In granting anticipatory bail to Teesta Setelvad and Javed Anand on August 11, the Bombay high court noted: “A dissenting view cannot be said to be against the sovereignty of the nation.” Like several other recent rulings by the judiciary, the high court also reminded the state of its duty to protect a citizen’s right to criticize and disagree.
Successive Indian governments have told the world proudly of the country’s vibrant civil society. But in recent years, there has been an alarming change back home. Several NGOs have been denied full access to foreign financial support, while many are facing accusations of financial impropriety or violating regulatory laws. Others report increasing scrutiny.
No one can reasonably oppose proper audits and accountability for NGOs. But any such investigation needs to be free of political motivations and conducted in a fair and transparent manner.
Lately, the situation has worsened. The police routinely claims that activists are a threat to national security, leaving them in the same basket as threats from terror attacks. Government critics are considered “anti-national.”
In opposing bail during the high court case and in other court hearings, the authorities said that Ms Setalvad and Mr Anand, who have long been recognized for their work on protecting the rights of religious minorities, are a security risk to the state of India. The court disagreed.
The couple are also accused of misusing foreign donations. They say the allegations against them are false and have offered to cooperate with investigations. They argue that they are being unfairly targeted for their work on the 2002 Gujarat riots and for their criticism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his role as Gujarat chief minister during the violence.
While efforts by victims’ families, lawyers, activists, the National Human Rights Commission and the judiciary ensured the conviction of over a hundred perpetrators of the Gujarat violence, Ms Setalvad is widely recognized as among the most dogged and outspoken of the campaigners. Had it not been for the courage, commitment and perseverance of her and others, the story of the Gujarat riots would read like other incidents of mass communal violence in India, including the 1984 attacks on Sikhs and the 1992-93 riots in Mumbai — with complete impunity for perpetrators. Tellingly, the prosecution, during the high court hearing, spoke of a conspiracy to keep the “2002 riot incidents alive”.
As part of what the activists say are harassment tactics, the police has repeatedly sought the couple’s arrest, confiscated their passports and blocked their bank accounts. The Central Bureau of Investigation raided their home and office.
The recent pressure comes as the Gujarat high court is hearing a case that seeks to establish command responsibility for the violence by asking for the prosecution of Mr Modi and others, many in powerful positions. The case was filed by Zakia Jafri, widow of Ehsan Jafri, a former member of Parliament who was killed during the 2002 attacks.
The shadow of fear continues to loom over the process of seeking justice for victims in Gujarat. Recently, two judges of the Gujarat high court who were named to hear cases from 2002 recused themselves after some of the accused tried to contact them. On July 23, a retired trial court judge, Jyotsna Yagnik, who presided over a case involving one of the most gruesome massacres in Gujarat, said at a press conference that she had received threatening letters and “blank phone calls” but the state government refused her request for increased security.
When Mr Modi was elected Prime Minister of India in 2014, many activists feared his administration would target those who had demanded further investigations into the events of 2002. The first year of his administration seemed to be aimed at reassuring domestic and international opinion. But now the campaign against Ms Setalvad has intensified. While the allegations will eventually be decided by the courts, in the meantime a chilling message is sent to activists through criminal cases, tax audits, frozen bank accounts and media campaigns on their credibility.
When he travels abroad to promote India as an attractive market, the Prime Minister cites its democratic values and vibrant civil society. That civil society includes those who criticize. If his administration engages in intimidation of critics, his message will soon have no audience and no meaning.
Meenakshi Ganguly is South Asia director at Human Rights Watch.