The national interest bogey

How the voluntary sector evolved in India and the state’s varied response to it

The national interest bogey

According to a recent The Economist report (May 9, 2015), crackdown on civil society organisations has increased manifold in Asia of late. The Economist is only partly right. It is a global phenomenon now. Even the hubs of Western liberal democracies are clamouring for cutting down the space for civil society action.

The classical notions of freedom of opinion and voice in a democracy are under challenge. And that is primarily because the larger consensus in favour of resource extractive, growth obsessed, finance driven capitalist system is under challenge. This trend took a sharp turn in the backdrop of 2008 economic crisis.

One by-product of the same has been a growing recognition of sharp inequality across countries. A country like India now boasts of billionaires sharing over 20 per cent of its GDP compared to merely 1 per cent in the 1990s. There have been two kinds of responses to it the world over, one ranging from Occupy Wall Street, 1 per cent vs 99 per cent, anti-corruption movements and second, a hit back by the states in terms of even more aggressive economic policies, cuts in welfare schemes in the name of ‘fiscal consolidation’, etc.

The larger consensus in favour of a system where markets operated but its benefits were shared more widely (even if unevenly) is facing threat. While inequality has increased the risk of fragile states imploding from within, it has made even stable democracies like India vulnerable to more authoritarian rule. The ruse which states often use in this context is that of ‘national interest’, the proverbial ‘last refuge of scoundrels’.

The narrative is simple: the people questioning economic policies, raising the bogey against mining, nuclear power, environmentalism, pressing for universal basic services, opposing land grabs, human rights violations, etc, are the stumbling blocks in the way of development which the state envisages for its people. They are anti-national and need to be stopped through overt and covert means.

It is in this context that one needs to look into the ways in which the voluntary sector has evolved in India and how the state’s response to it has varied accordingly. There is no one act that the civil society organisations fall under, which leads to diversity in legal status amongst NGOs.

The various laws covering CSOs include:

- International human rights law -- such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) -- which also protect rights which enable NGOs to exist and perform their duties;

- The Companies Act, 1956;

- Laws dealing with charity and collection of funds.

- Laws regulating foreign donations and funding;

- Income Tax Act, 1961;

- Laws which deal with public or private trusts: 1) Indian Trusts Act, 1882 (applicable for private trusts) 2) Public Trusts Acts of various states in India.

- Laws dealing with societies: The Societies Registration Act, 1860

- Registration procedures often take months. Powers of the authorities to arbitrarily terminate the registration of an NGO is absolute.

Even as early concerns were raised about missionary activities (still a bogey today) in the 1950s and ‘60s, it was Indira Gandhi regime in the 1970s that raised the red flag via the infamous ‘CIA Hand’ working behind developmental organisations ostensibly pushing an ‘American imperial design’.

She brought in Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) to control the money inflows to the civil society organisations. FCRA rules (incidentally managed by the Home Ministry and not the Finance), passed in January 1976 stated, "The focus of the Act is to ensure that foreign contribution and foreign hospitality is not utilised to affect or influence electoral politics, public servants, judges and other people working in important areas of national life like journalists, printers and publishers of newspapers and voluntary organisations".

Not surprisingly, it was during a phase when the Indian state was at its most fragile working under the rule of ‘Emergency’. We are celebrating (sic!) 40 years of the same this year.

Related article: Under whose watchful eye?

After a spurt in the activities of anti-nuclear, anti-land grab and a host of other rights-based activities in recent years, the last UPA govt amended the Act in 2010. All not-for-profits were now required to re-register with home ministry every five years. Of the total foreign funds, only 50 per cent could be used for administrative purposes by the NGOs.

The government also ‘commissioned’ a study by the Intelligence Bureau (IB) on the so-called disruptive activities being displayed by certain CSOs. It was during this period that the last Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had openly spoken against ‘anti-development’ nuclear-activists, giving a free signal to the state agencies.

With the Modi government coming to power, all hell broke loose. In its very first months, it ‘leaked’ the infamous report by the IB wherein many International NGOs along with national organisations were listed for supposed anti-national activities. In its very first interim budget, it made tax laws tougher for the NGOs bringing in fresh amendments in the Finance Act 2014.

Going further ahead, it targeted 16 foreign donor agencies, including, Sierra Club foundation, ICCO and, Ford Foundation (ostensibly on the charges of supporting activist Teesta Setalvad, who recently succeeded in getting Maya Kodnani, a minister during Modi regime of 2002 riots in Gujarat, convicted) making it mandatory for them to seek prior approval from the Home Ministry before disbursing money to any grantee.

Most (in)famously, it first off-loaded a UK bound Greenpeace activist Priya Pillai, from appearing before british Parliamentarians and later froze the bank accounts of the organisation itself on various charges. All in all, in two successive installments, it has cancelled FCRA accounts of over 13,000 NGOs (9000 in the first round and around 4,447 most recently, a week ago) on grounds of various technicalities. No wonder, of all the people, the US Ambassador to India, Richard Verma, terms these as ‘chilling’.

Many of these organisations have hit back, some of them taking recourse to the legal route: Greenpeace getting court stay on freezing of its local accounts as well as getting permission for Priya to fly to UK. A network like INSAF (working against communalism, unfair trade policies, genetically modifies seeds, etc) went earlier to court and won the battle.

Recently, over 200 organisations wrote a joint letter to the prime minister, appealing him to ensure the safety of democratic space and dissent. The problem is, not all organisations can afford to take this for long. While the media continues to report these violations, many of them have actually bought in the ‘anti-national’ bogey being pumped by the BJP regime.

But there’s another element to it as well. The recent rise of Aam Admi Party, which drubbed BJP handsomely in Delhi elections, has an element of NGO activism behind its roots. Both Arvind Kejriwal and his right hand man, Manish Sisodia, come from that background, Kejriwal winning his Magsaysay award for his campaign on Right to Information a few years ago.

Sisodia’s NGO, Kabir, has been among those included in the latest round of FCRA cancellations. The right wing state clearly sees a merger of NGO activism with increasing political activism, its major adversary. On another plane, the phenomenon also creates a great opportunity for coming together of those working on socio-economic rights and those on civil-political rights. It’s for us to grab that.

The national interest bogey