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Modi govt crackdown on NGOs: what is driving the repression?

Bharat Bhushan | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 3:15 IST

The clampdown

  • The Modi government has cancelled licenses of over 10,000 NGOs.
  • After Greenpeace and Ford Foundation, Vatican-funded Caritas has come under its scrutiny.
  • Civil society organisations allege this is a way of suppressing them.
  • Not just India, countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka have also been cracking down on foreign-funded NGOs.

The backdrop

  • G-7\'s Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering developed a framework for monitoring NGOs.
  • This effort was later channeled against non-profit NGOs suspected to be fronts to fund terrorism.
  • In July 2010, an FATF inspection found that India was \'non-compliant\' in terms of its recommendations.

The agenda

  • Govt wants the only representative voice to be its own, not that of NGOs which claim to fight for the voiceless.
  • Given BJP\'s proximity to corporates, it is wary of NGOs that fight for people\'s right to natural resources.
  • RSS is India\'s largest NGO. It has been opposed to NGOs involved in rights-based struggles.
  • It also sees Christian-funded organisations as its rivals.

After Greenpeace, Ford Foundation and many others, the latest non-government organisation (NGO) to come under government scrutiny is Caritas India, funded by the Vatican. Apparently Caritas received funds from the Dutch funding body, Stichting Cordaid.

The Indian NGOs behind the Kudankulam nuclear protests of 2011-12 had apparently also received funds from Cordaid. Therefore, the funding of Caritas has also come under the scanner.

The continuing onslaught of the Narendra Modi government on NGOs and civil society organisations makes one wonder whether 'regulation' of NGOs has become a means for suppressing them.

The highly emotive responses this issue elicits obscures analysis into the processes pushing governments to regulate, monitor and control the activities of NGOs.

The international context

Government regulation is most certainly herding civil society organisations towards activities considered more 'acceptable' to the State, in India and other parts of the world.

The primary impetus for monitoring foreign-funded NGOs comes from the global framework developed in October 2001, by the Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering (FATF).

This initiative developed out of attempts by the UN and the G-7 to prevent money laundering. Later, this effort was channeled against non-profit NGOs that suspected to be fronts to fund terrorism. Today, the FATF carries on these operations from Paris, based in the headquarters of the Organisation for Cooperation and Development (OECD).

The FATF's 'Special Recommendation VIII' eventually became a part of the global good governance agenda. More than180 countries accepted it, including India.

The FATF recommendation requires States to "review the adequacy of laws and regulations that relate to entities that can be abused for the financing of terrorism".

It encourages nations to regulate NGOs through licensing or registration procedures and introduce transparency and accountability in their functioning.

In July 2010, an FATF inspection found that India was 'non-compliant' in terms of its recommendations. It called on the Indian authorities to "undertake a comprehensive outreach to the NGO sector with a view to protecting the sector from abuse for terrorist financing as well as wider outreach in relation to good governance and accountability".

Regulation in India

Even before the FATF report could be published, in mid-2010, the Indian government adopted a stringent Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA). What this legislation did, perhaps to pre-empt criticism in the FATF report, was to allow broad executive discretion to brand some NGOs as 'political' and prevent them from receiving foreign funds.

The provisions of this pro-active law is ostensibly intended to keep India on the same page as the global community in preventing money laundering and countering the funding of terrorism. But, as is obvious, they also allow governments to take action against dissenting voices and harass human rights activists.

Now, the Narendra Modi government, after cancelling the licenses of more than 10,000 non-government organisations (NGOs), has proposed new guidelines and disclosure norms for receiving and using foreign funds.

The new draft rules have been put up for public comment by the government. While NGOs are expected to disclose the foreign funds received by them within seven days, the banks receiving them on their behalf will have to disclose any crediting of foreign funds into an NGO's account within 48 hours.

The NGOs are also prohibited from using the funds for any activities "detrimental to national interest, likely to affect public interest, or likely to prejudicially affect the security, scientific, strategic or economic interest of the state".

The Modi government has consistently targeted NGOs, offloading a Greenpeace activist as well as putting the likes of Amnesty International, Ford Foundation and International Development Research Centre on a 'prior permission' hot-list.

However, the Manmohan Singh government had also targeted NGOs similarly, tightened regulations governing their activities and harassed their activists - the most visible case being the anti-nuclear protestors at Kudankulam.

