India is cracking down on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operating on its territory, alleging that thousands have misreported their foreign funding to Indian fiscal authorities.
In the past two months alone, the Home Ministry has cancelled registrations of more than 13,000 NGOs for allegedly failing to file annual tax returns for three years since 2009, according to Indian media reports.
As many as two million home-grown or international NGOs – many of which are funded by foreign donors – work across India, largely in the field of development.
The Indian government this past week added Caritas Internationalis, a Catholic charity based at the Vatican and that has been working in India for the past 50 years, to its NGO watch-list.
The government accuses Caritas of violating India’s foreign funding laws by financing groups that were working “against the country,” Agence France-Presse quoted a Home Ministry official as saying Tuesday.
"There was [a] clear violation of foreign funding law," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The case was connected to Caritas’ funding of organizations that had protested against a nuclear plant in Tamil Nadu, in southern India, the official said.
"We have been filing all our returns, documents in time according to law. We necessarily don't find this a hindrance because we anyway declare all our funding to the government," Father Paul V. Moonjely, Assistant Executive Director of Caritas India, told NDTV on June 19.
Caritas is among several high-profile international NGOs that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has accused of violating the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA).
The Indian arm of global environmentalist group Greenpeace and the U.S.-based Ford Foundation also were placed on the government’s watch-list.
But last month, the Delhi High Court ordered the government to unfreeze Greenpeace India’s access to bank accounts. These held deposits of money from domestic donors that allowed the NGO to cover its day-to-day operating expenses.
NGO conference relocated to Thailand
The crackdown has prompted the Berlin-based International Civil Society Center to move its “Global Perspectives” conference, which it had been planning to hold in New Delhi, to Thailand, according to a report in The Wire, an Indian news website.
The center describes itself as a “global action platform” for the world’s leading international civil society organizations.
“The reason for changing the venue was our fear that leaders from some of our key stakeholders, such as Greenpeace and others, would not be allowed into the country [India] and that we would fail to achieve our main objective of bringing together all key players irrespective of their political, religious or other approaches and affiliations,” Burkhard Gnärig, the center’s executive director, told The Wire.
Justified or not?
The governmental crackdown on NGOs has elicited a mixed response.
Some observers say the government’s actions are justified.
In their view, the targeted NGOs have failed to deliver any services to the people whom they are registered to serve. Others say this is a clear message from Modi’s government that it won’t tolerate any activities deemed as “anti-state.”
“There has been mushroom growth of NGOs across the country over the years,” Santosh Shukla, president of the NGOs Association of India, told BenarNews.
“The government has the right to cancel registration of such groups which fail to file the annual returns and fulfill other legal requirements on their part. Only those groups that operate within the legal purview and in the interest of the people should be allowed to operate,” he added.
Tapan Bose, a prominent civil society and rights activist, sees the crackdown as uncalled for, saying the government is going after NGOs that are working for people’s welfare.
“The government’s action against these groups has directly affected the poor people in the country as they work for their welfare in multiple ways,” Bose told BenarNews.
"With regard to closing down the operations of the groups, the government has acted in an arbitrary and highly selective manner,” he added.
NGOs: A threat to traditional politics
And, as another observer put it, the crackdown is being driven by a fear of the influence wielded by some NGOs in shaping public opinion, and how this might threaten the government’s political standing.
Prabha Kiran, founder and president of United Human Rights Federation Delhi, an NGO, pointed to a recent case in which NGOs helped bring about a crushing defeat of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party by the Aam Admi Party (AAP) in February’s Delhi Legislative Assembly election.
“The Modi government is fearful of the influence of NGOs as they have played a vital role in exposing the corrupt and fraudulent political parties,” Kiran told BenarNews.
An anti-corruption crusade led by activist Anna Hazare had helped bring about the demise of Congress-led United Progressive Coalition (UPA) in last year’s general election, Kiran noted.
“The Modi government might be expecting the same fate, hence it decided to clamp down on NGOs,” she added.