January 26, 2017; New York Times (Associated Press)

India’s parliament passed a law in 2010 called the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA). It is an amendment to the previous 1976 act, modifying the way that NGOs receive foreign support. The Times of India calls it “major” and says it focuses mainly on strict regulation of monetary donations. The Associated Press, as reprinted in the New York Times, reports that consequent funding crackdowns on notable NGOs have alarmed activists. The Hindu confirmed that as of this past November, the Indian Home Ministry denied the FCRA license renewals of an additional 25 NGOs.

The government has canceled such licenses for more than 200 nonprofits, accusing them of engaging in “anti-national” activities. But the nonprofits see the removal of their funding mainstay, as well intimidation and harassment by government agencies, as attempts to suppress dissenting voices.

Media reports of 20,000 NGOs having their FCRA license renewals cancelled since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office in 2014 have been given by the Times of India, Indian Express, the Hindu, and the Tribune of India. According to the Indian Express, 9,500 of the 20,000 licenses cancelled in 2015 were a result of the NGOs “not applying for renewal after their license lapsed.” The Ministry claims that a deadline of February 2017 has been given to submit fresh applications. India’s Home Ministry spokesman K.S. Dhatwalia denies any other explanation other than such pure legalities concerning the activities of NGOs, saying, “There’s nothing beyond that.”

However, many see the issue as being a “crackdown as part of a global wave of conservative governments acting to decrease the scope for civil society.” Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatya Janata Party (BJP) is one such entity. As Manakashi Ganguly of Human Rights Watch puts it, “The role of civil society is to be the bearer of bad news.” That could be a core reason behind the crackdowns—especially since India will continue to be scrutinized as it stands on the world stage as a potentially vibrant, growing democracy.

A [2014 Intelligence Bureau report] said economic growth was damaged when nonprofits rallied communities against polluting industries or infrastructure projects that would damage the environment. Many infrastructure and industrial projects are mired in problems over acquiring land farmers, and many NGOs have stepped in to ensure the farmers are adequately compensated. The Indian Social Action Forum [INSAF] has opposed government plans to build new nuclear power plants and promote genetically modified crops. When INSAF coordinator Anil Chaudhry challenged the license cancellation in court, he was told the government was not “obliged to reveal the reasons for its actions.”

Evolving progressive values towards society appear to be another thorn in the government’s side. NPQ recently reported on how Navsarjan, an organization whose various humanitarian services for the Dalit community include running schools for their children, is one such NGO. The Dalits are the best known exploited community in Indian society due to their placement on the “lowest rung” of Hinduism’s ancient caste system. Their children often “face discrimination and violence from higher-caste children and teachers in regular schools.” However, Navsarjan’s work in ensuring these children a safe education has been deemed “detrimental to national interest.” That was the one-line rationale that was sent to the group when India’s Home Ministry cancelled their FCRA license renewal. Founder and recognized human rights activist Martin Macwan’s said all their work “has come to an abrupt halt.” After March, the group will be unable to pay the salaries of their teachers working across all three of its schools.

The Institute of Public Health in Bengaluru received a similar one-line email explanation for its FCRA renewal denial. The Institute is taking the Home Ministry to court as it is being pushed to halt its programs due to the blocking of notable donations from the World Health Organization, International Committee of the Red Cross, and other prominent global organizations. The NGO has worked closely with South India’s Karnataka government to develop anti-tobacco and other health-related campaigns that include maternal health, HIV therapy, and transgender issues.

The Economic Times of India reported that the government “continues to tighten the noose” on targeted NGOs. Meanwhile, the Associated Press indicates that the law provides no transparencies on how or why an NGO’s activities are deemed harmful to India’s national interests. The government further disallows any arbiter or appellate authority to hear any challenges towards licensing decisions. Fuzzy explanations seem to be given as to why 13,000 NGOs are still reported to have their five-year FCRA licenses intact while 3,000 applications are pending. The Indian Tribune further states that while the Ministry received 2,000 first-time applications, 300 have been placed under a “prior permissions” category of unregistered NGOs that are “barred from receiving funding from abroad without taking permission from the Home Ministry.” Home Minister Rajnath Singh further reported that a total of 16 NGOs had their licenses renewed under some sort of “automatic route.”

Firstpost reports that a “plethora of civil society organizations have issued statements against this mass cancellation of FCRA licenses, stating that this is nothing but an abuse of legal procedures.” These organizations include Greenpeace India, Amnesty International India, and the National Human Rights Commission. They believe that although the FCRA Act passed in 1976 by Indira Gandhi’s government meant to ensure that political electorates and parties did not receive foreign funding, the 2010 law debases the purpose of the original act by seemingly targeting civil organizations that voice any sort of dissent with the Modi-led government.

The Associated Press says that the U.S., the U.K., and Germany are the biggest donors to NGOs in India. “In 2011, the most recent year for which figures are available, Indian nonprofits received more than $2 billion from foreign countries, including $650 million from the U.S.” This may have to do with research confirming the exceptional growth of members of the Indian diaspora in such countries, members who are known to be working with NGOs on various levels to “give back” to India through their transnational networks. There is nothing wrong with giving back by ensuring checks and balances on behalf of civil society. As Ganguly puts it, “These checks and balances create opportunities for governments to make corrections and ensure the welfare of people. Why take that away?”—Noreen Ohlrich