The Human Rights Watch on Friday accused the Indian authorities of using politically motivated allegations of tax evasion and financial irregularities to “silence human rights activists, journalists, and other critics of the government”.

In a statement, the human rights group expressed concern about a number of cases, including tax raids on actor Sonu Sood, human rights activist Harsh Mander and digital media outlets Newslaundry and Newsclick.

It referred to raids on four journalists in Jammu and Kashmir – Hilal Mir, Showkat Motta, Mohammad Shah Abbass and Azhar Qadri. The statement also mentioned the first information report filed by the Uttar Pradesh Police against journalist Rana Ayyub.

The four journalists were questioned in a case about a blog called “Kashmir Fight”. A post on the blog had sought to instigate people against the country and malign nationalists in Kashmir, PTI reported, citing sources.

Referring to these cases, the Human Rights Watch said that the raids were part of the Centre’s “escalating crackdown” on freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly.

“The authorities have brought political motivated criminal cases, including under broadly worded terrorism and sedition laws, against activists, journalists, academics, students, and others,” the human rights group said. “They have also used foreign funding regulations and allegations of financial misconduct to target outspoken groups.”

The New York-based organisation noted that the Editors Guild of India and Press Club of India have on numerous occasions called for an end to harassment of independent media.

The group said that after the Centre scrapped Jammu and Kashmir’s special status under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution and downgraded the state into two Union territories, journalists in Kashmir face “increased harassment by the authorities, including arrest under terrorism charges”.

On the Enforcement Directorate searching premises linked to Mander, the Human Rights Watch said that he has been a vocal critic of the Centre’s “discriminatory policies against religious minorities”.

The statement also said that Ayyub is an outspoken critic of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government. She has faced abuse from “government supporters and Hindu nationalist trolls” on social media, it added.

About the Income Tax raids on Sood’s premises, the Human Rights Watch said that the action “appeared to be politically motivated because the actor had received widespread praise from the general public, media, and opposition politicians across the country for his philanthropic work.”

Human Rights Watch’s South Asia Director Meenakshi Ganguly said the Modi government needs to change its course and uphold the fundamental rights of Indian citizens.

“The Indian government’s raids appear intended to harass and intimidate critics, and reflect a broader pattern of trying to silence all criticism,” Ganguly said in the statement. “These abuses weaken India’s core democratic institutions and break down fundamental freedoms.”

In January, the Human Rights Watch had released its “World Report 2021”, in which it took note of the security clampdown in Jammu and Kashmir, violence in Delhi in February, cases against activists in the Bhima Koregaon violence and crackdown on foreign funds of non-governmental organisations.