The ‘leaked’ Intelligence Bureau (IB) report on how and in what measure activism in India is impacting the country’s economic security has by now been trashed more or less across the board by activists, liberals and the media.
There are as many ‘analyses’ doing the rounds about the motive behind the writing of the report (why, when, by who) as there are about its ‘leak’. Some — the very adventurous, or the merely conspiratorial — talk of a larger game than is obvious. Others are picking it apart for the very real factual holes in it, the sort of thing unexpected of an intelligence agency that thinks of itself as premier. Much of the information in the report is there online for the taking by a diligent datajournalist.
Firstly, it is not a report but an ‘Intelligence review’. For the greater part, the review seems a mountainous aggregate of unsorted financial statistics, patched together with the usual establishmentarian grouses against troublesome organisations whose mandate exists outside that of the government.
There are various conjectures — even believable theories — about when this review was ordered, if at all, and when it was written. Clearly, its provenance is older than this shiny, new government — it is said to have been kicked off when P Chidambaram was the home minister — but there are inerasable indicators in the text that its bits and pieces, of uneven quality, were stapled together and presented as a unitary whole after this government was sworn in.
It is unlikely that had the review been merely hauled out of an IB file cabinet, it would have included a near-verbatim lift (p. 2) from a translated reproduction of a speech in Hindi by Narendra Modi — at the release function of the book NGOs, Activists and Foreign Funds: Anti-Nation Industry on 9 September 2006 at New Delhi — or that it would have referred to NGO “efforts to debunk the Gujarat model of development” (p. 19), or to the “proposed railway project Bullet Train from Ahmedabad to Mumbai via Vadodara” (p. 21), or, indeed, to the “Special Investment Region (SIR) in Gujarat” (p. 20). The Congress just wasn’t that bothered about development in Gujarat to have agreed to serious concerns about possible damage to it being shoehorned into a white paper on NGOs.
This jumble of often unreconstructed data was compiled — and its contents ‘leaked’, with a remarkable non-show of discomposure by both government and the IB — most likely to send out a message: that when it comes to opposition to the government, all activists look the same. The review, consequently, flings together every shade of NGO and liberal activist, tars them with the same brush, and makes them all answerable for any future tanking of the economy.
Every conservative democratic government in the world seems to think in the same way about non-governmental entities — and to treat them with a common bellicosity. The Bush administration had made similar investigations into US NGOs, funding entities and clearing houses for funds, and their role in the national economy and its securitisation. It began in 2001 when the American Enterprise Society and the Federalist Society got together with the Australian think-tank, the Institute for Public Affairs, held a conference titled ‘Non-Governmental Organisations: The Growing Power of an Unelected Few’, and laid the ground for a ‘coöperative’ website, NGO Watch. Israel, on its part, has its Jerusalem-based NGO Monitor website, tasked with keeping an eye on human rights operations that can impact Israel.
But not one of these ‘overseers’ has ever overtly employed or contributed to an Intelligence report such as the one that was recently leaked in India. There are checks and balances in US law that protect US NGOs against the sort of baldly damning statements made in the IB review. And thus it was that SP Udayakumar, one of the activists repeatedly named in the IB review, filed a writ petition before the Madras High Court, asking that departmental action be taken against the major signatory, an IB joint director — not, intriguingly, for writing the review or for purveying damaging data, but for leaking it and breaching the provisions of the Intelligence Organisations (Restriction of Rights) Act, 1985.
This petition might not work: The Union home ministry has reportedly tracked the leak to the Union ministry of coal, which is headed by Minister of State with Independent Charge Piyush Goyal (who was recently in the limelight for being photographed hobnobbing with Anil Ambani and then being pulled up for the indiscretion by Modi). This trail might exclude the author since, as an IB official, his office falls under the home ministry. But it might not let off the hook several other senior officials through whose hands the review passed (and who signed on it), including one from the coal ministry itself.
Although Udayakumar has gone on record as saying that he is “not looking for damages nor an apology”, this affair of unconcealed secrets doesn’t look like it is over. There are too many questions that remain unanswered, quite a few that remain — intriguingly — unasked, and there is an extraordinary number of red herrings strewn across the path of anyone who wants to investigate.
