Modi’s Unceasing War on NGOs, Civil Society, Activists

Why is it alright for political parties or even the private sector to receive foreign funding, even anonymous donations, from abroad but not NGOs

Photo courtesy: Social Media
Photo courtesy: Social Media

Aakar Patel

On Friday, September 22, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said ‘Urban Naxals were stalling various infrastructure projects in the name of caring for the environment. He recalled the resistance offered by said ‘Urban Naxals’ to the construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam back in the mid-1980s. These attacks on a conscientious civil society are a persistent theme with our prime minister; he sees them as the enemy.

On 21 February 2016, he said at a rally in Bhubaneshwar that he was “a victim of a conspiracy by NGOs”. This conspiracy was aimed at “finishing” him and removing his government. As evidence for this, he said: “You would have seen that morning to night, I am being attacked. Some people keep at it.”

Civil society was “also upset because I told a few NGOs to give us an account of the foreign funds they spend here. They ganged up and said ‘beat Modi, beat Modi, he’s asking us for an account of our expenditure’,” he said, adding: “They conspire from morning to night on ‘how do we finish Modi, how do we remove his government, how do we embarrass Modi?’. But my friends, you have voted me to rid the country of these diseases.”

It appears that Modi has to a large extent succeeded in achieving this goal. In December 2019, Parliament was told that since Modi assumed office, 14,500 NGOs have been barred from accessing foreign funds. Funding has collapsed 90 per cent from $2.2 billion in 2018 to $295 million in 2019. It is not known how many Indians were affected because of this, not only the employees of the NGOs but those people who they were working with and those they sought to help.

Modi’s attack on NGOs has manifested in different forms of coercive action, including the use of criminal laws and notably through changes in the FCRA law. The Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act appeared in 1976 as legislation aimed at preventing external interference in India’s electoral process and democracy. It prohibited receipt of foreign money to political parties and their candidates, journalists and newspaper publishers, judges, bureaucrats and members of parliament.

In time, economic liberalisation meant that many of these categories were allowed to receive foreign money and the Indian government actively promoted the bringing in of such money. That was the foreign direct investment which was made welcome and whose numbers Indian governments were proud of.

For instance, the media, both print and television and certainly online, which came to be the dominant form of media, could not only receive foreign investment, it was dominated by it. The largest media companies in India were Facebook and Google, which were entirely foreign owned and managed. Newspapers could receive equity investments from foreign firms as also could news channels.

Even political parties managed to get themselves off the hook on FCRA. In January 2013, a public interest litigation was filed in Delhi high court claiming that the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress had received donations from the same company, Vedanta/Sterlite, which were in violation of the FCRA Act. On 28 March 2014, the court held that BJP and Congress were guilty of FCRA violation and in May asked the Modi government and the Election Commission to act against the two parties. In July and August, the Congress and BJP moved petitions in the Supreme Court against the high court decision.

This change happened in the budget of 2016, when the definition of foreign source was changed, legitimising the donation received by the political parties. Unfortunately, this change was written in fairly slipshod fashion and the Modi government had amended the wrong version of the law. And so, another amendment was passed in 2018 to again try and get the parties off. This finally happened in March 2018, through the amendment of a repealed law, a slightly farcical operation.

With this change, and later with the electoral bonds scheme, the BJP and other parties were free to accept unlimited and even anonymous contributions from foreign sources. What remained regulated in the law were non-government organisations, NGOs. And these were relentlessly squeezed and defunded through FCRA amendments under Modi.

Along with the farm bills on which protests are currently on, Modi also passed a law last year which would tighten the provisions under which NGOs could receive foreign money.
The changes were in the main four: first that the 23,000 NGOs which had an FCRA licence to receive foreign money could receive funds only in the Sansad Marg branch of the State Bank of India in New Delhi.

The second change was that the NGO could spend only 20 per cent of the money it received on ‘administrative expenses’. Salaries, travel expenses, rent and such things that constitute the bulk of what most NGOs spend their outlay on could only receive 20 per cent of the total.

The law now also prevented an NGO from redistribution of funds it had received to other NGOs even if they were FCRA-compliant. This would hit the sector because NGOs do not compete with one another as the rest of the private sector does but operate as networks. This change would damage their alliances and capacity to work with one another.

Finally, the law now required NGOs registering or renewing their FCRA licence to mandatorily give the Aadhaar numbers of all office bearers, directors or other key functionaries. It also gave the government the authority at its discretion to suspend FCRA for as long as it wanted.

This is, needless to say, not how the rest of the private sector is treated. The corporate sector is not ordered to spend their money in a particular way or regulated in this seemingly arbitrary fashion. The action is reserved for NGOs.

The antagonism towards civil society was not new. As chief minister, Modi had said in a 2014 speech: “Another conspiracy — a vicious cycle is set up. Funds are obtained from abroad; an NGO is set up; a few articles are commissioned; a PR firm is recruited and, slowly, with the help of the media, an image is created. And then awards are procured from foreign countries to enhance this image. Such a vicious cycle, a network of finance-activity-award is set up and, once they have secured an award, no one in Hindustan dares raise a finger, no matter how many the failings of the awardee.”

As prime minister he had the agency and the freedom to go alongside his desire to severely damage, if not entirely finish off India’s civil society; and in substantial measure, through innovative ways, he has achieved this.

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