NGOs in India anxious; Govt auditors questioning them about political affiliation, Muslim employees
Usually government audits for NGOs take place only for specific complaints but this year, 300 NGOs have received letters for audit from the Home Ministry
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has begun unprecedented audits of hundreds of Indian non-governmental organisations. NGOs are fearing that the government might use the audit to target certain organisations, news website, Scroll.in reported.
According to The Scroll, since January, auditors have visited offices of various NGOs and stayed for 10-14 days to go through their financial records. In many of these NGOs, they’ve asked “pointed questions about Muslim employees and beneficiaries, and about the political allegiances of NGO staff.”
Indian NGOs received around Rs. 16,300 crores in foreign donations. However, last year, the government amended the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act and restricted the way these funds could be used. Nearly 22,000 NGOs are licensed for these donations, and most of them have to get it renewed later this year.
Amitabh Behar, the CEO of Oxfam India, told The Scroll, “Naturally there is a huge amount of anxiety across the sector that, at the moment of renewal, these audits could be used in some kind of vendetta."
Last year’s amendments brought in such difficult times that 43 NGOs formed a coalition and urged the home ministry to relax these amendments, as it slowed the relief work in the Covid crisis.
Usually, government audits for NGOs take place only for specific complaints but this year, 300 NGOs have received letters for audit from the Home Ministry. The letter stated that the government “has reasonable cause to believe” that FCRA have been broken “after a preliminary scrutiny of the Annual Returns submitted online”.
“They should be specifying some particular reason, but the letter does not even say what fault the NGO is supposed to have committed,” one New Delhi-based accountant, who works for several NGOs, told Scroll.in. “I am surprised no one has challenged this in court yet.”
An accountant in Kolkata said that NGOs were apprehensive of asking the government which rules they’ve supposedly broken. “Everyone is worried about their FCRA license renewal.”
Several NGO officials said that the auditors were polite and professional, but were asking problematic questions. “The process itself didn’t feel like outright harassment”.
The executive director of one Delhi-based NGO said, “We got no information about whether there was a complaint against us or what the complaint was,” he said. “They just told us to collect a humongous pile of documents and be ready.” Though he told them that it wasn’t the best time for such a visit in the midst of a third wave, they were not given any option.
The executive director added that he predicted which beneficiaries the auditors would ask about, and he got nine out of 12 correct- organisations that benefited Muslims, or Dalits, or groups that supported independent journalism. They asked questions about how much money was given, why it was given, and what it was spent on. He had to give files of 100 beneficiaries- to look for evidence of money disbursed to Muslim or Dalit groups, groups that supported the farmers’ protest and the CAA.
Another Delhi-based NGO founder revealed to Scroll.in that he was asked about his organisation’s Muslim field workers. “Out of all our 280 or so employees, they singled out one Abdul Jabbar and said: ‘Show me the expenses he has filed,” he said. “And they would look at the vouchers of his lunch, for instance: two rotis and daal.” Then they asked about another employee, a woman from Kashmir. “What is the message we are getting here? That we should not employ Muslims?”
The auditors asked about their opinion regarding the farmers’ protests and if any activity they funded was linked to it. This was common for most NGOs- trying to figure out their political leanings.
A Supreme Court ruling stated that NGOs cannot use their foreign funds for “active politics”. A Delhi-based accountant asks, “What the hell is active politics?” FCRA allows foreign funding only for “cultural, economic, educational, religious or social programmes”. He questions, “What is a social programme? These are just terms that were picked up, without any legal understanding. They have not defined it themselves.”
The news website cited the case of a major international NGO that works for health, education and livelihood was asked why it was doing “political work”. The NGO’s CEO said, “they were surprised by some of the things I said about the rightward shift of Indian politics.” He had to explain to them that caste inequality also led to livelihood issues.
The Delhi-based accountant said that FCRA is ambiguous. “It is like wandering around in a China shop with the lights off – you are bound to break something or the other”, Scroll.in quoted him as saying. He’s worried since none of the NGOs has received the results of the audits. “We cannot be sure that the results will be used fairly at all,” he said. “This feels like a quiet gathering of evidence. Once the government has all these audits, then it can cherry-pick what you like or what you do not like, and it can act as it pleases.”