Among the many things that struck Paojel Chaoba as odd were Kanarjit Kangujam’s tall - almost unbelievable - claims.
In 2015, a news outlet in his state of Manipur, in northeastern India, quoted Kangujam saying that politician and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger and now-ousted Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi will attend his youth conference.
“Myanmar’s supreme leader visiting our small state sounded too wild to be true,” Chaoba, a Manipuri investigative journalist, told VICE World News.
And then came other claims, including a supposed nomination for an award alongside Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, and an ‘affiliation’ with the United Nations.
The buzz made journalists and politicians flock to his events.
Early this week, Kangujam was arrested in India’s capital New Delhi and charged with forgery and cheating.
Before his arrest, not much was known about him, except that he is the father of nine-year-old Licypriya - India’s poster child for climate justice, internationally known as “India’s Greta Thunberg.”
On social media, Licypriya is larger than life - a kid who grew up too fast to fix the world, meeting famous people and raising funds for COVID-19. She famously protested outside India’s Parliament and addressed Prime Minister Narendra Modi in her appeals.
But now, her father’s recent arrest has unfolded a murky crime saga that goes back to 2015, and involves complaints by nearly a hundred children from 12 countries.
On Monday, police officials raided their house in New Delhi and found “incriminating articles”. An investigative officer in Manipur told VICE World News that Kangujam will appear in court today. “The investigation is underway.”
“This guy is brilliant,” said Chaoba, who has published multiple exposés and helped with the police investigation. “He is like the Charles Sobhraj of Manipur - minus the looks and murders,” he said, referring to the 1970s serial killer who targeted tourists in Asia.
The alleged scams reveal a disturbing pattern of preying on earnest activists.
VICE World News got access to a three-year-old WhatsApp group run by mostly Gen-Z activists who claim they got swindled by Kangujam and his organisation the International Youth Committee (IYC).
Through IYC, Kangujam claimed to host international-level seminars for activists from India, Nepal, Indonesia, Azerbaijan, Nigeria and Croatia.
Now, many say they were duped into paying $300 for youth exchange programmes across Europe and Asia that didn’t materialise. Nearly 100 students claim they were scammed out of at least $44,685.
Prajesh Khanal, a youth activist from Nepal filed the police complaint that led to Kangujam’s arrest. “I only interacted with him on messenger and email, and to be honest, he looked very legit,” the 20-year-old told VICE World News.
Khanal paid over $460 for an exchange program, which is yet to be refunded.
Because of the scandal, Kangujam’s Gen-Z victims have had to switch from chasing their dreams to pursuing criminal cases.
Pallabi Roy, a dentist from Delhi, was scammed in 2017 when she was a college student and applied for an IYC event along with a friend. They had paid $410 each.
“It's just unfair to my family that worked hard and funded this trip,” said the 24-year-old, who is preparing to file a criminal case.
Simardeep Syal from India almost lost $273 to Kangujam until he filed a police complaint in 2020. “He has a pattern,” the 24-year-old told VICE World News. “He shows off his so-called connections. And for people, when someone claims political connections, they tend to believe them. I did too.”
VICE World News reached out to IYC for a statement but received an automated response saying, “We will try to get back to you soon.” Indian media has previously reported that IYC’s headquarters in Delhi do not exist.
In the meantime, activists and those involved in the case worry about Licypriya.
The investigating officer clarified to VICE World News that Licypriya is not a part of any investigation involving her father.
Montu Ahanthem, the convener at the Manipur Alliance for Child Rights, told VICE World News that as a minor, Licypriya should not be connected to Kangujam at all. “We should encourage all her activities around climate change. She is playing a very important role in that conversation,” he said.
Ahanthem added that there is a chance of “tremendous trauma” from the developments.
“I would urge child protection officers in Delhi to check in with her, and offer counselling,” he said. “They should also designate someone to handle the initiatives and crowdfunding she was a part of.”
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