Whether or not Udayakumar will be docked and examined in court is moot. It’s likely, though, that with such controversy spilling around (and the purpose of the leak — massive paranoia among the country’s activists and NGOs — more or less accomplished), everyone involved might want to see this event canned and archived, for the present. The judiciary might find itself in the position of having to decide whether or not Udayakumar is, as the IB review suggests, a spy for foreign interests or an activist who may have been played by shadowy foreign interests, or an activist truly concerned about the impact of a nuclear reactor that he is convinced is unsecured. Then, again, it wouldn’t be out of place to ask if the judiciary, without the instruments of independent investigation on call, has the wherewithal to pass judgement on a person at the centre of an Intelligence spiderweb.
Work on this spiderweb reportedly began during the term of the UPA-2 government. Chidambaram took over as Union home minister from Shivraj Patil after 26/11 while Congress veteran Pranab Mukherjee became the finance minister. The State was in a shambles: inflation was showing no signs of slowing and the decrease in the growth rate was worrying. Protests exploded countrywide against big infrastructure projects, including energy- generation projects and mining industries.
It helped that in South Block, the finance and home ministries are located not far apart: both are on the first floor of the same building. When Chidambaram flipped back to the finance ministry in July 2012, he wasn’t far from his old office in the home ministry. With the UPA government taking a pounding — especially the finance ministry — the IB might have been roped in to investigate the impact of the protests.
It was thought that the contents of the review would provide good fodder for the General Election campaign. The UPA could have used it to apologise for the dismal state of its governance and what is commonly disdained as its policy paralysis.
Around 65 NGOs active in various protests were scrutinised for this review, of which 17 were registered with the home ministry to get foreign funding under the seemingly stringent Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA). There were around 28 NGOs involved in anti-nuclear protests — the focus of this review — with 12 receiving funds from US agencies (which the report leaves strangely unnamed), and there was apprehension that 22 more would join in. Already, the Tamil Nadu government, too, had begun keeping an eye on these protests.
Until 2011, Udayakumar, convener of the Koodankulam protests, and other activists were limited to the villages — a sparse audience. They were protesting the State-operated Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL). When the 2011 Fukushima disaster happened, it gave anti-nuclear activism in India a shot in the arm.
The premise of the IB review is that there are two kinds of anti-nuclear activist networks: a ‘superior network’ of activist-ideologues such as Praful Bidwai, Achin Vanaik, Medha Patkar and others, who are not the real target of this review. The real target seems to be the next circle of influence comprising the likes of Udayakumar in Tamil Nadu and K Sahadevan in Kerala. These people, the review suggests, were the ground-level mobilisers of public opinion and support. They were in the direct grasp of the ‘foreign hand’. And this is why Udayakumar fell in the IB’s spotlight.
Nonetheless, for all this logicality, the review fails to establish a link to foreign corporates or intelligence agencies that might seek to destabilise India politically or financially. That such exist — and even their identities — is hardly a conjecture. But what is missing is what Intelligence ostensibly excels in: evidence. It is also unclear why the IB would submit a review seeking to expose Udayakumar if he is, indeed, an agent of a foreign entity. The usual steps are continued surveillance and clandestinely using a suspected agent to deliver disinformation and misinformation. Or is it the case here that the government has found no other way to discredit anti-nuclear protests?
Matters get really strange, though, when it comes to the involvement of foreign nationals, such as the German, Hermann Rainer Sonntag, and the Dutchman, Eelco de Groot (who worked, harmlessly, in Médecins sans Frontières and then in mineral extraction). The IB review mentions an email that Sonntag sent to Udayakumar, with an attached high-resolution image of a map marking nuclear energy sites with post-its carrying names and contact details of various activists. What set off warning bells in the IB was that it was an image — and text in image form, the review says, can avoid detection at e-gateways. Except that this particular image, with text in it, was caught — which belies the IB’s claim that they cannot. Nonetheless, this means that Sonntag was being electronically monitored before Udayakumar. The question is: Why? How did Sonntag come to pique the IB’s interest?
There are no answers to this — yet. Sonntag is elusive. No Indian journalist who has interviewed him has met him or even seen him. A deep search brings up his name in connection with the Urban Medical Institute in Baltimore, Maryland; with Kyoto, Japan, on the outskirts of which is the clearing house for nuclear material for Japan’s reactors; with, intriguingly, Portuguese politician João Cravinho; with Fukushima Daiichi; and with tonnes of references that show him everywhere seemingly at the same time. But before he turned into a ghost, what did mark him — and the activists — was that the post-its in the image in his email had their BlackBerry mobile pin numbers. It is a common belief that BlackBerry servers are impenetrable by governments and Intelligence, and that anyone who wants to fly under the radar — such as rioters in London, activists and, of course, terrorists of all shape and form — employs BlackBerry Messenger.
