Opposition arrest points to India’s politicised justice, critics say

Opposition arrest points to India’s politicised justice, critics say

NEW DELHI (AFP): Critics are accusing the Indian government of using law enforcement agencies to selectively target its political foes following the arrest of an opposition politician minutes after his resignation as a state Chief Minister.

Hemant Soren leads one of several opposition parties that have allied to challenge Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in national elections this year.

He began Wednesday as the leader of Jharkhand, which with an estimated 40 million people has a bigger population than Canada. By the evening he had stepped down and was in custody for allegedly facilitating an illegal land sale.

Jagdeep Chhokar, cofounder of local transparency watchdog the Association for Democratic Reforms, said Soren’s guilt or innocence was secondary to his status as an opponent of the ruling party.

“No politician is squeaky clean,” he told AFP.

“But it is evident from what is happening that opposition leaders are being threatened by law enforcement agencies.”

Soren’s detention was the first arrest of a chief minister for more than a decade, but he is only the latest opposition politician to face criminal investigations and charges since Modi won power in 2014.

Opposition Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi, scion of the dynasty that dominated Indian politics for decades, was convicted of criminal libel last year after a complaint by a member of Modi’s party.

His two-year prison sentence saw him disqualified from parliament for a time until the verdict was suspended by a higher court, but raised concerns over democratic norms in the world’s most populous country.

Arvind Kejriwal, leader of the Aam Aadmi Party — another member of the opposition alliance, and also chief minister of the capital region Delhi, has repeatedly been summoned by investigators probing alleged corruption in the allocation of liquor licences.

But Mmhonlumo Kikon, a national spokesman for Modi’s party, told AFP that India’s national law enforcement agencies worked to their independent mandate.

“BJP does not interfere in any way,” he said.

  Selective probes

 Jharkhand’s Soren was detained after a yearlong probe during which he maintained his innocence and accused the BJP of using investigators to sideline him.

“I will not bow down,” he said in a Wednesday video message recorded before his arrest. “Truth will prevail”.

Details of the evidence against Soren have yet to emerge.

Local media reports said investigators had raided his official residence earlier this week and seized two luxury cars and more than $40,000 in cash.

India’s main financial investigation agency, the Enforcement Directorate, has ongoing probes against at least four other chief ministers or their families, all of whom belong to the BJP’s political opponents.

But other investigations have been dropped against erstwhile rivals who later switched their allegiance to the BJP.

Himanta Biswa Sarma, the current chief minister of Assam in the northeast, was accused by investigators of participating in a lucrative pyramid scam but has not been interrogated since joining the BJP eight years ago.

Similarly former Maharashtra chief minister Narayan Rane was accused of money laundering but has not been summoned for questioning by investigators since merging his party with the BJP in 2019.

Another ruling party lawmaker in the same state, accused by opponents of malfeasance, told Indian news agency PTI that investigators “won’t come after me since I am a BJP MP”.

 ‘Misused’ agencies

 News organisations and non-profit groups have also found themselves subject to investigations since Modi took office.

Last year tax authorities raided the BBC offices and seized electronic devices after the British broadcaster aired a documentary investigating Modi’s role in 2002 religious riots when he was Gujarat state’s chief minister.

On Friday Criminal Bureau of Investigation investigators raided the New Delhi home of non-profit director Harsh Mander, who has regularly criticised Modi in newspaper columns.

Rights watchdog Amnesty International suspended its India operations after raids and the freezing of its bank accounts by the Enforcement Directorate in 2018.

The CBI and the Enforcement Directorate did not respond to AFP’s requests for comment on Friday.

Amnesty’s India chair Aakar Patel said that since Modi’s election, the government had routinely “misused” law enforcement agencies.

The clear target, he added, was “non-BJP parties and civil society”.