Modi’s critics have a precarious life in India

Somdeep Sen

On June 16, the Supreme Court of India cautioned the Uttar Pradesh (UP) state government against taking punitive actions targeting those who participated in protests over Islamophobic comments made by two Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders. Specifically, the country’s highest court was referring to the demolition of the homes of Muslim activists. Local authorities claimed that these homes were built illegally. However, others insist that the state government, led by hardline Hindu nationalist chief minister Yogi Adityanath, is running a retaliatory campaign against its critics.

One of the homes that were demolished belonged to the leader of the Welfare Party of India, Javed Mohammed, who had earlier been arrested and charged with being the “mastermind” behind the protests. Mohammed and his daughter, Afreen Fatima, are prominent activists, known for organising against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) of 2019, which grants fast-track citizenship to non-Muslim undocumented immigrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan.

Protests against the Act were met with a brutal crackdown as right-wing mobs, led by BJP leaders, rampaged through Delhi, targeting protesters, while police arrested anti-CAA activists and charged them under India’s stringent “anti-terror” law.

Analysts like Angshuman Choudhury of the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi were quick to point out that these home demolitions “bear [a] striking resemblance to Israel’s tactics against Palestinians”. As in Palestine, such measures are meant to introduce a sense of precarity into the lives of Modi’s critics. In India, they are the latest indicator that it is becoming increasingly hazardous to oppose the BJP.

Throughout Modi’s tenure, a variety of tactics have been used to target his critics. In 2021, it was revealed that the Pegasus spyware, developed by the Israeli cyber-arms company NSO, had been used to snoop on journalists, opposition politicians, bureaucrats, lawyers, academics, and activists. A prominent target of the spyware was lawyer and trade unionist Sudha Bharadwaj, who was imprisoned in 2018 without trial under the “anti-terror” law and accused of “plotting to overthrow the government”.

In 2020, Amnesty International – which was forced to cease its operations in the country as a result of a government witch-hunt against human rights organisations – uncovered a hacking campaign targeting human rights defenders in the country. These human rights defenders received emails with malicious links which – if clicked – deployed spyware and compromised the computer “in order to monitor their actions and communications”.This use of digital tools to suppress dissent was equally on display in the arrest of 22-year-old climate activist and co-founder of the India chapter of Greta Thunberg’s Fridays For Future movement, Disha Ravi. She was accused of “sedition, incitement, and involvement in an international conspiracy”. The evidence presented was a WhatsApp group and a Google document put together by Ravi and other activists to gather support for the farmers’ protests in India. While dismissing the case, the presiding judge deemed the evidence provided by the Delhi Police to be “scanty and sketchy”, adding that there wasn’t “even an iota of proof to support the claims of sedition, incitement, or conspiracy”.

The Indian government has also attempted to prevent its critics from travelling. Earlier this year, the former head of Amnesty International India, Aakar Patel, was stopped from leaving the country after a “look out circular” (LOC) was issued for him. LOCs are usually reserved for “apprehending criminals at the border”. Patel, however, was heading to the US to deliver lectures about the crackdown on civil society in India under Modi’s leadership. Speaking to the media, Patel described it as sending “a clear signal to activists, journalists, and politicians to shut up”.

A week before Patel, journalist Rana Ayyub was also stopped at Mumbai airport, accused of money laundering. The case was based on a first information report (FIR) filed by Vikas Sankrityayan, the founder of the NGO Hindu IT Cell. Ayyub was on her way to London where she had been invited by the International Centre for Journalists to participate in a discussion about “online violence against women journalists”.

The Enforcement Directorate (ED) is currently investigating the allegation that Ayyub raised funding for charitable purposes through the crowdfunding platform Ketto and used some of the donations for personal expenses. Ayyub has maintained that the “entire donation received through Ketto is accounted for and not a single paisa has been misused”.

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