The Indian government uses the tax authorities against its opponents


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SUN SOOD is nothing if not graceful. The square-jawed man of characters such as “Tutak Tutak Tutiya” (2016) and “Kung Fu Yoga” (2017) say that when tax inspectors stormed his house, he tried to make it the best possible experience for them. When the uninvited guests left three days later, after locking the 48-year-old actor’s family inside and picking up their phones and personal papers, he told them he would miss them. The taxpayers were less kind. They say Mr. Sood is entangled in a web of “bogus” transactions, has collected foreign donations without the proper licenses and owes $ 2.7 million in taxes.

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Prior to covid-19, Mr Sood was a second-tier star, acting more in regional language films than in mainstream Hindi films watched nationwide. But the pandemic has made him a true hero of all of India. First with his own money, then with millions donated by admirers, Mr Sood rushed to help the needy, starting last year with the thousands of migrant workers stranded by the sudden and total lockdown of Indian cities. The foundation he created eventually helped some 90,000 people return home and gave 4 million meals to the hungry. So much money has flowed in that the charity is now giving scholarships to covid orphans, sponsoring jobs, paying for medical care, running a blood bank, and building a hospital.

Many Indians assume that if there is something fishy, ​​it is not in the actor’s accounts but in the motives for the tax raid. India’s rulers have systematically abused these tools of state power, and there is no doubt that Mr. Sood’s effectiveness in providing relief has made the politicians’ boasting look bad. It may also be relevant that shortly before the raid, Mr Sood was named a “brand ambassador” for a mentoring program created by a political party opposed to Narendra Modi, the Indian Prime Minister.

Mr. Sood has a distinguished company. In the same week that tax detectives rummaged its shelves, an anti-money laundering agency raided addresses associated with Harsh Mander, an activist who is perhaps India’s most worthy candidate for the Nobel Prize. peace. Among Mr. Mander’s initiatives is Karwan-e-Mohabbat, or Caravan of Love, a group of volunteers who seek to heal sectarian scars by quietly comforting victims of hate-motivated attacks. More and more inspectors were looking at the books of an anti-covid charity started by Rana Ayyub, a writer who strongly criticized Mr. Modi for stoking anti-Muslim violence.

Indian tax authorities show particular interest in journalists. In February, their victim was Newsclick, an independent website critical of the government. In July came the turn of the Dainik Bhaskar group, a press house that publishes a major daily in Hindi. He had aired a powerful series exposing the authorities’ efforts to hide the true number of covid deaths, widely estimated at three to ten times the official death toll of 450,000. In September, taxhounds again took to Newsclick as well as to NewsLaundry, a website whose investigative journalism has often embarrassed Mr. Modi. They detained workers in their offices until after midnight, confiscating phones and copying data.

These latest tax raids and so-called “investigations” do not yet appear to have resulted in charges, although the process is often sufficiently punitive. Another form of harassment has produced more striking results. Using laws that restrict foreign funding, and which were further tightened last year, Mr. Modi’s government has shut down more than 19,000 NGOs. The victims include locals of annoying groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, but also those involved in poverty alleviation and environmental action.

Oddly, however, what applies to the critics does not apply to Mr. Modi himself. Laws passed by his government freed political parties from responsibility for illegally accepting foreign donations in the past and created a “reformed” system that allows unlimited anonymous gifts to parties. Meanwhile the giant’s accounts PM The Cares Fund, set up by Mr. Modi ostensibly for covid relief and to which millions of state employees have been forced to contribute, remains completely opaque. With the click of a button on the fund’s website, foreign supporters can donate money.

It is no wonder that when Mr. Modi hailed India as the “mother of democracy” during the UN Last month’s General Assembly, pointing to its own emergence from poverty as evidence, the comments were not always kind. “More like the father of irony,” muttered a spirit in Delhi.

This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the title “A Raid Against Dissent”

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