Key charge in FIR is of cartographic terrorism

The FIR also accuses Purkayastha and Singham of exchanging emails which “expose their intent to show Kashmir and Arunachal Prades as not part of India”. This, the police says, reveals “their conspiracy to peddle a narrative both globally and domestically that Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh are disputed territories.Their attempts to tinker with the northern borders of India and to show Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh as not parts of India in maps amount to an act intended towards undermining the unity and territorial integrity of India.”

Though the FIR provides no details substantiating this charge, the authorities seem to have leaked excerpts of purported emails to a section of the media soon after an August 5, 2023 New York Times report on Singham included a reference to NewsClick. This is what India Today magazine reported on August 9, 2023:

In an email to his associates, including Prabir Puryakastha and Jason D Pfetcher, Neville Roy addressed an issue with the recently rolled out HD map of China.

He also mentioned the changes made such as adjusting colours for Taiwan and Hong Kong, as well as reducing the prominence of Taipei to indicate it as a provincial capital rather than a national capital.

“Clearly China and India will have to have two maps inside their countries”’ — in the email, he also acknowledged how they might have overlooked the dotted line, which demarcated the border between India and China to the left (east) of Bhutan.

The same India Today story mentions another email:

An email exchange with a journalist, dated February 16, 2021, discussed publishing an article titled “China’s New Infrastructure and the Drive for Global Domination”. The email observes that the existing Google map features a ‘dotted line’ to signify the border. This email was sent on January 6, 2021.

And this is what the RSS mouthpiece Organiser reported on August 9, 2023:

On January 6, 2021, at 5:09 PM, Singham sent an email to many individuals in which Newsclick Editor-in-Chief Prabir Purkayastha was one among those many receivers. One of the purported emails read, “I think we missed the dotted line between India and China to the (left of Bhutan)”, while seemingly discussing issues about the India-China border dispute. It adds, “Clearly China and India will have to have two maps inside their countries.” With an attached picture of Arunachal Pradesh on China’s side, the mail replied, “Here is a map from Diplomat where China claims Arunachal Pradesh.”

None of these reports on map related purported emails quotes from any message that Purkayastha might have sent.

No information on what steps India is taking to question Singham

Singham is a US national currently residing in China. On Thursday, the Ministry of External Affairs was asked whether it had raised the question of Singham’s involvement with the US government. The MEA spokesman indicated that no such matter had been raised by the Indian side yet. “If our agencies find that there have been violations of our law by an entity or an individual and it requires assistance or reaching out to foreign governments, we do that,” he said, adding: “And we would do that if our agencies asked us, as and when they do. I don’t have anything specific to share on one individual or a particular case.”

The FIR accusing Singham of terrorism was registered on August 17 but it would appear that the Modi government has yet to seek action against him by either the US or Chinese authorities.

Note: The story has been updated to include more details of the FIR, the MEA’s view and media reports on purported emails from Singham that refer to maps.

Note: Prabir Purkayastha’s age is 73 years and not 76 as stated in an earlier version of this story

Note: This story was updated on October 9 to make it explicit that Xiaomi, which had invested in some Indian startups, has since divested its stakes in KreditBee.