(New York) – Indian authorities are using allegations of politically motivated tax evasion and financial irregularities to silence human rights activists, journalists and other government critics, Human Rights Watch said today hui. In September 2021, government finance officials raided Srinagar, Delhi and Mumbai on journalists’ houses, press offices, the premises of an actor, and the home and office of a human rights activist.
The raids are part of the growing crackdown by the national government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly since coming to power in 2014, and sedition laws, against activists, journalists, academics, students and others. They have also used foreign funding regulations and allegations of financial misconduct to target outspoken groups.
âThe Indian government raids appear intended to harass and intimidate critics, and reflect a wider tendency to try to silence all criticism,â said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. âThese abuses weaken fundamental democratic institutions in India and shatter fundamental freedoms.
Journalistic organizations, such as the Publishers Guild and India Press Club, have repeatedly called for an end to the harassment of independent media, saying it was a blatant attack on press freedom.
In the most recent incident, on September 16, officers from the Directorate of Enforcement, which investigates financial crimes, raided the area. Harsh Mander’s home and office, an activist, in Delhi, alleging financial and administrative irregularities. Mander was in Germany for a scholarship at the time of the raid. A joint statement by activists, academics and former officials condemned the raid as part of “a continuous chain of abuse of state institutionsâTo restrict the rights.
Authorities have repeatedly targeted Mander, who has strongly criticized the BJP government’s discriminatory policies against religious minorities and works with victims of community violence. Delhi Police, instead of taking action against BJP leaders who instigated community violence in Delhi in February 2020, filed a fabricated case of hate speech and incitement to community violence against Mander.
On September 8, the Jammu and Kashmir police raided the homes of four Kashmiri journalists – Hilal Mir, Shah Abbas, Showkat Motta and Azhar Qadri – and confiscated their phones and laptops. Mir reported that they also took his and his wife’s passports. Authorities summoned all four to Srinagar Police Station for questioning and told them to come back the next day. Journalists facing Kashmir increased harassment by authorities, including arrest for terrorism, since the BJP government revoked the state’s autonomous constitutional status in August 2019.
In June, the The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention wrote to the Indian government expressing its concerns about “allegations of arbitrary detention and intimidation of journalists covering the situation in Jammu and Kashmir”. The letter cited the cases of Fahad Shah, Auqib Javeed, Sajar Gul and Qazi Shibli, and also raised concerns about the outspoken newspaper shutting down. Cashmere times in October 2020. He noted that these violations “may be part of a larger scheme of silencing independent reporting in Jammu and Kashmir, which in turn may deter other journalists and civil society more broadly to cover public interest and human rights issues. In the region.”
On September 10, authorities from the income tax department raided the offices of news sites. Laundry and Newsclick, in Delhi, as part of an investigation into suspected tax evasion. Both are known to criticize the government. During the raids, officials downloaded data from desktop computers and personal cell phone and laptop of Laundry editor-in-chief, Abhinandan Sekhri, and took various financial documents as well as email archives of Newsclick editor, Prabir Purkayastha, and another editor. Financial authorities previously targeted both media outlets in June. In February, Enforcement Directorate officials raided Purkayastha’s office and home.
In July, tax authorities raided around 30 offices of one of India’s most widely read newspapers, Dainik Bhaskar, in the states of Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra, after months of critical coverage of the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2017, the authorities raided the television news channel NDTV, also critical of government policies, on allegations of financial irregularities.
On September 7, the Uttar Pradesh state police deposed a criminal case against journalist Rana Ayyub, a vocal critic of the BJP government, for alleged money laundering, cheating, dishonest embezzlement and criminal breach of trust. The complaint, brought by a group called the “Hindu IT Cell”, accused him of committing these crimes during fundraising campaigns for flood victims and those affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Uttar Pradesh Police accused Ayyoub for encouraging hostility between religious groups and insulting religious beliefs in another criminal case in June, for sharing a video on social media. In the video, a Muslim man accuses Hindu men of beating him and forcing him to chant Jai Shri Ram, a phrase used by Hindus to pray or as a greeting, but which has also become a cry of rallying used by Hindu nationalists. Government supporters and Hindu nationalist social media trolls repeatedly abused and threatened Ayyub. In 2018, after receiving death threats, UN human rights experts have called on Indian authorities to protect her.
On September 15, tax authorities raided the premises of Sonu Sood, an actor, in Mumbai, alleging tax evasion in connection with a real estate transaction. The raids appeared to be politically motivated because the actor had received much praise from the general public, media and opposition politicians across the country for his philanthropic work during the pandemic, especially in filling loopholes created as a result of government lockdown policies and health care shortages.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and various UN human rights experts have repeatedly raised concerns in recent years about the shrinking space for civil society groups, and the increase in harassment and prosecution of human rights defenders and other critics. They called on the government to ensure that no one is detained for exercising their basic human rights and to protect civil society groups in the country.
“By stifling fundamental freedoms in her country, India is undermining its influence as a world leader in the promotion of human rights,” Ganguly said. âThe government must change course and defend the fundamental rights of its people. “