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On October 25, Indian government officers raided Amnesty India’s offices in Bangalore. Amnesty India is the Indian branch of Amnesty International, the human rights NGO. India’s Enforcement Directorate (ED), responsible for investigating financial crimes, conducted the raids on the basis that Amnesty India violated the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA).
Under the FCRA, the government enforces stringent regulations on the ability of NGOs and charities to receive foreign donations. Amnesty India is accused of creating a commercial entity for the sole purpose of bypassing the FCRA, after its license to receive foreign contributions was denied. The ED has stated that the organization has received $4.3 million of foreign funds without permission.
During the 10-hour raid, employees were not allowed to leave, contact family, and were ordered to shut off all laptops. The organization’s bank accounts have since been frozen, bringing their work to a halt. Amnesty India made a public statement: “… our structure is compliant with Indian laws. [The] Enforcement Directorate raid on Amnesty India shows a disturbing pattern of the government silencing organizations that question power. The government wants to instill fear among Civil Society Organizations.”
Aakar Patel, the head of Amnesty India added that “Amnesty India is thus the latest target of the government’s assault on civil society in the country. The accounts of Greenpeace India were frozen earlier this month. Government authorities are increasingly treating human rights organizations like criminal enterprises.”
The assault against civil society has been ongoing since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office in 2014. Over the years his government has unregistered almost 9,000 NGOs for various violations such as incomplete paperwork or partaking in “activities not conducive to the national interest.” These prevents organizations from receiving foreign funds. The amount of foreign funds received has been reduced from $1.83 billion in 2014 to $789 million in 2017.
This year, the environmental NGO Greenpeace has been a major target, being accused of harming national projects under the guise of social and environmental concerns. A few weeks before the raid at Amnesty India, several offices of Greenpeace India were also raided by the ED for allegedly violating the FCRA. The ED claims they have evidence of corrupt practices from the documents seized. Greenpeace responded by saying “there is no truth in the accusation as Greenpeace is wholly funded by local citizens of India. Every rupee that goes into Greenpeace India’s environmental work is a donation made by ecologically conscious people in the country.”
Activist says that these raids are an attempt to silence dissent, especially considering the upcoming general elections next year. The raid on Amnesty India comes one day after it called on the Indian government to conduct an “effective, independent and impartial investigation” into the deaths of seven civilians caused by “stray explosives” in the Kashmir region. The watchdog body has also brought attention to the unfair treatment of human rights activists and leaders of marginalized groups within the country.
Corrupt NGOs exist, and should be monitored. However, the ongoing attacks on Indian NGOs have not been motivated by an anti-corruption campaign. For example, the major Indian human rights NGO, Lawyers Collective, was suspended for six months in 2016 despite being able to clearly demonstrate their compliance with the FCRA. The financial monitoring system of NGOs in India must be more transparent and less arbitrary. Part of the solution lies in reform of the FCRA.
The original purpose of the FCRA, enacted in 1976, was to prevent candidates, political parties, judges, members of parliament, and other key positions in the government from accepting foreign funding. For a recently independent nation, the FCRA addressed the legitimate concern of “foreign hands” manipulating nation’s development. But over the years, clauses were added that relaxed the FCRA for politicians while expanding its reach on society. Now it can be applied to any “organization of a political nature,” thus including a wide variety of NGOs and charities with agendas relating to government accountability, policy analysis, public expenditure and so on. Additionally, the FCRA became more involved in NGOs’ use of funds by requiring licensing for foreign funds, which expires every five years, while dictating how the funding can be used.
Naturally, the FCRA has received wide criticism. In 2016 three United Nations human rights experts called for the Indian government to repeal it due to its impediment on civil society. They outlined that the dependency of NGOs on FCRA accreditation proved detrimental to the basic interests of civil society. Vague terms in the FCRA such as “political nature,” “economic interest of the State” or “public interest” allow for an NGO to be easily found ineligible for accreditation. Moreover, it has been systematically used against charities and NGOs, while businesses and political parties’ uses of foreign funds are under far less scrutiny.
Repealing or revising the FCRA will protect civil society from arbitrary discrimination and barriers and will mitigate the current attacks on NGOs. However, it is also vital that honest leaders with good intentions be elected. Legislation alone does not prevent the misuse and abuse of power. As the largest democracy in the world, how India faces this problem may create monumental gains for civil society or cause serious damage to democracy in the world.