In Modi’s India, opponents and journalists feel the squeeze ahead of election

Lawmakers from India's opposition parties protest against the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi outside the parliament in New Delhi, India, on March 24, 2023. (AP)
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Updated 15 April 2024
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In Modi’s India, opponents and journalists feel the squeeze ahead of election

  • India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has brought corruption charges against many officials from its main rival
  • Under Modi’s rule, peaceful protests have been crushed with force while a once-free press is threatened

NEW DELHI: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government are increasingly wielding strong-arm tactics to subdue political opponents and critics of the ruling Hindu-nationalist party.

A decade into power, and on the cusp of securing five more years, the Modi government is reversing India’s decadeslong commitment to multiparty democracy and secularism.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has brought corruption charges against many officials from its main rival, the Congress Party, but few convictions. Dozens of politicians from other opposition parties are under investigation or in jail. And just last month, Modi’s government froze the Congress party’s bank accounts for what it said was non-payment of taxes.

The Modi administration says the country’s investigating agencies are independent and that its democratic institutions are robust, pointing to high voter turnout in recent elections that have delivered Modi’s party a clear mandate.




Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, left, and the president of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Amit Shah, in New Delhi, India, on April 8, 2019. (AP/File)

Yet civil liberties are under attack. Peaceful protests have been crushed with force. A once free and diverse press is threatened. Violence is on the rise against the Muslim minority. And the country’s judiciary increasingly aligns with the executive branch.

To better understand how Modi is reshaping India and what is at stake in an election that begins April 19 and runs through June 1, the AP spoke with a lawyer, a journalist, and an opposition politician.

Here are their stories:

DEFENDING MODI’S CRITICS

Mihir Desai has fought for the civil liberties and human rights of India’s most disadvantaged communities, such as the poor and Muslims, for nearly four decades.

The 65-year-old lawyer from India’s financial capital Mumbai is now working on one of his – and the country’s – most high-profile cases: defending a dozen political activists, journalists and lawyers jailed in 2018 on accusations of plotting to overthrow the Modi government. The accusations, he says, are baseless – just one of the government’s all-too-frequent and audacious efforts to silence critics.

One of the defendants in the case, a Jesuit priest and longtime civil rights activist, died at age 84 after about nine months in custody. The other defendants remain in jail, charged under anti-terror laws that rarely result in convictions.

“First authorities came up with a theory that they planned to kill Modi. Now they are being accused of being terrorist sympathizers,” he said.




Lawyer Mihir Desai poses for a photograph at his office in Mumbai, India, on April 3, 2024. (AP)

The point of it all, Desai believes, is to send a message to any would-be critics.

According to digital forensics experts at US-based Arsenal Consulting, the Indian government hacked into the computers of some of the accused and planted files that were later used as evidence against them.

To Desai, this is proof that the Modi government has “weaponized” the country’s once-independent investigative agencies.

He sees threats to Indian democracy all around him. Last year, the government removed the country’s chief justice as one of three people who appoint commissioners overseeing elections; Modi and the opposition leader in parliament are the others. Now, one of Modi’s cabinet ministers has a vote in the process, giving the ruling party a 2-1 majority.

“It’s a death knell to free and fair elections,” Desai said.

A POLITICIAN’S PLIGHT IN KASHMIR

Waheed-Ur-Rehman Para, 35, was long seen as an ally in the Indian government’s interests in Kashmir. He worked with young people in the majority-Muslim, semi-autonomous region and preached to them about the benefits of embracing India and its democratic institutions – versus seeking independence, or a merger with Pakistan.

Beginning in 2018, though, Para was viewed with suspicion by the Modi government for alleged connections to anti-India separatists. Since then, he has been jailed twice: in 2019 on suspicion that he and other political opponents could stoke unrest; and in 2020 on charges of supporting militant groups — charges he denies.

The accusations stunned Para, whose People’s Democratic Party once ruled Kashmir in an alliance with Modi’s party.

But he believes the motivation was clear: “I was arrested to forcibly endorse the government’s 2019 decision,” he said, referring to a clampdown on the resistance in Kashmir after the elimination of the region’s semi-autonomous status.

Modi’s administration argues the move was necessary to fully integrate the disputed region with India and foster economic development there.

After his 2020 arrest, Para remained in jail for nearly two years, often in solitary confinement, and was subjected to “abusive interrogations,’’ according to UN experts.
“My crime was that I wanted the integration of Kashmir, not through the barrel of the gun,” said Para, who is seeking to represent Kashmir’s main city in the upcoming election.

Para sees his own plight within the larger context of the Modi government’s effort to silence perceived opponents, especially those with ties to Muslims, who make up 14 percent of India’s population.

