"Human Rights Watch reported that Indian authorities are utilizing allegations of tax evasion and financial irregularities with political motivations to stifle dissenting voices, including human rights activists and journalists. In September 2021, government financial officials conducted raids on the residences of journalists, news offices, the premises of an actor, and the home and office of a human rights activist in Srinagar, Delhi, and Mumbai.
These raids are part of an ongoing crackdown by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led national government on freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly since it came to power in 2014. Authorities have initiated politically motivated criminal cases, including those invoking broadly phrased terrorism and sedition laws, against activists, journalists, academics, students, and others. They have also employed foreign funding regulations and allegations of financial misconduct to target outspoken groups.
Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, emphasized that the Indian government's raids seem to be aimed at intimidating and harassing critics, representing a broader pattern of silencing dissent. Journalism organizations like the Editors Guild and Press Club of India have repeatedly condemned the harassment of independent media as an attack on press freedom.
One of the most recent incidents involved a raid by officials from the Enforcement Directorate, responsible for investigating financial crimes, on the home and office of activist Harsh Mander in Delhi on September 16, alleging financial and administrative irregularities. Mander was abroad in Germany during the raid. A joint statement by activists, academics, and former civil servants denounced the raid as part of an ongoing abuse of state institutions to curb rights.
Harsh Mander has been a frequent target of authorities due to his vocal criticism of the BJP government's policies against religious minorities and his work with victims of communal violence. Instead of taking action against BJP leaders who incited communal violence in Delhi in February 2020, Delhi police filed a fabricated case of hate speech and inciting communal violence against Mander.
On September 8, police in Jammu and Kashmir raided the homes of four Kashmiri journalists, confiscated their phones and laptops, and summoned them for questioning, further intensifying the harassment of journalists in the region. In June, the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of expression and the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention expressed concerns about arbitrary detention and intimidation of journalists in the region, highlighting the closure of the newspaper Kashmir Times in October 2020.
The authorities also conducted raids in September on the offices of news websites Newslaundry and Newsclick in Delhi, investigating alleged tax evasion. Both outlets are known for their criticism of the government. In addition, authorities had previously targeted both media organizations in June. Other media outlets, including Dainik Bhaskar and NDTV, have faced similar raids in the past, raising concerns about freedom of the press in India.
The Indian authorities have also pursued criminal cases against journalist Rana Ayyub, who is a vocal critic of the BJP government, on allegations of money laundering, cheating, dishonest misappropriation of property, and criminal breach of trust. These charges were filed in response to her fundraising campaigns for flood victims and those affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. In June, Uttar Pradesh police accused Ayyub of promoting enmity between religious groups and insulting religious beliefs for sharing a video on social media. The video featured a Muslim man accusing Hindu men of assault and forcing him to chant a phrase associated with Hinduism. Ayyub has faced threats and abuse from government supporters and Hindu nationalist trolls.
The authorities conducted another raid on September 15 on the premises of actor Sonu Sood in Mumbai, alleging tax evasion related to a real estate deal. Many saw these raids as politically motivated, as Sonu Sood had gained widespread public praise for his philanthropic work during the Covid-19 pandemic, addressing the gaps created by the government's policies and healthcare shortages.
The UN high commissioner for human rights and various UN human rights experts have repeatedly expressed concerns about the shrinking space for civil society groups in India, as well as the increased harassment and prosecution of human rights defenders and critics. They have called on the government to ensure that individuals are not detained for exercising their basic human rights and to protect civil society groups.
The actions taken by the Indian government to curtail fundamental freedoms at home have raised concerns about its role as a global leader in promoting human rights. Human Rights Watch and other organizations have called for a change in course to uphold the basic rights of the Indian people."