This email got Sonntag summarily deported to Germany in March 2012. The review says Sonntag “did not behave like other tourists” and that he had no “digital footprints on the Internet”. The review means that Sonntag didn’t restrict himself to sightseeing touristy places but attended — exclusively, it suggests — a slew of anti-nuclear protests. He lived frugally, by all accounts, but the IB would have it that he dealt in financing the movement. The report provides not an iota of proof to support this charge. In a recent interview to TEHELKA, Sonntag said, “Like a majority of Germans, I’m opposed to nuclear energy and concerned about the safety of the people.” He also admitted to being present at protests.
The map in Sonntag’s email to Udayakumar — the review carries a hazy reproduction in which it is impossible to figure out the details — built the idea that there actually exists a foreign-aided activists’ network spread out through Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Meghalaya (and cropping up wherever hotspots happen to appear). But it’s mostly a hint-hint, wink-wink, nudge-nudge sort of suggestiveness: US agencies remain elusively unnamed, with just one NGO, Bread for the World (not, as many might think, Friends of the Earth, a moneyed, non-Christian, US-based network of 74 environmental organisations around the world), making it through the IB’s internal censor. No surprise there: Friends of the Earth is a mammoth global setup, and has the backing of some of the richest individuals on the planet who the Indian government might not wish to touch.
The other factor that set off this theory is Udayakumar’s contract with the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University in the US. The Kirwan Institute works with “racial and ethnic disparities worldwide”, and it is difficult to see how Udayakumar, to whom it had given a $1,500 grant, could be faulted for work that had nothing to do with anti-nuclear issues.
The IB review says that Udayakumar received these funds without soliciting them and that his fortnightly reports to Kirwan comprised a few brief lines that mentioned no more than the titles of books he had read. Then, again, this is what scads of scholars around the world do to draw in their funding with minimum output. It is considered among the least controversial ways of receiving funding.
Udayakumar’s sins, so to say, lay elsewhere. His organisation, the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE), he says, had raised funds from mobilising villagers who were potential victims of a nuclear disaster at Koodankulam. That is flag No. 1. The second flag is that his political science doctoral thesis, at the University of Hawaii in 1996, was titled ‘Presenting the past: The politics of Hindu history writing in India’. “My thesis was on how the VHP, RSS people misinterpret and manipulate Indian history through their right-wing and extremist Hindutva politics,” he says. By 2005, his thesis had been fleshed out into a book, Presenting the Past: Anxious History and Ancient Future in Hindutva India. In 2001, he had edited Handcuffed to History: Narratives, Pathologies and Violence in South Asia, in which the essays centred on Ram Janmabhoomi, Kashmir and the “historicity of the caste system”. Put all this together, and the picture is of someone whose interests could be exploited opportunely.
At most, though, he might be accused of being a scholar who is iffy with his finances and of peddling the anti-nuclear version of snake oil. But there is no indication, at least in the review, that he was a conscious agent for foreign interests.
After a Bachelor’s degree in his native Nagercoil, Tamil Nadu, and a Master’s degree in English Literature from Kerala, Udayakumar went to the United States for a second Masters at Notre Dame University and a PhD from the University of Hawaii in political science in 1996.
Starting 2001, he worked as a researcher at the University of Minnesota and set up a school for underprivileged children — the South Asian Community Centre for Education and Research (SACCER) — with his wife Meera. He says that he saved up money from his teaching and research, used some of his family’s agricultural income to set up and operate the school, and charged a small fee from some students. Then, just before the then Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf’s visit to India for his Agra Summit with Atal Bihari Vajpayee, SACCER started the India-Pakistan Reconciliation School (IPRS), advertised as “a six-month long online-cum-correspondence course for Indian and Pakistani youth of all age group (sic)”. There are flags within flags, if such a thing is possible: the IPRS was inaugurated by Barbara Crossette of The New York Times, who has made no bones about not liking India and who famously blamed India for “accelerating a nuclear arms race in South Asia” in an article in Foreign Policy (‘The Elephant in the Room’; 4 January 2010).
None of this helped Udayakumar when it came to the IB. What raised another flag was that he ran a ‘BJP watch’ programme, which he says he was working on with N Ram, Romila Thapar, Asghar Ali Engineer and other activist-intellectuals. He would distribute their writings through an email list — probably a casual mailer — he had compiled. This email list he turned into a conduit to distribute opinions on the Koodankulam nuclear project.
