Towards a ‘Civil Society-mukt Bharat’?

In 2020, the Government of India made it harder for civil society to raise funds by introducing a raft of restrictive regulations for receiving funding from foreign sources. This was brought about through amendments to the Foreign Contributions (Regulation) Act. For one, it prohibited the transfer (sub-granting) of FCRA funds by recipients to other persons or organisations – which would achieve nothing other than choking thousands of frontline workers and organisations. In addition, the 2020 amendments also gave the Ministry of Home Affairs the MHA powers to suspend FCRA certificates for more than 180 days, without specifying an upper limit. These and the other provisions – such as mandating the linking of Aadhaar and the use of a State Bank of India branch in Delhi – may have looked innocuous to some, but they essentially handed the government levers it could use at its own discretion to drastically alter the business environment for India’s civil society organisations.

As 2021 drew to a close, it emerged that the FCRA registration of 6,000 NGOs had lapsed, dealing a death-blow to organisations that raise a large part of their funds from sources outside the country.

Vibrant democracies need citizens who have the right to demand accountability from the very leaders they voted in. Civil Society – whether organised loosely or adopting formal organisational structures – play a critical role in a democracy. Early in the life of the Modi government in 2014, there was a bit of a furore in India when an Intelligence Bureau report that was leaked claimed that activist non-governmental organisations with foreign funding are holding back India’s GDP growth. While the government did not make any significant moves at that time, it is worth recalling this early indication in the light of the constant campaign that this government and their supporters have mounted against civil society organisations and activists. As events in subsequent years have showed, the biggest threat to the country’s GDP did not come from foreign-funded civil society.

There are certain assumptions regarding the workings of civil society in India that have taken root, which need to be dissected. The first one is the paranoia that foreign funding might be used to push an agenda that is not in the ‘national interest’. Governments have used this argument to further regulate the receipt of foreign funds. In the history of independent India, we have often seen how the bogey of national interest has been used insidiously to shut down dissent and criticism – this usually targets right-based activism, legal assistance and environmental activism. Interestingly, foreign funds are considered harmful only when they fund activities by civil society organisations (or NGOs). Everywhere else – whether in private enterprise or in political parties, foreign funding is considered kosher. For a middle-income country where the state and private enterprise have an overwhelming ability to shape the course of people’s lives, this antiquated paranoia about foreign funding to civil society is just misplaced.

But what of the allegations that some civil society activity is funding activities that are divisive and could hurt society? This indeed is an issue in places. Organisations that espouse violence, fund targeted vilification campaigns (online and offline) and are sowing the seeds of communal disharmony need to be weeded out. Restricting funding sources could be a justifiable mechanism here, but fair and impartial law enforcement is equally important. More often than not, these allegations are thrown about in the context of ‘religious conversions’, which by all accounts is a product of a state-sponsored cultural and political agenda.  

Finally, there is transparency. Any duly registered organisation operating in India must be transparent and accountable. It needs to comply with tax laws and ensure it is compliant with the safeguarding regulations that are in place. Honestly, it is difficult to believe that the government is interested in transparency when the dealings of the PM CARES fund and organisations in the RSS-ecosystem are so blatantly opaque (not to mention, political). Further, political party funding itself is now exempt from any meaningful scrutiny. How does this all add up?

The raison d’etre of civil society organisations today is to operate in four areas – last mile implementation; responding to emergencies (humanitarian); rights-based work; and as a lab for innovation. But in order to realise this, the government will have to see civil society organisations as genuine partners in national development. What we are witnessing at this time is a rather transactional and opportunistic approach to the civil society. Herein, the government is happy to call upon civil society to help in times of distress during the pandemic, for example, but are unwelcoming of organisations that draw attention to growing economic inequality in the country, or towards systemic abuse of rights.

This is because in India today, the favoured version of democracy involves an all-powerful executive that brooks no challenge from the other pillars (legislature, judiciary, media) or the civil society. Basically, the state does not tolerate scrutiny by any institution that cannot be controlled directly through electoral politics. Having marginalised the Parliament and the Media, and alongside repeated attempts to degrade the Judiciary, destroying what is left of the civil society seems to have received renewed urgency. The rejection/non-renewal of FCRA licenses should be seen in that context.

A ‘Civil Society-mukt Bharat’ movement seems underway.

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