• World
  • Asia

How the Indian Government Uses Raids to Silence Critics

6 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

India’s income tax authority continued raids on the BBC’s offices Thursday in New Delhi and Mumbai for three days in a row, saying it is conducting a “survey” as part of a broader investigation into tax evasion allegations.

In a short statement, the BBC said it was “fully cooperating” with authorities during the raid, adding that it hoped to have the situation “resolved as soon as possible.” On Wednesday, it advised most of its staff to work from home, telling employees to “answer questions comprehensively” from any officials. It added that they could “refrain from answering questions on personal income if asked” but that “they should answer other salary-related queries,” according to a report by NDTV.

The raids take place weeks after the British broadcaster released a documentary that critically examined Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership during the 2002 religious riots in Gujarat, where he was Chief Minister at the time, which left over 1,000 people dead, most of them Muslim. Kanchan Gupta, a senior advisor to the government, told a local news channel that there was “no connection” between the BBC documentary and the income tax investigation.

The Indian government has previously called the documentary “hostile propaganda” and “anti-India garbage” and blocked Indians from sharing it on any social media platforms.

Although few details of the tax investigation have been made public, media watchdogs and rights groups have expressed fear that the raids are politically motivated. “Indian authorities have used tax investigations as a pretext to target critical news outlets before and must cease harassing BBC employees immediately, in line with the values of freedom that should be espoused in the world’s largest democracy,” Beh Lih Yi, from the Committee to Protect Journalists, said in a statement.

In recent years, similar raids have targeted journalists, think tanks, and civil society organizations critical of the Indian government, in what rights groups say is part of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s growing crackdown on dissent. It includes critics being charged with criminal cases under India’s opaque terrorism and sedition laws, and allegations of financial misconduct and improper foreign funding that have been used to freeze bank accounts.

Who else has been subject to tax raids?

Last year, the Income Tax Department alleged that three different organizations contravened the laws around foreign funding contributions. Tax officials raided the offices of Oxfam India, the Independent and Public-Spirited Media Foundation, and the Center for Policy Research. “The coordinated raids, which are being presented as ‘surveys’ … are yet another blatant example of how financial and investigative agencies of the government have been weaponized to harass, intimidate, silence, and criminalize independent critical voices in the country,” Yamini Mishra, the South Asia Regional Director at Amnesty International, said in a statement. “It is alarming how the attack on the rights to freedom of expression and association by the authorities keeps growing unabated every day in India.”

Raids were also carried out in September 2021 against the Delhi offices of Newslaundry and Newsclick, popular Indian media outlets that often publish journalism that is critical of the government. In July, tax officials also searched 32 office and residential locations affiliated with the Dainik Bhaskar Group, which publishes the country’s second-most-read Hindi-language newspaper, and Bharat Samachar, a Hindi-language television station. The Hindi outlets allege the raids were retaliation for the investigative reporting they did during the COVID-19 pandemic.

What are the consequences of such raids?

During a raid, authorities can download all data from office computers, personal cell phones, and laptops, as well as take hold of various financial documents and emails. According to The Wire, employees who were present at the office during the raid were not allowed to speak to anyone outside and the offices remained sealed during the official visit.

Following a raid against Amnesty International in September 2020, the organization’s bank accounts were frozen. As a result, it was forced to cease operations in India, suspend all its campaign and research work, and lay off its entire staff.

Amnesty has said the move was in retaliation to a report it had released in August 2020 on human rights violations committed by the Delhi police during religious riots in February of that year. Rajat Khosla, Amnesty’s then-senior director of research, advocacy, and policy, told the BBC: “We are facing a rather unprecedented situation in India. Amnesty International India has been facing an onslaught of attacks, bullying, and harassment by the government in a very systematic manner.”

In 2021, more than 500 activists, lawyers, and public intellectuals released a statement in response to the arrest of Harsh Mander, a prominent Indian human rights activist, where they condemned raids as an intimidation tactic. Human rights groups also say the raids have shrunk the space for civil society organizations.

In a news conference Tuesday, a BJP spokesperson said that every organization was required to “respect Indian law.” “If they follow the law, then why should they be scared or worried? Let the Income Department do its job,” he added.

What is India’s track record on free speech?

The Indian Constitution affords all citizens free speech. However, the annual Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders, a nonprofit, ranked India 150th out of 180 nations in 2022.

One former journalist, Sharif Rangnekar, has attributed India’s poor record on press freedom to laws that encourage “self-censorship, particularly in a period of heightened nationalism.” In the region of Jammu and Kashmir, for example, one government policy allowed authorities to decide what constituted “fake” or “anti-national” news, along with the power to take legal action against any publications or journalists it suspected of such actions.

The Editors Guild of India, a non-profit group that promotes press freedom, has said it was “deeply concerned” about Tuesday’s BBC raid. The Press Club of India and the Committee to Protect Journalists have also raised concerns.

Over the weekend, the New York Times issued an editorial addressing how India’s free press is increasingly at risk. “Since Mr. Modi took office in 2014, journalists have increasingly risked their careers, and their lives, to report what the government doesn’t want them to,” it noted.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Astha Rajvanshi at astha.rajvanshi@time.com