FIR links NewsClick case to legal aid for Chinese companies

The FIR also alleges that the accused promoted a false narrative against India’s pharma sector; incited and funded the farmers’ protest; and conspired to show Kashmir and Arunachal as “disputed territories”

Updated - October 07, 2023 11:01 am IST

Published - October 07, 2023 12:40 am IST - NEW DELHI

The FIR filed by the Delhi Police cites tax evasion cases being faced by companies such as Xiaomi and Vivo in India. File

The FIR filed by the Delhi Police cites tax evasion cases being faced by companies such as Xiaomi and Vivo in India. File | Photo Credit: Reuters

The Delhi police have levelled a wide range of charges in their First Information Report (FIR) against NewsClick founder Prabir Purkayastha, American millionaire Neville Roy Singham, and activist Gautam Navlakha, a shareholder of Newsclick who is presently under house arrest as accused in a terror case. These three individuals have been named as the accused in the FIR.

Some of the charges are: conspiring to provide legal aid to Chinese telecom companies such as Xiaomi and Vivo, which are facing tax evasion cases in India; acting against the national interest by promoting a false narrative against India’s pharmaceutical industry and the policies of the government in cohort with “anti-national forces”; inciting, supporting, and funding the farmers agitation, with the objective of creating law and order problems and causing a “huge loss of several hundred crores to the Indian economy”; and publishing news funded by money clandestinely routed from China.

‘Conspiracy to sabotage 2019 election’

The FIR said that “secret inputs” showed that Mr. Purkayastha, Mr. Singham, and some other Chinese employees of Star Stream, owned by Mr. Singham, exchanged mails which exposed their intent to show Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh “as not part of India.” and to “peddle a narrative, both globally and domestically, that Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh are disputed territories.” The FIR also accused Mr. Purkayastha of conspiring with a group named the People’s Alliance for Democracy and Secularism to sabotage the electoral process during the 2019 general election.

Editorial | Undeclared Emergency: On the arrests and actions in NewsClick case

On October 3, the Delhi Police arrested Mr. Purkayastha and NewsClick human resources head Amit Chakraborty, and have also questioned more than 40 journalists, contributors, a satirist, and consultants linked to the news portal over the past three days. On October 4, NewsClick denied allegations of publishing Chinese propaganda.

Mr. Singham, an American citizen who currently lives in Shanghai, and whose foundation has invested in NewsClick, is not known to face any legal or criminal case in the United States. The FIR was filed suo motu by Inspector Praveen of the Special Cell of the Delhi Police on August 17, just days after The New York Times reported that NewsClick had received money from Mr. Singham to spread Chinese propaganda. 

Legal aid for Xiaomi, Vivo

The FIR accused Mr. Purkayastha, Mr. Singham, NewsClick shareholder Geeta Hariharan, and a Gautam Bhatia, identified as a “key” person, of conspiring to create a legal community network to campaign for and put up a spirited defense in legal cases against Chinese telecom companies such as Xiaomi and Vivo, in return for benefits from these companies. It claimed that these firms “incorporated thousands of shell companies in India in violation of PMLA/FEMA for illegally infusing foreign funds in India in furtherance of this conspiracy.”

The Hindu contacted well-known constitutional lawyer Gautam Bhatia, who refused to comment. It was not clear whether he was the person referred to in the FIR, or whether he has represented either of the Chinese companies in court. 

A Xiaomi India spokesperson denied the allegations. “We have no knowledge about this. We strongly deny the said allegation against Xiaomi in the FIR. Xiaomi conducts its business operations with utmost respect to, and in strict compliance of applicable laws. Any allegation of conspiracy is completely baseless,” the spokesperson said. 

The trade between India and China surpassed $100 billion in 2022, and both Xiaomi and Vivo continue to operate in India. Xiaomi had also donated ₹10 crore in 2020 to the PM CARES fund that was set up in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Funding propaganda

The FIR stated that, “ 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 the Chinese government.”

According to the FIR, since April 2018, fraudulent funds worth crores of rupees have been received by NewsClick’s holding company, PPK Newsclick Studio Pvt. Ltd through illegal means during a short span of five years from Mr. Singham’s investment vehicle, Worldwide Media Holdings LLC, USA, which is a shareholder of NewsClick.

“Such foreign funds have been fraudulently infused by Neville Roy Singham, active member of propaganda department of Communist Party of China through a complex web of several entities...,” the FIR said. These entities include Worldwide Media Holdings, GSPAN LLC, which is owned by Mr. Singham, and a think-tank named The Tricontinental Ltd. Inc. U.S.A.

The FIR claimed that both Tricontinental India Pvt. Ltd. and GSPAN India Pvt Ltd. were incorporated by their American parent companies “to infuse funds into India by circumventing the existing rules for receipt of foreign funds by non-profits.”

‘No government funding’

Vijay Prashad, executive director of Tricontinental, told The Hindu that the FIR’s charges related to the think-tank were unclear. “Tricontinental (US) does have a contractual arrangement with Tricontinental Research Services (India). It contracts with TRS to do research on a range of issues that are important for Tricontinental’s mission. This research is then published by Tricontinental,” Mr. Prashad explained. “The subjects of these reports have ranged from studies of steel factories to interviews with workers to the building of houses in Solapur. Tricontinental is not a recipient of money from any government. It is funded by private and public foundations. It offers grants and hires consultants based on the legal requirements of the countries of the grantees and the contractors,” he added.

The FIR claimed that Mr. Navlakha, “who is a shareholder in NewsClick since its inception in the year 2018, remained involved in anti-Indian and unlawful activities such as actively supporting banned Naxal organisations and having anti-national nexus with Gulam Nabi Fai who is an agent of ISI of Pakistan,” adding that Mr. Navlakha has been associated with Mr. Purkayastha since 1991.

The FIR alleged that “such illegally routed foreign funds have been siphoned off by Mr. Purkayastha and his associates” and that such funds were distributed to Mr. Navlakha, to associates of activist Teesta Setalwad, and to several of the journalists questioned by the police, including Urmilesh, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, and Abhisar Sharma, among others.

Support for farmers

“The accused persons have also conspired to disrupt supplies and services essential to the life of community in India and abet damage and destruction of property by protraction of farmers protest through such illegal foreign funding,” the FIR alleged. “It is learnt that for this purpose a mutually beneficial nexus was established between some Indian entities and inimical foreign establishments. The objective of above nexus was to promote, support each other for purpose of backing, supporting, funding farmers agitation with the objective of causing huge loss of several hundred crores to Indian economy and create internal law and order problems in India,” it added.

The three farm laws passed in 2020 by Parliament were withdrawn by the government in 2021, in the wake of massive protests, particularly in the Punjab-Haryana-Delhi belt. 

Maligning Indian pharma

“It is also learnt that Mr. Purkayastha, Mr. Singham and Vijay Parshad and others also actively propagated false narratives to discredit the efforts of Indian Government to contain the COVID-19 pandemic,” the FIR said. It claimed that the accused had promoted a false narrative against the Indian pharmaceutical industry, along with “anti-national forces”.

A parliamentary panel report in March this year highlighted India’s high import dependence for bulk drugs and pharma ingredients, with imports from China accounting for 70% of the total. These imports increased even during the border row with China, which has been ongoing since mid-2020 when 20 Indian soldiers were killed in violent clashes with the Chinese soldiers in Ladakh’s Galwan Valley. 

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