When Udayakumar returned to India in November 2001, he got in touch with the Rev Y David, a Protestant pastor who headed the Social Equality Movement, and urged him to organise anti-nuclear protests in Nagercoil. David is best known for his much-reprinted 1988 pamphlet, Koodankulam Anumin Nilayam — Vendave Vendam (‘Koodankulam nuclear plant — No, No’). After a while, David handed over the reins to Udayakumar.
For the next decade, Udayakumar stayed low, printing and distributing pamphlets and organising public meetings that were so low-key that they were not taken seriously by either the government or the media.
Udayakumar says he received foreign funds, worth Rs 90,000, for the first time in 2005. He used this money, which he says came from a French citizen and an Indian-origin doctor in the US, to set up a computer centre at his school. But he seems to have set something in motion: In 2006, Udayakumar says, the non-profit Watumull Foundation in Honolulu, Hawaii, donated $10,000 for a van for the school. The foundation, set up in 1945, is an offshoot of the Jhamandus Watumull Fund (total assets $9,210,720 in 2011).
Since Udayakumar did not have FCRA clearance, he says the money was routed through the Tamil Nadu Foundation Inc., which is located in Pittsburg, Pasadena, USA. The IRS (Internal Revenue Service) Form for 2005-06 does show an outgo of $10,000 to the “South Asian Community Center for Education and Research Trust”, Nagercoil, for “purchase of a new van”. But the IRS Form of the Watumull Fund for the year 2003-04 also shows an outgo of $3,000 to the “SACCER Matriculation School”; as does the IRS Form for the year 2004-05, which shows an outgo of $5,000 to the “SACCER Vocational School”. In effect, Udayakumar received a total of $18,000, in three tranches, from the Watumull Fund.
Nonetheless, the money wasn’t enough, and the school needed another Rs 2.5 lakh to buy the van.
After the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, PMANE organised a hunger strike on 1 July 2011, the same day that a ‘hot run’ was being conducted at the plant. The noise of the hot run attracted attention and caused alarm in the neighbouring villages. When the protests peaked, Sonntag came to Nagercoil for the anti-nuclear protests and stayed there. He visited Udayakumar’s home, ate there, went off for a few months, and came back again. The only physical description of him is that he was — is — very tall and gaunt.
But, said Udayakumar, “I don’t think he was a spy, but if he was, why was he deported and not arrested and investigated thoroughly?” To which the answer is: because geopolitics works in mysterious ways. Udayakumar says that he doesn’t remember Sonntag emailing him a map although it was found in Sonntag’s ‘Sent Mail’ folder in his confiscated laptop.
When Sonntag’s response to the TEHELKA interview was read out to Udayakumar, in which Sonntag admitted having emailed the map, Udayakumar said he still did not recollect having received it.
“He did not need to give me contacts of 50 activists in India, I know 500,” he said.
When, through a mutual friend, this reporter asked him if he could forward the original email from Sonntag, Udayakumar made a caustic retort about his privacy.
Udayakumar said that Sonntag would sometimes hang around at his house and also eat home-cooked meals there and then return to his hotel room, almost punctually, at 8 pm. No one at the hotel, according to a 2012 media report, remembered much about him except that he ate nothing in his room, ordered no refreshments, had no guests, spoke to no one, was never in company, left for the day in the morning and returned at night. It is as if he was working hard at leaving no footprint.
Then, again, Sonntag might not be a spook at all. He might just be someone who travels light. Intelligence agencies don’t like people who travel light. Sonntag claimed he visited India because his savings weren’t enough for him to live on in Germany. He is currently said to be on a sabbatical somewhere in Asia.
There are a few standalone footprints of his on the Internet, though. In 2012, soon after his deportation, a blog was created titled ‘Rainer Hermann Sonntag Observer’. It had just one, poorly-written entry: “Because of the incredibly clever action of every secret service option, Rainer Hermann Sonntag was unmasked while he was sabotaging Iran’s nuclear program… The next couple of weeks we are publishing media of him acting highly illegal and spreading risk to the whole world!” This might or might not be an attempt at irony. Or it might be mistaking Hermann Rainer Sonntag for Rainer Hermann, a journalist at the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, who had written about Iran’s nuclear programme. Then, again, entire pages on the Internet that had something to do with Sonntag have been deleted, erased or their contents redacted.
It was not just Sonntag who was a guest at Udayakumar’s home. Intelligence officers of the IB, Ravindran Nair and Shashidharan, and Rajashekharan of the ‘Q’ Branch on the Tamil Nadu Police, also visited his home and discussed the anti-nuclear protests over cups of tea.
