India pushes out Amnesty International, accelerating its march toward authoritarianism

A woman walks past the Amnesty International India headquarters in Bangalore in 2019. (Aijaz Rahi/AP)
A woman walks past the Amnesty International India headquarters in Bangalore in 2019. (Aijaz Rahi/AP)

On Tuesday, Amnesty International, one of the most respected human rights nonprofits in the world, announced that it was halting its operations in India after the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi froze the organization’s bank accounts. The closing is another shameful blow to civil society, human rights and free speech in India.

“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, the executive director of Amnesty International India. “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 and Kashmir.“

The fact-finding work of Amnesty International has long been an eyesore for the Modi administration. The organization has produced detailed reports holding the government culpable for serious human rights abuses. In October of last year, Amnesty International testified before the U.S. Congress on the “ongoing arbitrary detentions, use of excessive force/torture and silencing of dissenting voices” in Kashmir and the attacks and threats the organization had received.

Six months after the anti-Muslim violence that rocked New Delhi in February, Amnesty released a scathing report alleging that Delhi police officials indulged in violence and aided and abetted rioters. The violence claimed the lives of at least 53 people and injured more than 500. The report also accused the Delhi police of dismantling protest sites used by peaceful protesters and arresting innocent bystanders.

The backdrop of this action against Amnesty International is of course the government’s inept handling of the covid-19 crisis. With more than 6 million cases and almost 100,000 deaths, India is battling the second-largest coronavirus outbreak in the world. This has led to debilitating unemployment and shortages of oxygen and other medical needs. The Modi government is now looking to distract the attention of the country by creating a convenient enemy: the dissenters, the minorities, the lower castes. What started with blaming Indian Muslims for the pandemic escalated into incarcerating some of India’s finest minds for their potential to transform public opinion.

A scholar from Jawaharlal Nehru University who was hailed for his speeches against India’s discriminatory citizenship law is now facing charges under a sedition law and has been jailed. The evidence against Sharjeel Imam includes books by the acclaimed political scientist Paul Brass, which allegedly radicalized him.

Safoora Zargar, a 27-year-old Kashmiri student activist who is pregnant, is also in jail for speaking against the Citizenship Amendment Bill. Hundreds more like Safoora and Sharjeel, who led peaceful protests, have been jailed while the perpetrators and instigators of the February anti-Muslim violence, including ministers from the Modi regime, remain free.

Many of us who have been sounding the alarm about the erosion of India’s democracy saw the attack against Amnesty International coming. It seems like it’s part of a strategy by government to set high-profile examples.

Last week, one of India’s top actresses, Deepika Padukone, was questioned for almost six hours by the Narcotics Control Bureau of India as part of a drug investigation. Padukone, a cinematic and progressive icon, was reportedly summoned after surveillance of her WhatsApp chats. But Padukone’s real offense was standing in solidarity with the student movement in January. Two leading film directors, who were granted anonymity to avoid facing reprisals, told me that this was an attempt to “fix” Padukone and send a message to critics and the general public to fall in line.

It’s clear that the Indian film industry, which was in the early stages of vocalizing its dissent against Modi’s nationalist and discriminatory policies through social media and progressive films, is now being demonized and hounded. Two weeks ago, a member of the ruling party called the Indian film industry a “drug den” on the floor of the Parliament. A prominent Indian actress called it an attempt to discredit and silence a medium in India that has the ability to influence people.

And yet, the most vulnerable still face the most brutal consequences under a climate of total impunity. The same day as Amnesty shut its India operation, a 19-year-old lower-caste woman who was gang-raped by upper-caste men in the Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled state of Uttar Pradesh succumbed to her injuries. The remains of the woman, Manisha Valmiki, were cremated by the police against the wishes of her family, who wanted the world to see the horrific brutality India had unleashed against her.

This attack and the harassment against Amnesty International should not be seen in isolation. It’s all part of a sustained effort to transform India into a fascist state. The Indian government will continue to ignore or mock organizations and institutions that warn about our decline into a majoritarian abyss.

We’re seeing how President Trump is putting U.S. democracy under great strain during the presidential campaign. Like his demagogue friend, an emboldened Modi has scant regard for the international reputation of India and its democratic credentials. But speak up we must, for this will not stop with Amnesty. If the world’s largest democracy also goes down, the ripples will be felt worldwide.

Rana Ayyub is an Indian journalist and author of “Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up”.

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