The Death of Human Rights in India?

New Delhi has a long history of harassing international NGOs. But under Modi, things may reach a tipping point.

A pedestrian walks past the Amnesty International office in Bengaluru on Oct. 26, 2018.
A pedestrian walks past the Amnesty International office in Bengaluru on Oct. 26, 2018. Manjunath Kiran/AFP/Getty Images

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government appear intent on squelching any independent scrutiny of India’s human rights problems. Last week, the government froze the assets of the human rights organization Amnesty International, claiming that the organization was in violation of Indian law. Its stated reasons aside, there is more than ample evidence that the government was irritated by Amnesty’s unfavorable reports on recent riots in New Delhi, India’s human rights record in Jammu and Kashmir, and the passage of recent legislation that could adversely affect Muslims.

Images of Amnesty International closing its Indian offices may be shocking, but this is hardly the first time an Indian administration, faced with similar criticisms, reacted with hostility. For example, at the height of the Kashmir insurgency in 1990, Narasimha Rao, then prime minister, was surely irritated by criticism of the Indian security forces’ harsh counterinsurgency tactics. Still, his actual efforts to limit the work of foreign human rights organizations in India was minimal. On the contrary, stung with repeated allegations of rampant human rights violations in Kashmir, his government created the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to examine the charges. Initially dismissed as a public relations move, over time, the NHRC became more autonomous and powerful.

As he is faced with criticisms of his own, it is hard to imagine Modi setting up such a watchdog. Instead, he’s decided to bully Amnesty International. After New Delhi froze all its bank assets, the organization chose to suspend its activities in India. This was the fifth time it felt compelled to discontinue its operations in the country. The last time, before now, was in 2009, when its applications to be allowed to accept funds from abroad were repeatedly denied and it faced budget shortfalls.

The global human rights organization has again come under pressure from the current government. In October 2018, one of India’s national anti-corruption organizations, the Enforcement Directorate, accused Amnesty of violating the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act and seized some of its bank accounts. Faced with this action, Amnesty closed its offices in Bengaluru and laid off some staff. Later, in 2019, India’s Income Tax Department sent a letter to the organization accusing it of tax irregularities. Amnesty called all this a “pattern of harassment” related to its role highlighting widespread human rights abuses in the country.

Amnesty International has not been the government’s only target. Rather, New Delhi appears to be in the midst of an orchestrated campaign to undermine any independent scrutiny of the country’s human rights record. Earlier, in 2015, the government named the Ford Foundation, a major American philanthropic organization, on its national security watch list and placed it under the jurisdiction of India’s Ministry of Home Affairs. The foundation, which had operated in India since 1952, has a storied history, including catalyzing India’s agricultural Green Revolution in the 1970s. New Delhi’s message was clear: The Ford Foundation’s work in certain areas was unwelcome. It is widely believed that the government was particularly incensed with the foundation’s decision to fund a well-known human rights lawyer and activist, Teesta Setalvad, and her work representing the victims of a pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat when Modi was chief minister of the state. Following the government’s actions, the Ford Foundation, which had disbursed more than $500 million in the country since the early 1950s, decided to freeze its spending.

The harassment and intimidation of critical nonprofits have two critical implications for India’s democracy. First, such behavior obviously threatens the exercise of civil liberties and personal rights. This, in itself, is deeply disturbing. Second, it can also undermine the legitimacy of government institutions charged with law enforcement and anti-corruption, because they are being asked to act in completely partisan and dubious ways to hound nongovernmental organizations.

For now, the Modi government’s intolerance of foreign institutions that question it is growing.

Given the significant asymmetry of power between the NGOs and the government in almost every instance, the latter has prevailed. Unless a groundswell of opposition emerges from India’s increasingly beleaguered civil society, there’s little hope that Modi’s human rights record will improve. That’s especially true given that the Indian judiciary, long known for its independence, is increasingly submissive to Modi, too.

If there is one small sign of hope, it is that the NHRC has issued a formal note to the home ministry asking it to clarify its grounds for freezing the financial assets of Amnesty International. Whether its elicits a meaningful response is doubtful. At best, if it persists with its inquiries it could put the government on notice that even a quasi-governmental body finds its actions questionable. And so, the Modi government may still continue to use its expansive and largely unfettered executive powers to shoot any messenger who dares bring it unwelcome news.

Sumit Ganguly is a columnist for Foreign Policy.

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