By SJA Jafri + Bureau Report
NEW DELHI/ LONDON: Amnesty International says it is halting work in India due to a “continuing crackdown” and “harassment” by the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The human rights watchdog said the bank account of its India branch has been frozen by the right-wing government, forcing it to lay off staff and stop campaign and research work in the South Asian nation.
It also accused the government of running an “incessant witch hunt” campaign against human rights organizations over “unfounded and motivated” allegations.
The group said it has been facing a crackdown over the past two years over allegations of financial wrongdoing that it said were baseless. Its bank accounts were frozen on September 10, the group said.
“The continuing crackdown on Amnesty International India over the last two years and the complete freezing of bank accounts is not accidental,” said Avinash Kumar, Executive Director of Amnesty International India, in a statement on Tuesday.
Amnesty said the federal financial crimes investigation agency, the Enforcement Directorate, had targeted it.
“The constant harassment by government agencies including the Enforcement Directorate is a result of our unequivocal calls for transparency in the government, more recently for accountability of the Delhi police and the Government of India regarding the grave human rights violations in Delhi riots and Jammu & Kashmir.
“For a movement that has done nothing but raise its voices against injustice, this latest attack is akin to freezing dissent.”
Amnesty and other groups have accused police of complicity in the riots in Delhi in which at least 50 people were killed, most of them Muslims.
The Indian government has so far not commented on Amnesty’s allegations.
Some local and international journalists including this correspondent (SJA Jafri) tried to contact several spokespeople from the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) but did not receive a response by time of publication.
‘Clamping down on dissent’
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has faced accusations that it is clamping down on dissent, including in Muslim-majority Kashmir, where rebels have battled government forces for more than 30 years.
Critics also say the government is pushing a Hindu-first agenda, undermining the secular foundations of India’s democracy and raising fears among its 170 million Muslim minorities.
Activist Kavita Krishnan told media it was a “very deliberate” attempt by the Indian government to suppress an international human rights organization.
“It’s a direct attempt by the Indian government to tell international human rights group that if you document rights violations by the Indian state we won’t let you continue to function in India,” said Krishnan, who is also the secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA).
“I think this raises a big question which the world needs to wake up and recognize that India is no longer a functioning democracy.
“We need to wake up and understand what is happening in India to rights defenders, many of whom are in jail under draconian laws,” she said.
Opposition politician Shashi Tharoor said Amnesty’s exit was a blow.
“India’s stature as a liberal democracy with free institutions, including media & civil society organizations, accounted for much of its soft power in the world. Actions like this both undermine our reputation as a democracy & vitiate our soft power,” he said on Twitter.
The government has been tightening oversight of foreign non-governmental groups (NGOs), activists say.
Last week, the government enacted changes in the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Amendment Bill setting new conditions for organizations.
Some NGOs said the measures seeking tighter control of funds were aimed at creating an air of distrust.
Kumar said more than four million Indians have supported Amnesty’s work in the last eight years and about 100,000 Indians had donated money.