March 7, 2017; New York Times
Compassion International has joined the Ford Foundation, Greenpeace, and thousands of other organizations on the list of NGOs banned from operating in India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s crackdown on foreign nongovernmental organizations operating in his country has resulted in millions of dollars in lost aid for India’s most vulnerable citizens.
Said the New York Times,
Compassion International executives learned early last year, from an item in an Indian newspaper, that their group had been added to the list of organizations whose transfers required prior permission by the Ministry of Home Affairs, said Stephen Oakley, Compassion’s general counsel.
By summer, $600,000 in donations was stuck in an Indian bank account awaiting permission that did not come. In November, two of the group’s main affiliates—in Chennai and Kolkata—were denied authorization to use foreign funds.
With headquarters in Colorado, Compassion International is a child development agency; they provide nutritious meals, immunizations and other medical care, prenatal counseling and family planning, school at all levels and ages, and leadership training. They are “ranked as India’s largest single foreign donor, transferring around $45 million a year.” The government accused CI of attempting to convert people to Christianity, which is deemed detrimental to the national interest.
There’s no denying that CI is a Christian charity. Their website explicitly states, “Children receive regular Bible training and encouragement through a local church committed to Jesus Christ and the children in its community. This is perhaps the greatest benefit that we offer each Compassion-assisted child.”
However, CI has explicitly said that they do not attempt to convert aid recipients. “We teach moral values; we do not force anyone into religion,” said an executive, who was interviewed in a 3 a.m. raid. More than half of the students in their schools are Hindu, though their leadership training for older teenagers is explicitly designed for Christian leaders.
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CI executives have expressed confusion about the best way to handle these charges. “We are trying to navigate through understanding of the dynamics on the Indian side,” said CEO Santiago Mellado. Though Prime Minister Modi is of the Bharatiya Janata party, an affiliated right-wing nationalist group called Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh seems to have a role in the negotiations, despite having no official role in government. “We understand that the BJP and the RSS are tied together somehow, so it seems to us that we also need to be talking to the RSS,” said Mellado.
Modi rode the global wave of nationalism and isolationism to power in 2014. Since his election, he has canceled a number of FCRA licenses; according to the Associated Press, “most activists see the crackdown as part of a global wave of conservative governments acting to decrease the scope for civil society.” As Manakashi Ganguly of Human Rights Watch puts it, “The role of civil society is to be the bearer of bad news.” Perhaps bad news is not something India’s leader wants to hear.
Like many things in civil society, the issue of CI’s operations is not black and white. The phenomenon of Christian organizations like Compassion International operating with influence inside a former British colony is an emotionally loaded one. The British also did not force Indians to convert to Christianity when they governed the country; they just made Bible instruction part of their free schooling and an unavoidable part of an upper-class education. Missionaries converted huge numbers of “untouchables” by providing them a way out of their place at the bottom of the social hierarchy, and colonial officials banned traditions like sati.
Many would call these individual policies humanitarian, but they are wrapped up in the tradition of imperial domination that has more to do with exploitation than it does with emancipation. The clearly enforced hierarchy of religions, with Christianity taking precedence over religions that had existed in India for centuries, left many Indians to view Christianity as another tool for British control.
Now, as isolationist sentiment rises worldwide, India’s most vulnerable people are the victims of political maneuvering. Modi’s hypernationalism has driven hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and investment from his country already; Compassion International has removed India from its sponsorship page and asked for its donors to choose another child in another country to support.
Priya Saxena, a teenager who was turned away from a Compassion-run community center after the funding cutoff, said, “I hoped to become a doctor. But now that we are told we will no longer have sponsors to see us through the education, I don’t know what will happen.”
India is a developing nation with a complicated history, dozens of religions and languages, and over a billion citizens. Organizations like Compassion International step in where India’s infrastructure is not yet adequate to care for its most neglected populations. Whether Modi or the British are at fault, in the end, doesn’t really matter to the kids losing their community center; it just matters that NGOs are able to reach the people that need them.—Erin Rubin