The Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Friday accused the Indian authorities of using politically motivated allegations of tax evasion and financial irregularities to silence human rights activists, journalists, and other critics of the government.
In a statement released from New York, a day after the Enforcement Directorate’s searches on the premises linked to social activist Harsh Mander, the HRW said that this month, government financial officials had conducted raids in Srinagar, Delhi and Mumbai on journalists’ homes, media offices, an actor’s premises, and the home and office of a human rights activist.
“The raids are part of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party-led national government’s escalating crackdown on freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly since coming to power in 2014. The authorities have brought politically motivated criminal cases, including under broadly worded terrorism 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,” it said.
“The Indian government’s raids appear intended to harass and intimidate critics, and reflect a broader pattern of trying to silence all criticism,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia Director at the HRW, adding “these abuses weaken India’s core democratic institutions and break down fundamental freedoms.”
“Journalism organisations, such as the Editors Guild and Press Club of India, have repeatedly called for an end to harassment of independent media, saying that it is a blatant attack on press freedom,” said the HRW.
“The authorities have repeatedly targeted Mander, who has been a vocal critic of the BJP government’s discriminatory policies against religious minorities and works with victims of communal violence. Delhi police, instead of taking action against BJP leaders who incited communal violence in Delhi in February 2020, filed a fabricated case of hate speech and inciting communal violence against Mander,” said the HRW.
Action against Kashmir journalists
The HRW said that on September 8 the police in Jammu and Kashmir raided the houses 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. The authorities summoned all four to a Srinagar police station for questioning and told them to return the next day. Journalists in Kashmir face increased harassment by the authorities, including arrest under terrorism charges, since the BJP government revoked the State’s autonomous constitutional status in August 2019,” said the organisation.
It said that in June, the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of expression and the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention had written to the Indian government expressing concerns over “alleged arbitrary detention and intimidation of journalists covering the situation in Jammu and Kashmir”, citing the cases of Fahad Shah, Auqib Javeed, Sajar Gul, and Qazi Shibli. The letter also raised concerns over the closure of the “outspoken” newspaper Kashmir Times in October 2020.
On September 10, the HRW said, the Income Tax Department raided the offices of news websites Newslaundry and NewsClick , in Delhi. “Both are known for criticising the government,” it said, adding that financial authorities had previously targeted both media outlets in June.
The HRW said that in July, tax authorities raided about 30 offices of Dainik Bhaskar, 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 the government’s policies, over allegations of financial impropriety,” it said.
The statement also mentioned that on September 7, Uttar Pradesh Police filed a case against journalist Rana Ayyub, “an outspoken critic of the BJP government”, for alleged money laundering, cheating, dishonest misappropriation of property, and criminal breach of trust. “The complaint, brought by a group called the 'Hindu IT cell' accused her of committing these crimes during fundraising campaigns for flood victims and people affected by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said the HRW.
In another case in June, the Uttar Pradesh police accused Ms. Ayyub of promoting enmity between religious groups and insulting religious beliefs in another criminal case.
“On September 15, tax authorities searched the premises of Sonu Sood, an actor, in Mumbai, alleging tax evasion on a real estate deal,” said the HRW, stating that the raids appeared to be politically motivated as the actor had received widespread praise for philanthropic work during the pandemic, especially to address the gaps created due to government’s lockdown policies and healthcare shortages.