“It is a huge ethical question … that the largest democracy in the world is not able to assimilate, or offer dignity to, the smallest pocket of its people,” he said.

The campaign to turn once-secular India into a Hindu republic may help Modi win elections in the short term, Para said, but something much bigger will be lost.

“It risks the whole idea of this country’s diversity,” he said.

A JOURNALIST FIGHTS CHARGES

In October 2020, independent journalist Sidheeq Kappan was arrested while trying to report on a government clampdown in the northern Uttar Pradesh state ruled by Modi’s party.

For days, authorities had been struggling to contain protests and outcry over a gruesome rape case. Those accused of the crime were four upper caste Hindu men, while the victim belonged to the Dalit community, the lowest rung of India’s caste hierarchy.

Kappan, a 44-year-old Muslim, was detained and jailed before he even reached the crime site, accused of intending to incite violence. After two years in jail, his case reached India’s top court in 2022. While he was quickly granted bail, the case against him is ongoing.

Kappan’s case is not unique, and he says it highlights how India is becoming increasingly unsafe for journalists. Under intense pressure from the state, many Indian news organizations have become more pliant and supportive of government policies,

“Those who have tried to be independent have come under relentless attack by the government,” he said.

Foreign journalists are banned from reporting in Kashmir, for example. Same goes for India’s northeast Manipur state, which has been embroiled in ethnic violence for almost a year.

Television news is increasingly dominated by stations touting the government’s Hindu nationalist agenda, such as a new citizenship law that excludes Muslim migrants.
 Independent TV stations have been temporarily shut down, and newspapers that run articles critical of Modi’s agenda find that any advertising from the government – an important source of revenue – quickly dries up.

Last year, the India offices of the BBC were raided on tax irregularities just days after it aired a documentary critical of Modi.

The advocacy group Reporters Without Borders ranks India 161st on a worldwide list of countries’ press freedoms.

Kappan said he has barely been able to report news since his arrest. The trial keeps him busy, requiring him to travel to a court hundreds of miles away every other week. The time and money required for his trial have made it difficult for him to support his wife and three children, Kappan said.

“It is affecting their education, their mental health,” he said.


Investigation of Russian hack on London hospitals may take weeks amid worries over online data dump

Updated 7 sec ago
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Investigation of Russian hack on London hospitals may take weeks amid worries over online data dump

  • Hundreds of operations and appointments are still being canceled more than two weeks after the June 3 attack on NHS provider Synnovis, which provides pathology services primarily in southeast London
LONDON: An investigation into a ransomware attack earlier this month on London hospitals by the Russian group Qilin could take weeks to complete, the country’s state-run National Health Service said Friday, as concerns grow over a reported data dump of patient records.
Hundreds of operations and appointments are still being canceled more than two weeks after the June 3 attack on NHS provider Synnovis, which provides pathology services primarily in southeast London.
The attack affected King’s College and Guy’s and St. Thomas’ hospital trusts, which run several south London hospitals, as well as clinics and doctors’ practices across a swath of the city. A memo to staff called it a “critical incident” and said it had a “major impact” on services, particularly blood transfusions.
NHS England said Friday that it has been “made aware” that data connected to the attack have been published online. According to the BBC, Qilin shared almost 400GB of data, including patient names, dates of birth and descriptions of blood tests, on their darknet site and Telegram channel.
“The National Crime Agency and National Cyber Security Center are working to verify the data included in the published files as quickly as possible,” NHS England said in a statement. “These files are not simple uploads and so investigations of this nature are highly complex and can take weeks if not longer to complete.”
According to Saturday’s edition of the Guardian newspaper, records covering 300 million patient interactions, including the results of blood tests for HIV and cancer, were stolen during the attack.
A website and helpline has been set up for patients affected.
“We understand the distress this will cause patients who have to re-test,” NHS England said.
The National Crime Agency has confirmed that it is leading the criminal investigation but said it is unable to comment further.
Ransomware involves criminals paralyzing computer systems with malware, then demanding money to release them. Ransomware is the costliest and most disruptive form of cybercrime, affecting local governments, court systems, hospitals and schools as well as businesses. It is difficult to combat as most gangs are based in former Soviet states and out of reach of Western justice.
Britain’s state-funded health system has been hit before, including during a 2017 ransomware attack that froze computers at hospitals across the country, closing down wards, shutting emergency rooms and bringing treatment to a halt.
Qilin, also known as Agenda, advertises on dark web cybercrime forums and leases malware to affiliates who use it to conduct attacks for a percentage of ransom payments, said Louise Ferrett of Searchlight Cyber, a threat intelligence company. The group has listed more than 100 victims.

