“Those who have worked for the most marginalised and disempowered sections of society, while holding the government to account, are being persecuted,” read a joint statement by Indian activists after over two dozen groups were denied license to receive foreign funds under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA). This step, the statement notes, is the most immediate example of an “escalating problem whereby the government maligns and criminalises those very organisations and individuals that stand for human rights and liberal values.”
The Bharatiya Janata Party was elected to office in India in 2014 on the promise of “good days” — governance that would ensure economic prosperity and security. Yet, key safeguards to protect rights to freedom of association and expression are under attack both by the government and ruling party supporters.
Human rights lawyers, journalists, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and activists are facing escalating harassment from BJP supporters, as well as intrusive and politically motivated state scrutiny. A Cabinet minister used the slogan “presstitute” to target media criticism. The authorities deem critics, including students, as anti-national, accusing them of sedition. The Prime Minister has spoken disparagingly of “five star activists”, suggesting those that live well cannot speak for the poor. Lawyers and activists are often being threatened and intimidated by local by vigilante groups that claim they are upholding national interests.
Amid an increasingly stifling environment for dissent, the government has cracked down on NGOs, withdrawing or restricting their licenxes under the FCRA. NGOs, of course, should be regulated, but it is ironic that a country that is actively pursuing foreign investment in all sectors — including once forbidden foreign support to political parties — should close such opportunities for a crucial voluntary sector that serves to uphold rights.
The FCRA has now been deployed by the Modi government to block funding to at least 25 groups, apparently for their ostensible “anti-national” activities. Several of these groups, including ANHAD, Lawyers Collective, Centre for Promotion of Social Concerns (People’s Watch), Sanchal Foundation Hazards Centre, Indian Social Action Forum (INSAF), Institute of Public Health, Greenpeace India and Navsarjan Trust, are well known for their rights campaigns. Many have received national and international recognition and awards. While they might criticise some government actions, that does not make them anti-national.
The government’s political agenda became evident when some groups recently had their licences renewed, but then received notice of withdrawal. For instance, two organisations run by activist Teesta Setalvad received notices in August 2016 that their licenses to continue receiving foreign funding had been approved. But earlier this month, the licenses were revoked with the home ministry serving notice that they were “renewed inadvertently.”
“Selective targeting is abhorrent and anti-democratic,” opposition members of parliament in India wrote in a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi after the most recent action. “The licenses had been earlier renewed showing that in the normal course these NGOs had fulfilled the criteria required for registration. The decision to cancel the registration is, therefore, a decision motivated by the politics of vendetta, victimisation and an effort to bully them to silence.”
This is only the latest expression of concern over the Indian government’s targeting of activist groups. Earlier, India’s National Human Rights Commission questioned the recent decisions and said “Prima-facie it appears FCRA licence non-renewal is neither legal nor objective and thereby impinging on the rights of the human rights defenders both in access to funding including foreign funding.”
The crackdown on civil society has also drawn international criticism. In April, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association, Maina Kiai, carried out an analysis of the law and issued a report unequivocally stating that the restrictions imposed by the FCRA and its rules “are not in conformity with international law, principles and standards”. In December, the US Congress held a hearing on harassment of NGOs in India.
Since taking office, the Modi government has announced several worthy, ambitious initiatives. However, the enormous challenges in India from malnourishment, violence against women, or the marginalisation and targeting of vulnerable communities, need more than slogans.
Good policies need efficient enforcement and implementation. In its effort to silence criticism, the government risks not only hurting respect for basic rights and its image internationally, but by undermining civil society it will also hurt those in greatest need in India.