Silencing dissenting voices in India

NGOs cry foul over alleged government intimidation with Greenpeace license cancellation the latest move.

File photo of Modi speaking in New Delhi
Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks during the inaugural session of the India-Africa Forum in New Delhi [Adnan Abidi/Reuters]

New Delhi, India – Human rights activists and environment campaigners have criticised the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi saying their efforts have led to harassment and other reprisals since it took power more than a year ago.

The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) cancelled Greenpeace’s permit to operate in India on Friday, in the latest move against nongovernmental organisations.

The MHA’s clumsy tactics to suppress free speech and dissenting voices are turning into a major national and international embarrassment for this government,” said Vinuta Gopal, Greenpeace India’s executive director, in a statement.

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Teesta Setalvad is a rights activist working with survivors of the 2002 religious riots in Gujarat state, in which nearly 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed. At the time, Modi was Gujarat’s chief minister.

After the riots, Setalvad set up Citizens for Justice and Peace – a legal rights initiative to ensure victims’ stories were heard in Indian courts.


Setalvad’s organisation’s legal aid to riot victims has led to the conviction of 126 perpetrators, including a minister of the former state government and some Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party members.

But her work has come at a price. Since 2004, she has been detained seven times, accused by Indian police of embezzlement, kidnapping, and tutoring witnesses – allegations she denies.

Until 2014, she said, the charges against her were brought by Gujarat state police, but the most recent run-ins with the law have involved India’s elite police agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).

“Now – with the centre of animus and power shifted to Delhi – the CBI carried out an illegal search on our office and home,” Setalvad said. “We also know that petty vindictiveness guides the vision of this government, led by the man at the top.”

Neither the spokesman nor the deputy secretary of the prime minister’s office were available for comment.

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Rajesh Sharma, an official at the PMO, declined to discuss the situation. “I’m not authorised to comment on any subject. We have a protocol, and there are other people to deal with the media,” Sharma told Al Jazeera.

Priya Pillai, 37, has worked for the last five years at Greenpeace India, which focuses on climate change and coal mining in the country.

In January, Pillai was removed just before takeoff from a flight to London, where she was scheduled to apprise British lawmakers about controversial coal-mining projects overseen by UK-based firms. Indian authorities said her name was on a list of people not allowed to leave the country.

The Modi government alleges that Greenpeace India’s work aims to derail the country’s economic development. Greenpeace says the current model of development is unsustainable and contributing to global climate change.

“I don’t understand how the economic interests of any corporate house equals the economic interests of the government. Is the government not concerned about the people?” Pillai told Al Jazeera.

She said the current government is much more aggressive against and less tolerant of dissenting views than previous administrations.

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“The public perception against me, definitely, is that I have done something that doesn’t actually lie with the interests of the country. The trauma I have gone through because I have been branded as antinational is not something that can be taken away,” she said.

According to Greenpeace India, since June 2014, the government has blocked its foreign funding that accounted for about 30 percent of its budget.

Nalin Kohli, a spokesman from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, told Al Jazeera many nongovernmental organisations had failed to file the required paperwork, and, therefore, foreign funding had been halted.

“The vast majority of the NGOs were not filing mandatory account details – only 10 percent submit it. There are certain restrictions under the law. They have done things that they were not supposed to do,” said Kohli.

But Pillai said that is just an excuse to shut down efforts by NGOs.

“This is a case of a witch-hunt because the government doesn’t like our work. This government’s agenda is polarisation of communities. Multiple people are being targeted,” Pillai said.

Setalvad said the singular aim of the government is to stifle all dissent – “and, of course, to ensure that those outfits that stand for an anti-constitutional, majoritarian state are those favoured with [government] funds and support”.

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Christine Mehta, a researcher at Amnesty International India, was deported from the country after she finished a report about human rights violations committed by the Indian army in the disputed region of Kashmir. Mehta declined Al Jazeera’s request for comment for this story.

In a first-person account in The Hindu newspaper, Mehta said the government continues to muzzle NGOs. “There are many stories like mine. There are thousands who have faced worse, including imprisonment and torture for their work.”

Sambit Patra, another BJP spokesman, told Al Jazeera that authorities don’t engage in torture or random imprisonment, and no one is being harassed or intimidated.

“If anyone has been tortured then we have one of the world’s best judiciaries. It is a land where law takes its own course. We, the government, have only followed what the law says. [The] government follows whatever is in the rule book,” Patra said.

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Source: Al Jazeera