NEW DELHI — Amnesty International said Tuesday that it would halt operations in India after its bank accounts were frozen and its executives interrogated by financial authorities, the latest steps in what the human rights group called a two-year campaign of harassment.
The announcement reflects the diminishing space for dissent in the world’s largest democracy, where critics of government policies increasingly face probes by authorities or even arrest.
The government is “treating human rights organizations like criminal enterprises and dissenting individuals as criminals without any credible evidence,” Avinash Kumar, executive director of Amnesty International India, said in a statement. Its goal is to “stoke a climate of fear.”
Amnesty said it would lay off more than 100 staff members and cease its human rights campaigns in India. Its recent work included reports alleging police complicity in deadly interreligious riots in Delhi earlier this year and an investigation into India’s crackdown in the restive Himalayan region of Kashmir.
Tuesday’s announcement puts India in the same category as authoritarian regimes such as Russia, the only other country where Amnesty International previously ceased operations when it shuttered its office in 2016. The director of its Turkey arm was arrested, but its office in the country remains functional. The group does not have a presence in China.
Amnesty said it was in compliance with all Indian laws and had received no formal communication from the authorities regarding the freezing of its bank accounts earlier this month. No charges have been filed against the organization, it said. It plans to challenge the freezing of its accounts in court but said it did not expect a ruling soon.
India’s Ministry of Home Affairs alleged in a statement that Amnesty India was receiving funds from abroad in contravention of the law, a practice that had invited action from the previous government, as well. “All the glossy statements about humanitarian work and speaking truth to power” are a “ploy to divert attention,” it said.
A spokesman for the Enforcement Directorate — an investigative agency that enforces laws regarding money laundering and foreign exchange — did not respond to a request for comment.
Amnesty is not the only international watchdog under pressure from the government. Greenpeace India has been the subject of an investigation by the Enforcement Directorate since 2018. The probe forced the group to reduce its staff by a third and scale back its work on climate change.
The investigation puts a “psychological strain on the staff,” said Binu Jacob, executive director of Greenpeace India. “It is also a drain on the system when you have to give your time and energy to legal matters.”
Rights groups in India have been harsh critics of the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which they accuse of stifling dissent and undermining the country’s secular founding ideals.
In turn, such groups have faced greater scrutiny from the government. Since 2014, when Modi swept to power, thousands of nongovernmental organizations have been banned from receiving funds from abroad. This month, lawmakers passed a contentious bill tightening these rules further.
In other instances, prominent critics of the government have faced more severe consequences. Several such figures are in jail awaiting trial. They include a well-known academic, lawyers and student leaders, all of whom were charged under a draconian anti-terrorism law.
Amnesty said it has faced sustained harassment for several years. In 2016, the group was charged with sedition after anti-India slogans were allegedly shouted at an event it held. The organization was acquitted by a court three years later.
Its office in Bangalore was raided in 2018 over alleged violations related to receiving foreign funds and its accounts were frozen, forcing layoffs. A court reprieve enabled the group to access the accounts again.
Some of Amnesty’s regular donors were sent notices by tax authorities in 2019, adversely affecting fundraising campaigns, it said.
In August, the group released a report on the February Delhi riots, in which more than 50 people were killed, the majority of them Muslims. It alleged that the Delhi police participated in the violence, an accusation rejected by the authorities, who called the report “lopsided, biased.”
Rajat Khosla, a senior director at Amnesty International’s office in London, said the group’s executives in India were repeatedly summoned this month for questioning and subjected to “all sorts of threats and intimidation.” The interrogations went on for hours, Khosla said, and included questions about why Amnesty did research into the Delhi riots.
Khosla said the probe into Amnesty’s work was part of a “systematic pattern” of conduct by the government toward civil society groups.
“What worries me tremendously,” he said, “is what is happening to core democratic values in a country like India.”