Amnesty International, a global human rights organization, has accused the Indian government of suppressing civil society in India by exploiting counter-terrorism laws. Its recent report titled “Weaponizing Counterterrorism: India’s Exploitation of Terrorism Financing Assessments to Target Civil Society” serves as a clarion call to the international community, highlighting the urgent need to address the alarming erosion of civil liberties and human rights in India. In light of these allegations by Amnesty International, it is pertinent to examine the state of civil society in India. The Hindu nationalist government used abusive and discriminatory policies to repress Muslims and other minorities. Authorities throughout India have arrested activists, journalists, and other critics of the government on politically motivated criminal charges, including terrorism. They have also harassed rights groups through tax raids, allegations of financial irregularities, and the use of the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, which regulates foreign funding of nongovernmental organizations.
Indian authorities’ misuse of recommendations from the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to undermine the work of civil society groups, activists and their families. While the FATF’s guidelines were intended to combat terrorism financing abuse, the Indian government has cynically weaponized these recommendations to withhold dissent. The Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) mandates that NGOs in India must obtain a “foreign contribution licence” to access foreign funds. In the past decade over 20,600 NPOs have had their FCRA licences cancelled; with almost 6,000 of them having lost their licences in the beginning of 2022.
Civil society groups and activists now live under the constant shadow of harassment, surveillance, raids, investigations, and legal cases, all under the pretext of combating terrorism. In its World Report 2023, Human Rights Watch said Indian authorities intensified and broadened their crackdown on activist groups and the media in 2022. Moreover, the authorities in several BJP-ruled states have demolished Muslim homes and properties without legal authorisation or due process as summary punishment for protests or alleged crimes.
The BJP-led Indian government’s suppression of civil society is not new. There has been a growing trend of authoritarianism in India in recent years. The Indian government has been accused of using its power to silence dissenting voices and suppress civil society. This trend is particularly worrying given India’s status as the world’s largest democracy. For instance, Umar Khalid, a student activist was arrested in February 2020 under the UAPA for his alleged involvement in the 2020 Delhi riots. Khalid has been detained for over two years without trial. Teesta Setalvad, a human rights lawyer who has worked on cases related to the 2002 Gujarat riots, was also arrested in June 2022 under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). She has been accused of fabricating evidence and conspiracy. Moreover, Anand Teltumbde, a scholar, and human rights activist, was arrested in January 2020 under the UAPA. He has been accused of being a member of a banned Maoist organization.
The Indian government’s crackdown on civil society has had a chilling effect on free speech in India. Journalists have been arrested for reporting on sensitive issues such as corruption and human rights abuses. Activists have been targeted for their work on issues such as land rights, environmental protection, and women’s rights. Human rights defenders have been harassed and intimidated by the authorities. In a recent move befitting a fascist regime, India’s Narendra Modi-led government raided the offices of NewsClick and the homes of scores of people associated with the website, police have arrested NewsClick’s founder and Editor-in-Chief, Prabir Purkayastha, and Human Resources head Amit Chakraborty on fake terrorism charges. Before initiating such cases against civil rights activists and groups, the Indian government utilized surveillance spyware to access unchecked amounts of data on devices being used by those individuals and groups. An investigation conducted in 2021 named “Pegasus Project” in which telephone numbers of some 40 Indian journalist figures in a leaked list of potential targets for surveillance surfaced. The forensic tests of the devices stated that some of them were successfully snooped upon by an unidentified agency using Pegasus software The Wire. Modi’s main rival, Rahul Gandhi and leading political strategist Prashant Kishor, were among dozens of Indian politicians, activists and government critics identified as potential targets of the Pegasus spyware. The leading politician a . Similarly, a recent investigation by the European Investigative Collaborations (EIC) media network, with technical assistance from Amnesty International’s Security Lab named the ‘Predator Files’ revealed that highly invasive surveillance products are being traded on a near industrial scale and are free to operate in the shadows without auditing and limitations.
The Indian government’s actions have also had a negative impact on India’s international reputation. Several countries have raised these concerns with the Indian government at various international forums. The recent standoff between Canada and India is just the beginning.
In conclusion, Amnesty International’s report on the BJP-led Indian government’s suppression of civil society is a cause for concern. The Indian government must respect the rights of all citizens and allow them to express their opinions freely without fear of persecution which is granted to everyone under Article 19 of UDHR. It is also important for the international community to take notice of these allegations and hold the Indian government accountable for its actions. As a democracy, India must uphold its commitment to freedom of speech and expression.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.