Govt doesn't want 'anti-national' NGOs challenging it & BJP alone is not guilty
When the Narendra Modi-led BJP won a decisive mandate in the 2014 general elections, civil society groups in India braced for some sort of crackdown. After all, the right-wing had dubbed a lot of these groups as 'anti-national' for providing assistance to those who dared to raise their voice against a development paradigm which had no space for dissent.
Even the NGOs that had raised questions about Modi's role in the 2002 Gujarat pogrom and extra-judicial killings as Gujarat Chief Minister were certain of facing government's wrath, in the wake of the new political reality.
Their fears came true last year, when the central government decided to cut foreign funding licence of certain NGOs that were critical of the government. Then, in November 2016, licences of close to 20,000 NGOs were cancelled by the Ministry of Home Affairs.
What was worrisome was the ambiguity over the invalidation of licences of certain NGOs, and the cancellation of their foreign funding under the FCRA (Foreign Contribution Regulation Act).
Some prominent NGOs working on human rights violations and policy reforms were informed that their licences were being cancelled or not renewed in the 'national interest', citing reports from the ground which were never made public.
The government's intent was to silence all those NGOs that were engaged in exposing the fallacies of this development paradigm, by highlighting the maladies in projects that violated human rights and environmental norms, and mobilised people to speak for their rights.
This was a major setback for many NGOs who sourced foreign funds only because of dearth of funds on offer by Indian philanthropists.
Not all in the same bracket
It would also be wrong to put all these NGOs in the same bracket, considering how some of them may have voluntarily opted to not renew their FCRA licences. Some NGOs may have availed foreign funds for a particular project, and once that got over, they would not have applied for renewal of licences.
Anil Chaudhary, convenor of Indian Social Action Forum (INSAF), says: “It's a misguided notion that 20,000 licences have been cancelled. In fact, all those who applied for renewal in 2016 either got the licence or will get it. These numbers were fed to the media to create a perception that the government is taking strict action. There are only 20-25 cases where renewal of licences has been refused, but they do not get reported amongst these numbers being quoted by the media.
INSAF is among the NGOs that have received clear orders from the government that their licence has either been cancelled or will not be renewed. Some other NGOs in this bracket are Greenpeace, Lawyers Collective, Sabrang Trust and ANHAD. These NGOs had a history of being overtly critical of BJP state governments, and even the PM himself.
Chaudhary says the crackdown on non-profits is a global phenomenon, which gained momentum in India after the BJP came to power.
“Interference has increased, so that whoever is ruling can guide it. It is happening in Russia, US, and Indonesia, among other countries, wherein governments are putting pressure on non-profits. However, if this trend was not enough, we saw BJP being elected to power, which is now using it to its political advantage, and silencing all those who have genuinely been opposed to its brand of politics and development,” he says.
FATF responsible for crackdown
According to Chaudhary, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an inter-governmental body, is responsible for the crackdown on NGOs.
FATF sets standards and promotes effective implementation of legal, regulatory and operational measures for combating money laundering, terrorist financing and other related threats to the integrity of the international financial system.
“The FATF is, therefore, a 'policy-making body', which works to generate the necessary political will to bring about national legislative and regulatory reforms in these areas,” reads a statement on its website.
Chaudhary points out how FATF, in one of its reports, had claimed non-profits were vulnerable to 'terrorist funding', which led to this worldwide crackdown.
India, being a member country, has been working on FATF's guidelines, and with the BJP in power, this is being further used to silence those who were particularly critical of the ruling dispensation.
In fact, a leaked intelligence report from 2015 claimed that organisations like Greenpeace were hurting India's economy by presenting key development projects in bad light.
Just a few days after the report was leaked, Greenpeace's FCRA licence was cancelled.
Similarly, Lawyers Collective, a prominent NGO run by senior lawyers Indira Jaising and Anand Grover, was barred from receiving any foreign donations allegedly because it criticised Modi's tenure as Gujarat Chief Minister and his environmental policies. Lawyers Collective has been at the forefront of providing legal assistance to those who either could not afford legal services for the last three decades.
In fact, the major bone of contention between the BJP government and Lawyers Collective was the latter's decision to represent Teesta Setalvad in her quest for justice for the victims of the 2002 Gujarat pogrom. Later, when the BJP assumed power, Setalvad and her husband Javed Anand were accused of embezzlement of funds meant for the riot victims. Her offices were raided and subsequently, her NGO, Sabrang, was denied the renewal of its FCRA licence.
Similarly, in 2017, the government barred the Public Health Foundation of India from receiving foreign funds, on the request of RSS's economic wing, the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, which reflected how the government's decisions were driven by organisations affiliated to the RSS.
FCRA amendment that helped political parties
Ever since Modi took over, cancellation of these licences has become the norm. The crackdown on foreign-funded NGOs gained momentum in 2015, a year after Modi took oath as Prime Minister.
In 2015 alone, the government cancelled FCRA licences of over 10,000 NGOs, which was far more than the preceding years.
Home Ministry data shows there were 59 cancellations in 2014, compared to four in 2013. However, in 2012, when the Congress was in power, 4,138 NGOs had to face cancellation of their FCRA licences.
Interestingly, the FCRA was initially brought into force in 1976 with the sole intent to curb foreign funding to political parties and media, and to keep a watch on their funding patterns. But, in 2010, the government brought NGOs into its ambit.
However, the government, in 2015, introduced a clause to amend the FCRA, wherein political parties could get funding from subsidiaries of foreign companies, and received backing from Opposition parties.
In fact, the Association of Democratic Rights filed a petition in the Delhi High Court accusing the Congress and the BJP of accepting foreign funds in 2014, thus violating FCRA. The High Court, in its judgement on 28 March 2016, held the two political parties responsible for the violations, and directed the Union government to take appropriate action against them within six months. But the government is yet to take any action against them.
Don't blame BJP alone
Chaudhary actually says that the saffron party is only taking the UPA's policy forward, and blames former Home Minister P Chidambaram for the crackdown on NGOs.
“He brought in the amendment which made the renewal of licences mandatory after five years. He also brought in other clauses that interfered in the way non-profits worked. The only difference between the BJP and the Congress is that the latter does the job without creating any noise, while the saffron party creates all the noise without doing anything,” he says.
Chaudhary also points out how bank accounts of INSAF, another NGO, were frozen under UPA rule. “The BJP alone should not be blamed. It is as much as Congress's doing as that of BJP,” he says.
Questioning why there are no such restrictions on political parties and corporate houses, Chaudhary adds: “If the non-profits have to survive this onslaught, they should be ready to work as an extension of the State or the market. The rest will all perish, unless they fight to restore order.”