BRICS countries launch joint tourism roadmap at Moscow forum

Updated 17 min 31 sec ago
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BRICS countries launch joint tourism roadmap at Moscow forum

  • BRICS accounts for 45 percent of world’s population, 25 percent of global economy
  • New strategy includes increased mobility between the nine countries

MOSCOW: The BRICS group of emerging-market nations has launched a roadmap to boost travel between member nations during the organization’s first tourism forum, which was held in Moscow over the weekend.

The BRICS group — an acronym for Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — was formed in 2009 as an investment forum. It has since evolved into a geopolitical bloc and in January expanded to include Iran, the UAE, Ethiopia and Egypt.

The group’s leaders meet for annual summits hosted by the member holding its rotating presidency. This year’s chairmanship was taken by Russia.

Over 300 representatives of the industry gathered in Moscow for the BRICS Tourism Forum on Friday as delegates of the nine member countries announced a roadmap for joint policy and investment initiatives, which covers the development of digital tourism solutions, the BRICS green initiative for tourism, and the development of business relations in the sector, which Russian Economy Minister Maxim Reshetnikov said makes up around five percent of the group members’ economies.

“We can say that the BRICS tourism track has been formally launched as of this moment,” Reshetnikov told reporters. “The document will bolster cooperation in the tourism industry’s digitalization and in promoting and increasing tourist exchanges.”

The roadmap was welcomed by the Indian Ministry of Tourism.

“This is a great achievement, the first of its kind, and now the countries will work together in a certain manner through the roadmap,” Niraj Sharan, assistant director general at the ministry, told Arab News.

“In the future, more and more tourists will move within BRICS nations. It will be easy to go around, easing travel formalities, each country will facilitate member countries’ citizens, there will be cooperation between the hospitality sectors, and the countries will invest in each other’s firms.”

India is already offering e-visas to most of the BRICS nations.

“India is aiming at a better partnership, coordination and cohesion among all the BRICS nations — better facilities, easy movement of tourists, better exchanges for tourism sectors, tourism stakeholders, enhancing investment in each other’s countries,” Sharan said.

Amr El-Kadi, chairman of the Egyptian Tourism Promotion Authority at the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, said: “The BRICS Tourism Forum is significant, it’s opening up new territories. It’s a golden opportunity, where we can all work (together) within BRICS to increase intra-tourism.

“We have another major program to promote Egypt in India. We are working hard with the Indian embassy in Cairo to do a lot,” he continued. “We have a joint working team between both countries to know exactly how and where to promote tourism both ways. So, we have very ambitious plans.”

BRICS nations have a combined population of about 45 percent of the world’s inhabitants and account for some 25 percent of the global economy.

Since last year, 40 countries, including Malaysia, Thailand and Pakistan, have reportedly expressed interest in becoming members of the BRICS bloc, which aims to represent the Global South and provide an alternative model to the Western-dominated G7 — the most advanced economies comprising Germany, France, the UK, Italy, Japan, Canada, and the US.


BRICS countries launch tourism cooperation roadmap at Moscow forum

Updated 26 min 53 sec ago
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BRICS countries launch tourism cooperation roadmap at Moscow forum

  • BRICS accounts for 45 percent of the world’s population, 25 percent of the global economy
  • New roadmap includes increased mobility between the nine countries and mutual investments

MOSCOW: BRICS countries on Friday launched a tourism cooperation roadmap during the intergovernmental organization’s first tourism forum held in Moscow, with top officials calling it a “great achievement” toward easing travel formalities and boosting cooperation among the hospitality sectors of the grouping of emerging-market nations. 

The BRICS group — the acronym stands for Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — was formed in 2009 as an investment forum and has since evolved into a geopolitical bloc. In January, the group expanded its membership to include Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Ethiopia and Egypt.

The group’s leaders meet for annual summits hosted by the members holding its rotating presidency. This year’s chairmanship was taken by Russia, which for the first time in the bloc’s history held a forum dedicated to tourism.

Over 300 representatives of the industry gathered in Moscow on Friday for the BRICS Tourism Forum, where delegates of the nine member countries announced a roadmap on joint policy and investment initiatives.

“We can say that the BRICS tourism track has been formally launched as of this moment,” Russian Economy Minister Maxim Reshetnikov told reporters.

“The document will bolster cooperation in the tourism industry’s digitalization and in promoting and increasing tourist exchanges.”

It included developing digital tourism solutions, a BRICS green initiative for tourism, and business relations in the sector, which Reshetnikov said contributes about five percent to the group’s member economies.

