The Government that chooses its Detractors and Critics - Background
Very recently, the CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation) of India raided the Amnesty International Office located in Delhi and Bengaluru. CBI put forward the allegation that Amnesty International (NGO) has abused the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, 2010, and violated the Indian Penal Code. Earlier Amnesty was heavily involved and vocal about the violation of human rights in Assam and Jammu & Kashmir.
Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA), 2010
- Overseas funding of the NGOs in India is regulated under Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) act and it is deployed and looked after by the Ministry of Home Affairs.
- The Act safeguards that the recipients of the overseas contribution align with the started intent for which such overseas contribution has been collected or obtained.
- The Act makes it mandatory for every organization to register themselves every five years.
- According to an amended FCRA rule, all registered NGOs or those non-profit organizations located in India that received prior permission under FCRA are asked to submit details of overseas contributions received and their utilization. These details are to be submitted every three months to the FCRA website or published on the respective organization's website.
- The new amendment to FCRA ruled out that, human interface with overseas funded NGOs should be minimized and all communication, to applicant origination, made only through electronic email.
- For the ease of reporting, the number of Application (intimation form) required are now only six, earlier they were ten. Also, the documents submitted with the form are substantially reduced. The number of purposes/reasons for which overseas contribution can be utilized has been justified.
- The job of the NGOs has been increased in terms of accounting every three months and maintaining the accountability of the funds received. The filled annual returns must be displayed on the organization's website or uploaded to the FCRA website, looked after by the Ministry of home affairs.
Raid after Raid on NGOs
Raid on Amnesty International's offices (Delhi and Bengaluru) but a part of a series of persecution against NGOs based in India (mostly being vocal against government action). Very recently in early 2019, the famous non-profit organization Greenpeace had to shut down two of the prime office and curb staff, amid these government actions against them.
So far since the year 2015, Greenpeace India has been put under scrutiny and sanctions, including stopping them from receiving foreign aid and overseas donation or funding. In July 2019, the Lawyers Collective office was raided for a similar kind of offense.
In the year 2019, more than 1800+ NGOs were found fraudulent and government agencies ruled out canceling their licenses to receive overseas financial aid and funding.
These actions from government agencies are widely condemned and NGOs claim these actions against them are a deliberate act to shut their voices. This is an alarming situation, as most NGO institutions function based on the financial aid they receive from overseas donors and contributors.
Significance of NGOs functioning in India
There is a wide variety of issues that need attention from NGOs and they play very crucial roles in addressing those issues. These NGOs safeguard those interests using overseas funding and financial aid. Some of these interests are medical help to rural and tribal settlements, basic education and clothing for all communities, health & hygiene, personal safety, etc. Hence overseas financial aid to these NGO institutions is significant in India.
The recognition and acknowledgment of the LGBT community would be unimaginable and impossible without the sustained efforts and active participation from varied NGOs or civil society organizations.
Similarly, raising the standard of the poor population, and their overall development, including health and education, are very unlikely to witness without pressure and persistence from NGOs.
Most NGOs in India are apolitical and receive no support from financial institutions, hence their everyday operations and functions are solely based on public donations and financial aid from overseas contributors.
Micro or small environmental group or community working for the rights of tribal settlement, protecting and fighting against environmental protocol breach or repetitive abuse or violations by giant corporations are not competent or effective to fight back against companies that utilize their political connections and resources elsewhere in PR campaigning, media advertisement, to counter the protest.
There is an obvious power variance in such kind of struggle, magnified by the financial restriction on NGOs.
What is ‘Public interest’?
FCRA regulates and rules out the acceptance of funding or financial aid from sources or locations outside of Indian territory to NGOs operating within the territory of India.
Prohibition on acceptance of overseas funding/financial aid “for any activity or pursuit, deleterious or harmful to the national interest”.
It is mentioned in that Act, that all NOGs are needed to acquire government permission, prior to accepting foreign financial aid or overseas funding for their work of interest.
The government is not obliged to provide permission if it believes that the donations to NGO will not go to the concerns causes as stated by the NGO or if the donations negatively affect the “public interest” or the “interest of the state”.
The conditions mentioned in the act are notably fanatical. There is actually no clear mention or direction of what accounts for “public interest”.
Governments' allegations and citations against NGOs:
A government could interpret any disagreement or dispute with, or condemnation of, any of its policies that can be considered against the public interest. (it can be considered to a certain extent)
IN 2014, many groups along with Greenpeace were accused and listed by the Indian Bureau of intelligence of halting the country’s economic development.
In the governments' consent or narrow view, the public interest is treated as being similar to the government's priorities, which is definitely not the case.
Hence may NGOs and environmental, social activist groups, and human rights organizations be knocking the Indian government and its agencies can be treated as “acting against the public interest”.
Repercussion or ramification on Rights:
The term “Freedom” is not compartmentalized and thus may transition to many fields of various interests.
“Freedom” is based on the concept that any individual can form a voluntary group of collective interest to put forward the collective thoughts and expression based on their work of interest.
With the reference to “Damayanti Naranga vs Union of India, 1971”, the Apex court of India ruled out that the rights anticipated the right to continued sustenance of the institution or association without unreasonable moderation or restraint.
The limitation or curtailment also has serious outcomes on both the rights to free speech and freedom of association under Articles 19(1)(a) and 19(1)(c) of the Constitution of India.
On the other hand, the sanctioning and limitation on overseas financial aid also contradict the importance of non-profit, voluntary associations in a democracy.
Significance of Disagreement in Democracy:
Free speech has significant value not because everyone sympathizes, but because it authorizes and legitimizes the society of disagreement, consideration, and debate.
The right to free speech is influenced in two different ways
Firstly, by enabling only selected political groups to collect overseas donations, while deliberately disallowing others, this way the government can sustain one-sided biased political debate. The is a political method to suppress the voices by listing them as against public interest.
Secondly, “this chilling effect on free speech” can advance to self-restriction. Speech that is safeguarded by the Constitution of India, can be established as “against the public interest”. Hence the protocol interprets the speech in a fashion that is completely incompatible with the constitution.
Democracy is the recipe for the civil community, critics, and detractors. Moreover, India is 29 states with diverse cultures. Imposing single law on NGOs would hamper the work of NGOs at so many levels. Also, invoking or entreating FCRA to restrain the work of NGOs is seriously troublesome.
Criticism of all kinds should be treated equally and with the same mindset, that’s the notion of democracy. Democracy welcomes detractors, not suppresses them. Government choosing, their critics is not an ideal scenario and such activities should be avoided at every level.