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US NGO threatens to shut shop, blames Modi govt for 'ideological targeting'

Catch Team | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:37 IST

Compassion International is already in the Ministry of Home Affairs' (MHA) crosshairs for alleged violations of the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA). And now, the US-based NGO has claimed it will have to shut down its India operations because it is being 'targeted for pursuing lawful activities contrary to the current government's ideology'.

Several powerful US Congressmen, too, have supported the organisation, after the matter was unusually heard by the powerful Foreign Affairs Committee. The matter was earlier raised by US Secretary of State John Kerry during his recent visit to New Delhi.

The faith-base NGO has been in the eye of controversies as the government suspects it is involved in religious conversions. It has been put on the MHA's prior permission list - which prevents NGOs from receiving foreign funds without the Centre's approval.

Compassion International has allegedly been illegally transferring money to partner NGOs not registered under the FCRA Act. It is alleged to have transferred money to organisations which were utilising it for activities contrary to the provisions of the FCRA.

Several Indian NGOs, too, have cried hoarse, claiming harassment by the Centre after their FCRA licences were either cancelled or they were put on the prior permission list.

The NGO's claims

Stephen Oakley, vice-president and general counsel of the organisation told the Foreign Affairs Committee of the US Congress: "Compassion International is approximately three weeks away from permanently withdrawing its humanitarian operations from India."

Oakley demanded that the committee ask the Indian government to "rescind the prior clearance order of MHA so that Compassion can fund the sponsored children under its care".

Oakley claimed harassment by Indian government agencies, including the Income Tax Department, the Enforcement Directorate and the Intelligence Bureau. He also demanded that the FCRA licences of two of its partner NGOs - Caruna Bal Vikas and Compassion East India - be reinstated, so that it can pay its employees in India.

While Caruna Bal Vikas is being investigated by the IT department, Compassion East India is being investigated by the ED. Both investigations are pending.

Oakley claimed that the IT department, which had assessed an $18 million tax on Caruna Bal Vikas for transferring funds to religious trusts, was not mandated to inquire or determine whether the activities were religious or charitable.

But it's not just the NDA government that Oakley blamed - he actually said the changes brought in by UPA-2 to the FCRA Act were being used as the basis "to target religious charities that express views or engage in activity which is lawful but contrary to the current government's ideology".

"While the Indian government has wrongly accused Compassion of engaging in illegal conversions and anti-national activity, it has simultaneously ignored and violated its own laws," Oakley alleged.

However, in the hearing, Oakley also offered to remove the partners the government was concerned about. "If there are concerns regarding a particular partner, we will be willing to remove them from our network," he said.

Important voices of support

Calling Compassion International the "single largest contributor of aid for poverty-stricken children", Ed Royce, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said: "We have spent nine months and hundreds of hours dealing with the Indian bureaucracy on this, and it looks like the bureaucracy is trying to run out the clock."

Oakley added: "Most recently, MHA has prevented the return of $330,000 in aid that Compassion attempted to transfer to its Indian partners. The money cannot be received by the intended partner in India or returned to Compassion. This low-level harassment and intimidation by MHA is widespread and not limited to Compassion."

John Sifton, Asia Policy Director of Human Rights Watch, too, asked the House committee to intervene and urge the Indian government to stop the harassment of NGOs.

"US officials should also urge (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi to end government harassment of NGOs, while encouraging him to ask Parliament to amend the FCRA to only regulate corruption and deprive the Home Ministry authority to block funding for NGOs," he reportedly said at the hearing.

The significance of Compassion

Kerry, the outgoing Secretary of State under the Obama administration, during his recent visit to New Delhi, had curiously singled out the Compassion case for discussion during the India-US strategic and commercial dialogue. He had avoided the mention of other US organisations, including the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which are also facing heightened scrutiny by the MHA. NED calls itself a unique bipartisan organisation which enjoys support from the US Congress.

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, at the time, had reportedly told Kerry that India expected all organisations to comply with the rules and regulations of the country. However, the MHA was directed to look into this particular case, which recently, led to relaxations on 10 partner NGOs, which were allowed to access their funds through the Reserve Bank of India.

Edited by Shreyas Sharma

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First published: 7 December 2016, 10:56 IST