The roadmap was welcomed by the Indian Ministry of Tourism.

“This is a great achievement, first of its kind, and now the countries will work together in a certain manner or through the roadmap,” Niraj Sharan, assistant director general at the ministry, told Arab News on the sidelines of the forum.

“In the future, more and more tourists will move within BRICS nations. It will be easy to go around, easing travel formalities, each country will facilitate member countries’ citizens, there will be cooperation among the hospitality sectors, and the countries will be investing in each other’s firms.”

India is already offering e-visas to most of the BRICS nations.

“India is aiming at a better partnership, coordination and cohesion among all the BRICS nations, better facilities, easy movement of tourists, better exchanges for tourism sectors, tourism stakeholders, enhancing investment in each other’s countries,” Sharan said.

BRICS nations have a combined population of about 45 percent of the world’s inhabitants and account for some 25 percent of the global economy.

Since last year, 40 countries, including Malaysia, Thailand and Pakistan, have expressed interest in becoming members of the bloc, which tries to represent the Global South and provide an alternative model to the Western-dominated G7 — the most advanced economies comprising Germany, France, the UK, Italy, Japan, Canada and the US.

Egypt, a new member of the bloc, said the roadmap was an opportunity to benefit from linkages with some of the world’s most populous countries.

“The BRICS Tourism Forum is significant, it’s opening up to new territories ... It’s a golden opportunity, where you all have to work on the development and improvement, and work between the nations within the BRICS to increase intra-tourism,” said Amr El-Kadi, chairman of the Egyptian Tourism Promotion Authority at the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.

“We are having another big-scale program to promote Egypt in India. We are working hard with the Indian embassy in Cairo to do a lot. We have a joint working team between both countries to know exactly how and where and where to promote tourism both ways. So, we have very ambitious plans for us.”


Anger after fireworks trigger Greek forest fire

Updated 26 min 33 sec ago
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Anger after fireworks trigger Greek forest fire

  • Greece has recently toughened penalties for arson, with perpetrators now facing up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to 200,000 euros

ATHENS: A forest fire on the Greek tourist island of Hydra, near Athens, was started by fireworks launched from a yacht, firefighters said Saturday, sparking widespread anger.
The fire, which started on Friday evening, has been brought under control, authorities said.
The blaze was “caused by a fireworks launched from a boat and burned the only pine forest on the island in a place that is difficult to access and has no road,” said the island’s seasonal firefighting team on Facebook.
The mayor of the island, Giorgos Koukoudakis, told public television channel ERT that he was “outraged that certain people are starting fires in such an irresponsible manner.”
The news also sparked fury on social media.
Greece has recently toughened penalties for arson, with perpetrators now facing up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to 200,000 euros.
The country has been bracing for a particularly difficult summer as authorities warned that strong winds and high temperatures mean there was a “very high risk” of forest fires.
The Mediterranean country recorded its first heatwave of the year last week with temperatures passing more than 44 degrees Celsius (111 degrees Fahrenheit) in some locations.
Greek firefighters on Friday battled wildfires fanned by three days of fierce winds that left at least one person dead.
Last year, a fierce two-week heatwave was followed by devastating wildfires in which 20 people died.
Scientists warn that fossil fuel emissions caused by humans are worsening the length and intensity of heatwaves around the world.
Rising temperatures are leading to extended wildfire seasons and increasing the area burnt by the blazes, according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.


Italian coast guard recovers 14 more bodies of shipwreck victims off Calabria, dozens still missing

Updated 22 June 2024
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Italian coast guard recovers 14 more bodies of shipwreck victims off Calabria, dozens still missing

  • Humanitarian groups have decried the deaths as evidence of the failure of European migration policy

ROME: The Italian coast guard has recovered 14 more bodies from last week’s shipwreck in the Ionian Sea off the southern Italian coastline, bringing to 34 the number of known victims from the sinking. Dozens are still missing and presumed dead.
The bodies, recovered on Friday, were transferred to a port in Calabria. Three coast guard ships were active in the air-and-sea search, some 190 kilometers (120 miles) from shore.
Survivors reported that the motorboat had caught fire, causing it to capsize off the Italian coast overnight last Sunday, about eight days after departing from Turkiye with about 75 people from Iran, Syria and Iraq on board, according to the UN refugee agency and other UN organizations. Eleven survivors were being treated on shore.
The latest deaths bring to more than 800 people who have died or went missing and are presumed dead crossing the central Mediterranean so far this year, an average of five dead a day, the UN agencies said.
Humanitarian groups have decried the deaths as evidence of the failure of European migration policy.