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A “witch-hunt". That’s how Amnesty International India described the Union government’s decision to freeze its bank accounts on 10 September. Two weeks later, the human rights organization announced it was closing its India offices.

The Union government described the name-calling as a “ploy" to divert attention from the organization’s illegal activities. Amnesty International India, it said, was under the scanner because it had violated provisions of the Foreign Exchange Management Act and the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA). Amnesty’s India director, Avinash Kumar, however, maintains the crackdown was an outcome of its calls for transparency and accountability, most recently for the human rights violations in this year’s Delhi riots and in Kashmir. “For a movement that has done nothing but raise its voices against injustice, this latest attack is akin to freezing dissent," says Kumar.

Former Amnesty employees and civil society organizations agree. The crackdown, they say, fits into the pattern of a regime seeking to stifle dissenting voices. But, they add, the foundation was laid long before the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government came to power in 2014. “All the laws used against dissent today—from the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act to the FCRA—are the legacies of the previous (Congress-led) government," says Shailesh Rai, who was policy director at Amnesty International India until 2019.

In 2012, Rai says, then prime ministerManmohan Singh had blamed the protests outside the Kudankulam nuclear power plant in Tamil Nadu on “foreign interests". Between 2011-13, the state government booked nearly 9,000 protestors under various sections of the Indian Penal Code, including sedition.

As it is doing now, Amnesty International India had faced a fund crunch in February 2014, months after it accused security agencies of human rights violations in the Adivasi areas of central India. The Congress government froze the transfer of half a million dollars to the organization, citing “concerns" about its income from foreign sources.

“What’s changed after 2014 is the sharpening of the attack," says Rai. “These are far more brazen and frequent. Because the government is confident in its majority, it sees it fit to go after activists. There are troll armies used to build pressure and delegitimize (dissent). Many more media organizations (are) toeing the government line too."

The Union government and civil society organizations have long endured an uneasy coexistence. Over the past six years, though, activists say new rules have increased the compliance burden and allow for bureaucratic overreach. The latest example they cite is from the just-concluded Parliament session, which saw the government amending the FCRA to ban the transfer of foreign funds from one FCRA-registered NGO to another.

“The CBI raids on Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP), Amnesty India, Lawyers Collective and Greepeace are heavy-handed tactics," claims Aakar Patel, former director of Amnesty International India. “They don’t want civil society to work."

“Every successive government has had a deep suspicion and distrust of the civil society organization," says Amitabh Behar, chief executive officer of Oxfam India. “Earlier, the relationship was that (the state says) you survive and we will try to monitor, regulate, and sometimes use the bureaucracy and the state apparatus against you. Now it’s more like, fall in line or we won’t let you exist. If you are running a hospital, orphanage or giving things to the poor, it’s okay. But you can’t get into holding power to account."

The government’s insistence on “transparency" in the NGO sector, he suggests, smacks of double standards. Civil society is regulated by the charity commissioner, the ministry of home affairs, the income-tax department as well as donors, while there is complete opacity around initiatives like PM-CARES and electoral bonds.

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