Note that BJP is the political arm of India's largest NGO - RSS - with a millennial agenda of Hindu-ising India

The government of Bangladesh is clamping controls on NGOs with even greater enthusiasm, with block level officers being empowered to shut them down. Pakistan derecognised about 3,000 NGOs last December and has announced that NGOs "working against the country's national interest will not be allowed to continue their work". Most recently, it expelled the charity, Save the Children, but withdrew the order under US pressure.

In Sri Lanka, under former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, NGOs were banned from holding press conferences, training journalists or issuing press releases. They had to register with the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development and seek prior permission for receiving foreign funds.

Clearly, just as India is hardening its legal mechanisms to tackle foreign funding, all its neighbours are bringing in stringent laws to do the same, with the exception of Nepal. This is being done under the claim of regulating and promoting transparency.

However, regulation seems to fast be regressing into repression.

State as the sole voice

Governments, including in India, do not hate NGOS per se. Under certain circumstances, they are seen as force multipliers in overcoming problems of implementation of government programmes, policies and services. Many government departments seek their active help and fund their activities.

One would expect authoritarian or quasi-democratic states limiting political discourse critical of them. However, the problem arises even in democratic states when the government thinks NGOs are operating outside an 'acceptable' domain of activities.

Many states in India are uncomfortable with issues raised by NGOs and civil society organisations. They range from - defending people's right to life and personal liberty against violence by the State, non-State or private actors; conflict over natural resources; development-project induced displacement of the marginal and the poor; eviction or threat of eviction from forestlands and marginal spaces in cities; deprivation of quality education and health services; denial of any role in decision making and implementation of government plans and programmes; and safety and security of women especially when they come from the poorer sections of society - especially Dalits and tribals.

The NGOs which point to the warts on the body politic cannot expect government funding. It is natural, therefore, that a large portion of funds for NGOs fighting for human rights or communities caught in conflict zones or for those evicted by big development projects or fighting to protect the environment will come from sympathetic funding bodies outside India.

These funds which help give voice to the voiceless are seen by the government as working against 'national interest'. It wants the world and international financial institutions to hear only one voice - that of the State and its representatives.

BJP's agenda

Where the government needs the outreach of NGOs in 'acceptable' developmental activities, it ensures funds are made available through enforcing Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).

India has made it mandatory under the Companies Act for corporates earning a net profit of Rs 5 crore or more (or with a net worth of Rs 500 crore or a turnover of Rs. 1,000 crore) to contribute 2% of their net profit to CSR.

CSR funds will obviously not go to organisations fighting the takeover of economic and natural resources by corporates. The BJP came to power on the strength of corporate support and is pushing an agenda that would alienate common natural resources from the poor to the corporates.

Many states in India are uncomfortable with issues raised by NGOs and civil society organisations

This is reflected not only in the thrice promulgated Land Acquisition Ordinance but also in its belief that concessions to the corporate alone leads to job creation.

It is equally important to note that the BJP is the political arm of the largest NGO in the country - the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) - with a millennial agenda of Hindu-ising India.

The RSS has spawned several hundred smaller NGOs and many work in the same spaces as NGOs involved in rights-based struggles. It helps the RSS to curtail the space of the latter and expand the space for its progeny.

Once the RSS used to suspect rights-based struggles for being a front for Communists. It now accuses such struggles of being inspired by Western liberal ideas which increase conflict in a unified 'Hindu society'.

The other reason for fighting foreign-funded NGOs is that its main rival for leadership among the tribal population is the Church. The RSS uses the threat of Christian proselytisation luring away the Hindu flock to generate support against NGOs funded by Christian charities abroad - even when funds are not given for furthering religious agendas.

Overall, it could be said that the kind of regulation and monitoring being introduced by the Indian government on foreign funds received by NGOs is not aimed so much at meeting international conventions as at constricting the democratic space, and neutering all critical discourse.

First published: 26 June 2015, 10:23 IST
Bharat Bhushan @Bharatitis

Editor of Catch News, Bharat has been a hack for 25 years. He has been the founding Editor of Mail Today, Executive Editor of the Hindustan Times, Editor of The Telegraph in Delhi, Editor of the Express News Service, Washington Correspondent of the Indian Express and an Assistant Editor with The Times of India.