“Everybody’s coloring well within the lines. You don’t want to go anywhere near the lines for fear of what might happen. And these lines are constantly moving, they might not be the same tomorrow,” said Ingrid Srinath, director of the Centre for Social Impact and Philanthropy, about the difficulties of operating a human rights organization in India.
Freedom House’s annual rankings downgraded India from a “free” to “partly free” nation. The democracy think tank describes India’s trajectory as descending into authoritarianism, partly citing the government’s increased pressure on human rights organizations.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its affiliates routinely brand activists, human rights organizations, and journalists as anti-nationals and terrorists, limiting already strained resources and capabilities. In India, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operate under the severe constraints of the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA).
In September, Amnesty International India announced that the Indian government had frozen its bank accounts and that it was winding down operations and laying off its 138 employees. Of Amnesty International’s 69 offices across the world, Amnesty India is the first office to be forcibly shut down.
“There is a very clear connection between what we do and the reprisal we face. Every time we speak up, we get threats, smear campaigns, or harassment by the government,” said Senior Director of Research, Advocacy and Policy at Amnesty International, Rajat Khosla. “That report on Kashmir — we had the authorities leaking information about us in the media, we did the report on Delhi riots and two weeks later our bank accounts were frozen with no warning…we did a statement about farmers’ protest last month and now we suddenly have the Enforcement Directorate publicly issuing that notification about attachment of all our assets in India. It’s very clear that the targeting is happening because of what we do.”
The government did not inform Amnesty India that they were in violation of FCRA rules or give any prior notification of the suspension. Amnesty India only discovered the sanctions upon attempting a bank transaction. Similarly, other NGOs have noted that they do not receive a clear rationale for suspensions. Nor are they able to appeal them with government bureaucracy; the only recourse is the judiciary.
NEW DELHI, INDIA -MARCH 02, 2021 The Youth Congress activists protested against the Bharatiya Janata … [+]
The FCRA was originally enacted in 1976 during “The Emergency”, a period of authoritarian rule under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. It was ostensibly designed to prevent foreigners from influencing Indian politics by barring them from directly funding political parties. The FCRA has been amended and expanded multiple times since then, most recently in 2020 by the current BJP government. Human rights defenders say the BJP now regularly wields it to criminalize dissent, muzzle civil society, and even restrict the work of charities.
The government requires organizations that receive foreign funding, as NGOs often do, to register and be licensed by the FCRA. Presently, foreign funding accounts for 14% of India’s civil society funding. According to Srinath, Indian philanthropists generally steer clear of policy, advocacy, and human rights while favoring more apolitical causes like education, healthcare, and livelihoods. Therefore, civil society is more dependent on foreign money.
While the Indian government is eager to attract foreign investors, it rebuffs international criticism of its domestic affairs.
“You start off with an intent to prevent foreign influence on Indian political parties, and you end up where it’s no longer about political parties, it’s actually about NGOs. Through multiple amendments each time the effect has been to make it harder for certain kinds of organizations to receive foreign money,” said Srinath.
India’s slide in the rankings comes as Prime Minister Narendra Modi furthers a domestic agenda criticized by human rights defenders as discriminating against non-Hindu minorities. Within the NGO sphere, Christian, environmental and human rights organizations feel they have been particularly targeted.
According to Estimating Philanthropic Capital in India: FCRA Funding report, 20,335 organizations had their FCRA licenses withdrawn from 2011 to 2019. The total number of organizations registered as of 2019 is 21,490.
The human rights watchdog claims India has led a series of smear campaigns, invoked sedition … [+]
Organizations like Amnesty International are the luckier ones; they have worldwide visibility and can challenge the sanctions. But smaller and lesser known organizations are self-censoring and withdrawing out of fear.
“The Christian organizations have not chosen to mount any kind of challenge; they just shut shop and withdrew from the country. And that’s why the spotlight is on organizations like Amnesty and Greenpeace just because they were the ones that resisted, that took the government to court and sought remedy. This is the only way you can seek redress.”
Even after the judiciary exonerates an organization, Srinath observes a “chilling” effect: “Your landlord no longer wants to rent you office space because he or she is worried that they might get into trouble. Your employees can no longer get bank loans, because the bank sees them as high credit risks because they work for an organization that the government doesn’t like. At this point, it becomes impossible for you to operate amidst these extra-legal measures,” said Srinath.
Khosla echoes Freedom House’s concerns about lack of global accountability and mediation:“We have had countries being far too aware of India’s bilateral and trade partnerships and therefore not willing to speak out against the type of anti-rights government actions such as what we are seeing right now.”
The Indian government responded to Amnesty’s accusations by declaring in a press release that there is vigorous debate and that the population has placed “unprecedented trust in the current government.” Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director for Human Rights Watch, commented, “Civil society is under acute pressure in India these days. So many activists, peaceful protesters are in jail, accused under draconian laws. It is true that the current government has a big electoral mandate, but it should be using that mandate to uphold constitutional freedoms, not undermine them.”
Amnesty’s mission to stand up for human rights continues despite governmental backlash worldwide. Amnesty has launched a global emergency appeal to fight the unprecedented volume of threats that human rights defenders and NGOs face in India and increasingly all over the world.
For now Amnesty has a WRIT petition pending in Karnataka High Court. “We hope, and we believe in the independence of the impartiality of the Indian Courts, that we will get the relief that is needed because, to date, we don’t have a charge sheet filed by the government,” said Khosla. Srinath says she can’t think of a single case where someone has taken the government to court on FCRA and lost. It has never happened.
However successful these individual legal battles may be, civil society continues to face a grim forecast.
Mehrunnisa Wani is a photojournalist based in New York. She reports on international development, inequity, and diplomacy in South Asia, and vacillates between journalism