IT Dept ‘survey’ against news portals only the latest instance of Modi govt harassing perceived opponents

Modi govt’s use of central agencies against political opponents and perceived dissenters to fall in line or face punishment for refusing to do so has been embarrassingly clear

Representative image
Representative image

K Raveendran

The ‘survey’ conducted by the Income Tax Department at the offices of two news websites is as ominous as all other raids routinely conducted by government agencies against those who refuse to toe the official line.

There are any number of laws in India that can be slapped against anyone at will by the authorities. It ranges from the ridiculous ‘crime’ if one picks up a Rs 10 note lying on the road and not report it to the competent authority to ‘sedition’ if one dares to criticise the Prime Minister in a way that his ‘bhakts’, of whom there is no dearth in the Modi dispensation, do not approve of.

As long as there are archaic laws that are vestiges of colonial and authoritarian rulers exist, no one is free from the risk of survey, raid or arrest.

We have seen how Dainik Bhaskar group had to pay a heavy price for reporting that corpses were floating around in Ganga during the peak of Covid, which painted a picture of utter failure by the government to handle the second wave. To make the criticism more biting, the group’s national editor had written an article in New York Times with the headline ‘The Ganges Is Returning the Dead. It Does Not Lie’.

As a first dose, all government advertisements to the group were cancelled. This was followed up with raids by IT Department in several premises of the newspaper. The IT department then released a statement, claiming Rs 700 crore worth of tax evasion was detected.

The latest in the series is the IT Dept survey on the premises of news portals Newslaundry and NewsClick. According to reports, the portal owners were told that they were not allowed to seek legal help and that they had to hand over the phones to the raiding party.

IT Dept officials have taken great pains to explain the difference between a survey and search, and that the Income Tax Act provides for tax officials to enter any premises of an assessee for a search and seizure operation.

The main difference between a survey and search is that the former will be carried out during regular office hours, while the latter raid can be at any time, even the midnight or the wee hours not excluded. There is, however, no explanation on the timing of the ‘surveys’ against the news portals, which happened simultaneously.

The least common denominator is that both news websites have been aggressively covering the Pegasus snooping scam of the Modi government.

The brazenness of Modi government’s use of central agencies against political opponents and perceived dissenters has been embarrassingly clear. It has been using the central agencies to play on the vulnerability of political opponents either to force them to fall in line or punish them for refusing to do so.

It has also been used as a high potential tool to extract political concessions from opponents. The CBI knocking at the door of politicians ahead of negotiations or deals has become a matter of routine under the Modi government. Run-up to elections is a particularly high-yielding period for the tactics: summons are issued, arrests are made, and if there are no old cases pending, news ones are created at the ease of dropping a hat.

Once the action produces the desired result, nothing more is heard about these cases. Until the next opportune moment, when everything thing is dusted out and taken out for further action.

The Enforcement Directorate’s money laundering case against NCP chief Sharad Pawar and his nephew Ajit Pawar a month before the Maharashtra assembly elections two years ago as well as the revival of proceedings in the 2014 ‘ponzi scam’ against Trinamul Congress leaders ahead of the West Bengal assembly elections were both examples of blatant abuse of powers by the Modi government.

It was more or less the same story in Rajasthan, when the IT Dept and ED officials raided the premises of CM Ashok Gehlot’s brother when backroom parleys were reportedly progressing between the Sachin Pilot camp and BJP for a possible switch.

It is an irony of fate that the BJP’s game plan failed to produce the results that the party had anticipated in any of the above instances, other than a crude attempt getting fully exposed.

(IPA Service)

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