After trying to bludgeon the Catholic church in Tamil Nadu into submission and withdrawing its support to the protest against the Russian-aided nuclear power plant in Koodankulam, the Indian government now seems bent upon choking civil society voices seen as challenging it on issues such as torture, religious freedom, and the life and death powers the military exercises over citizens in the country’s north eastern states.
The weapon of choice is the threat to cancel licenses under the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act that allows non-government organization, especially religious groups of all faiths, and Human Rights advocacy activists, to carry on their work with foreign financial help in an impoverished country where corporate and individual philanthropy is virtually unknown.
While a large number of Hindu God men and women are also major recipients of donations from international charities, including church agencies in Europe and the United States, Indian Catholic and Protestant groups, with slim local resources, are to a large extent dependent on foreign funds to carry on their charitable and development work among India’s poor and marginalized communities. The Christian institutions working in education and health sectors among the Tribals and the Dalits, once branded, as untouchables in the iron Caste system, are particularly vulnerable. As it is, the meltdown in the west has severely impacted on their work.
After arbitrarily cancelling as many as 4,300 FCRA permits – on specious arguments that their addresses could not be verified -- the Union government is now issuing orders virtually banning some European and US funding agencies from the country. Indian groups have been told they need to take prior permission from the Ministry of Home Affairs, which also controls the intelligence agencies and some central police forces, before they can submit their projects to funding agencies named in the government’s prohibitory list.
Prime among them is Cordaid, a Dutch Catholic charity that is accused of having given funds to some Indian NGOs who are working for the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act that is responsible for many human rights abuses in Kashmir valley and the North Eastern States. The Reserve Bank of India has circulated an order to all banks in India that they have to inform it if they notice any transfer of funds from Cordaid to local NGOs. Cordaid is also held responsible for partly funding the India Against Corruption trust headed by social activist Anna Hazare and his erstwhile colleague Arvind Kejriwal whose newly formed political party is challenging the ruling Congress and main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party.
Authoritative sources in the government say several other European charities, specially from the Scandinavian countries, are also on the government’s radar, as are many Indian NGOs with whom they have had relationship in the past.
The NGOs affected by the government withdrawing their FCRA permits have protested, but only a few of them have had the precious license restored. In a few other cases including some high profile advocacy groups, permission has been given for them to operate their bank accounts for payment of essential services, but they cannot withdraw any money in cash.
This has, understandably, created a panic among organisations working in development and training at the grassroots. Among those who risk going bankrupt for want of funds are several groups working among victims of violence against the Christian community in Kandhamal district of Orissa state.
Mr. Sanjay Patra, a highly respected transparency expert heading the Financial Management Services Foundation, there is no reason for the government’s paranoia, as there are several other laws on the books to check any misuse of funds, or diversion of money to terrorism on insurrectionist activities. Mr. Patra is also a leading light of the Voluntary Associations Network of India [VANI], which provides an interface with the government. VANI is now engaging with the government to get the FCRA licenses restored for the NGOs that have fallen foul of the authorities. VANI is also urging the government to change provisions in the FCRA rules that make it mandatory for all NGOs to seek a renewal of their permissions every five years instead of the earlier permanent ones. Anyway, money received from foreign charities under FCRA rules can be used only in designated activities and cannot be diverted to other areas.
Of the more than two million NGOs registered in the country those registered under FCRA are 38436. Of them, 21508 Associations reported a total receipt of an amount of Rs. 10,337.59 crore [about US Dollars 195 million] as foreign contribution. Many have FCRA permits but actually do not get any funds from abroad.
The government says the NGO sector in India is vulnerable to the risks of money laundering and terrorist financing, and therefore requires some form of policing of their funds and activities. But it has not been able to adduce any real evidence indicting the NGOs or linking them with terrorist or other unlawful groups other than in political rhetoric. According to government data, list of donor countries is headed by the USA (Rs. 3105.73 crore) followed by Germany (Rs. 1046.30 crore) and UK (Rs. 1038.68 crore).
The FCRA law is a reflection of India’s paranoia on what is euphemistically called the “foreign hand”, or fears that the West is intervening in Indian politics and culture. India’s right wing has accused the West of financing conversions to Christianity and supporting “Christian” insurrectionist groups in states such as Mizoram, Manipur and Meghalaya in the North East. No evidence has ever been adduced for this, other than political gossip and innuendo.
The law was drafted by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s government in 1975 when she declared a State of Internal Emergency, all but suspended the Constitution and imposed censorship on the Media, arresting thousands of political dissidents and leaders of political parties. The government then said that Socialist leader Mr. Jaiprakash Narain, leading a movement against corruption and for democratic reforms, and several Gandhian groups supporting him were funded by western agencies and were trying to induce the Indian army to mutiny. Subsequent governments overturned many of Mrs. Gandhi’s laws, but retained the FCRA as a useful instrument to tame civil society.