In March 2014, Udayakumar emailed a plea for funds, with a disclaimer that it was an invitation for contributions to his political campaign as a candidate from the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) for the Kanyakumari Lok Sabha constituency. Udayakumar’s election affidavit reflected assets upwards of Rs 5 crore, which he said was the school he runs. Udayakumar declared cash and valuables worth Rs 40 lakh.
Udayakumar’s colleagues from PMANE also contested on AAP tickets — Mayappa in Tirunelveli and Pushparayan in Tuticorin. Through March, various activist organisations pledged their support to these candidates and solicited others’ support through emails and social media among other methods.
Udayakumar’s writ petition, filed before the Madras High Court, is as catchall as the IB review: He has made parties out of the Union home secretary, the IB director, the joint director who authored the impugned review and three media houses. Udayakumar claims that the IB released the ‘secret’ review with the intention of defaming him. He wants the home secretary to penalise the author of the report for leaking it.
At this moment, it just seems like every party in this harebrained opera is busy attempting to obfuscate the real questions: What did this slapdash IB review hope to achieve? Why was it leaked? Was it leaked or was it meant for public consumption? Who is this shadow named — or so we think — Hermann Rainer Sonntag? And what is Udayakumar’s place in this scheme of things?
The PMANE convener responds to allegations of being a foreign-funded activist, with a chronological account of his US connection
1989-90 Went to the US for the first time in August 1989 as a student under the International Scholars Program at the Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame; completed MA (Peace Studies) in June 1990
1991-96 Worked on the University of Hawaii campus as research assistant and then as an independent teaching assistant and lecturer at the Department of Political Science; decided to set up a school in India with his wife after completing studies in the US; founded the SACCER (South Asian Community Centre for Education and Research) Trust to run the school project
1996-97 Moved to Parsippany, New Jersey; wife worked for Lucent Technologies, while he worked for a local ‘head hunter’ at AT&T for less than a year
1997-2001 Moved to the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, and joined the Institute on Race and Poverty (IRP) at the UMN Law School as a research associate and co-director of programs; also taught courses on South Asia; invited Achin Vanaik, Praful Bidwai, Admiral L Ramdas, Asghar Ali Engineer, N Ram, Indian diplomats in the US and many other scholars and activists to give talks at the UMN Law School; wife worked for the Children’s Home Society of Minnesota; both he and his wife quit their jobs in January 2001 and returned home; started building their “dream school” on their own land “with their own money”
2003 Since the SACCER Trust did not have FCRA registration and could not accept foreign donations, the US-based Tamil Nadu Foundation agreed to channel their friends’ donations through its Chennai office
2005 Two foreign friends donated Rs 90,910 for helping the tsunami victims, for whom Udayakumar ran a free computer centre at the SACCER school, with “prior permission” from the Indian government (submitted the accounts as per government instructions on 31 March 2006)
2006 The Watumull Foundation in Honolulu donated $10,000 to buy a van for the school; the Union home ministry gave the required permission vide a letter dated 6 September and accounts were submitted as per government requirements; Was invited by Prof John Powell to work as a research fellow at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at the Ohio State University (under annual review contract); following are some of the topics he researched and wrote about: Race, Ethnicity and Globalisation; Globalisation and Human Rights; Caste Discrimination and Marginalisation; Case Study on Minority Rights and Ethnic Conflicts in Sri Lanka; Food Security; Militarism and Development in Ethiopia; Health and Discrimination; Race and Gender Discrimination; Race and Conflict; Race and Education; Status of Minorities in the BRICS countries
2008 His “host parents”, Donald and Jeannie Kramer, sent a voluntary Easter gift of $5,575 through their local church, whose Global Mission office remitted the amount in India to his bank account; he withdrew Rs 2 lakh of that money on 30 July to return the loan taken from the State Bank of India’s Nagercoil branch for buying the school van
1990-2009 Taught at the Governor’s School on Public Issues and the Future of New Jersey, Monmouth University, during the summers of 1990, 1995, 1996, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009
2011-12 Taught at the Department of Political Science at Monmouth University from 1 January to 10 March 2011; signed a consultant agreement for the Kirwan Institute’s Global Justice Program for 1 July 2011-30 June 2012, but was unable to work for it as he was busy with the Koodankulam struggle; did not get paid for that year and has not been associated with the Kirwan Institute since July 2011