Amnesty International announced on Tuesday it must halt its human rights advocacy work in India because Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government froze the international organization's bank accounts.Amnesty's India office described the move by an investigative agency of Modi's government as a "reprisal" for the organization's campaigns to improve human rights and free speech in a nation of 1.3 billion people — and a chilling indicator of Modi's growing authoritarianism.
“This is an egregious and shameful act by the Indian government, which forces us to cease the crucial human rights work of Amnesty International India for now," Julie Verhaar, Amnesty's acting secretary general, said in a statement.
"Sadly, this enormously important work standing up for victims has been met with the heavy-handed tactics that Indian civil society has become increasingly familiar with — part of the government’s drive to silence critical voices and stoke a climate of fear," she said.
Modi's Hindu nationalist government has ridden a wave of populist sentiment that has caused the nation to suffer the largest decline in civil and political liberties among the world’s biggest democracies, according to a report from Freedom House in early March.
The organization’s report, “A Leaderless Struggle for Democracy,” looked at 195 nations and 15 territories. It prominently blamed lagging democratic leadership due to U.S. President Donald Trump’s “America First” policies and Modi’s Hindu-first politics.
India's government froze Amnesty's India bank accounts on September 10, which immediately disrupted the organization's campaigns and research there, and forced it to let go all of its staff.
On Tuesday, the government lashed out at Amnesty's public statements, describing them as "unfortunate, exaggerated and far from the truth." The government accused the international organization of circumventing regulations in a series of money transfers from Britain to India.
"The entire fault lies in the dubious processes adopted by Amnesty to secure funds for its operations," Modi's government said in a statement. "All the glossy statements about humanitarian work and speaking truth to power are nothing but a ploy to divert attention from their activities which were in clear contravention of laid down Indian laws."
Not a 'complete surprise'
Verhaar said Amnesty's India staff remains proud of its work "regardless of the risks they faced" when demanding accountability from authorities on policies such as India's longstanding dispute with Pakistan for control of the territories of Jammu and Kashmir.
“The staff of Amnesty India have shown great dignity in the face of a concerted and vicious smear campaign of spurious allegations, raids by various investigative agencies, malicious media leaks, and intimidation without an iota of credible evidence of wrongdoing," she said. "No laws have been broken."
Since gaining their independence from the British 72 years ago, nuclear-armed rivals Pakistan and India fought each other in three wars, including two for control of Jammu and Kashmir. Hindu-majority Jammu has 6 million people; Muslim-majority Kashmir has 8 million people.
Modi’s administration decided in August 2019 to downgrade Jammu and Kashmir’s limited autonomy — which Modi claims was misused by terrorists and separatists — and to impose a military curfew and cut off residents from all communications and the internet.
That led Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan to take the bitter dispute to the U.N. General Assembly in September 2019. There, he accused Modi of cruelty towards Muslims and warned of a potential “bloodbath” in the region.
Amnesty's campaigning has long brought unwanted attention to Modi's government. In October 2019, Francisco Bencosme, an American staffer for Amnesty who had worked on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that India was brutally cracking down on Amnesty and other organizations such as Greenpeace and Lawyers Collective.
He also told the House committee that India was carrying out "ongoing arbitrary detentions, use of excessive force/torture and silencing of dissenting voices" in Jammu and Kashmir.Avinash Kumar, executive director of Amnesty International India, said the crackdown on his organization over the past two years, including the freezing of its bank accounts, resulted from its calls for government transparency.
"This latest attack is akin to freezing dissent,” he said. "It reeks of fear and repression, ignores the human cost to this crackdown, particularly during a pandemic, and violates people’s basic rights to freedom of speech and expression, assembly, and association guaranteed by the Indian Constitution and international human rights law."
Experts in the region's geopolitical twists and turns saw the dispute as a warning sign for India's democracy.
"Given India's illiberal turn, this isn't a complete surprise," said Michael Kugelman, deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a prominent Washington-based think tank.
"When a major human rights group opts to shutter its operations in a democracy, that's a real bad sign, no matter how you slice it," he said. "The only other place Amnesty International has ever shut down is Russia."