cover image

Illustration by Dhabia Al Mansoori

India: Amnesty’s Departure, Hindutva’s Arrival

The decision to freeze Amnesty International India’s bank accounts and financial assets falls under a series of actions that endanger India’s status as a democracy.

Nov 8, 2020

On Sept. 10, Amnesty International India’s bank accounts and financial assets were frozen by the Indian enforcement directorate, an agency that investigates and prosecutes economic crimes. The agency alleged that the renowned human rights organization had been financing its operations in the country through overseas donors, which is a violation of the Foreign Contribution Regulations Act, known as FCRA. Amnesty was quick to rebuke, calling this move an “incessant witch hunt” and vehemently maintaining that it stood in compliance with Indian and international laws and had raised all funds domestically.
Amnesty has now for decades proved to be a remarkably effective watchdog against the plethora of human rights violations in the country and its departure might be the final nail in the coffin in the systemic silencing of individuals and institutions that speak truth to power.
This development brings the organization’s work to an abrupt halt. Hundreds of staff members have been laid off and projects have been, at least temporarily, abandoned. Beyond this, however, it carries certain strong connotations that are hard to dismiss. Amnesty’s work in the country has been pivotal in shaping public discourse and leading civil society activism on human rights matters.
Only recently, the group released a scathing report investigating the communal Delhi riots this February which framed the Delhi Police and stated that it had committed serious human rights violations as well as condemned “state sponsored impunity.” The report was later conveniently dismissed by the state police as being “lopsided, biased and malicious.” On Aug. 5, a year after the unilateral revocation of India-administered Kashmir’s special status, the organization published an update which demanded the release of political leaders, journalists and activists currently being detained by the Modi government, the restoration of internet services and an investigation into attacks on journalists in the region.
The move highlights a larger pattern of the state systemically silencing all forms of dissent. Modi’s India has been one in which critics of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Hindutva agenda have faced investigation and detention, under draconian anti-terrorism or sedition laws. This war against truth is characterized by a brazen crackdown on students, academics, journalists and lawyers occurring with the backdrop of a pandemic — when protest gatherings are banned, courts are only partially functioning and the general public is largely distracted. Amnesty’s departure comes at a time when India’s 200 million Muslims can be beaten, burnt and lynched in the streets of the capital while the state police nonchalantly look on and politicians and pundits cheer from the sidelines.
Nothing about this is surprising. Modi has been, for a long time, carefully dismantling watchdog institutions — from the free press to the judiciary — and pushing for legislation that undermines their independence and limits the scope of their activities.
Now, in the same vein, the Modi administration has turned to NGOs and human rights organizations with the FCRA and related legislation in an effort to constrain these organizations and choke their funds. These additional regulations, certification processes and operational requirements to a sector already saturated with bureaucracy and red tape, while complex, still carry a much simpler, and clearer political message: “fall in line”. The stealthily instituted act empowers the government to investigate NGOs that are suspected of violating such bureaucratic regulations and in some instances, even allows for the seizure of property and other provisions. Consequently, civil society, which once played roles of active advocacy and pushed for structural change on behalf of the marginalized and disempowered, has now been reduced to the role of mere service providers.
While Amnesty has often been forced to shut up shop and move on — from Moscow to post Arab Spring Egypt — this is remarkably different. India operates on a different scale altogether. To have to shut operations in a country of this size, and that too a democracy, is perturbing. Modi’s timing has been right, well mostly. The pandemic has occupied the general public; the U.S. and the international community are either glued to the screen or tossing in sleep over the divisive election; global interest in human rights and advocacy remains lower down the list of priorities.
However, there’s much to lose for Modi and Hindutva. Quite ironically, the election which provided Modi with the open window to dismantle free institutions might be the one that comes back haunting. While Trump may approve of this disdain of civil rights and embrace of communal rhetoric, projected president-elect Joe Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris would not be as easily persuaded. Harris has been highly critical of Modi’s underhanded tactics on Kashmir and in her own words “has been watching.”
That said, this is no cause for celebration, for India too has lost. India’s soft power is derived from its reputation as a democracy that celebrates free institutions — from the press to civil society. And when the rest of the world has its eyes back on the ball, India’s stock is bound to take a hit. For now, we can only wait.
Vatsa Singh is Opinion Editor. Email him at
gazelle logo