FCRA License of Harsh Mander’s Think Tank CES Suspended Because He Is a News Columnist

The activist-author told The Wire the Union home ministry's move to cancel the FCRA license of the Centre for Equity Studies is a "direct attack on the principles of freedom of expression and freedom to dissent". 

New Delhi: The Union home ministry has invoked Section 3 of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA), which bars any “correspondent, columnist, cartoonist, editor, owner, printer or publisher of a registered newspaper” from accepting any foreign contributions, to suspend the FCRA license of Centre for Equity Studies (CES), a think tank that is steered by eminent activist-author and critic of the Narendra Modi government Harsh Mander, for 180 days.

The ministry has alleged that since Mander is a frequent columnist and writer in different media publications, he has violated Section 3 of the FCRA. Curiously, the government notification cites his articles and reports published in Indian media publications like Scroll, The Wire, Hindustan Times, Indian Express, The Hindu and The Quint as the primary reason for the ministry to suspend the FCRA license of CES. The think tank is involved in a wide range of activities – from research and advocacy to social service and running campaigns around issues of social justice. The suspension of CES’s FCRA license comes after a series of targeted actions against different associations and institutions with which Mander has been involved.

Mander, a former IAS officer, has been at the forefront of the campaign against communal disharmony in India and has been severely critical of the Modi government over the last nine years for allegedly fuelling majoritarian politics in the country.

The June 14, 2023 order by the home ministry alleged that Mander “has accepted foreign contribution amounting to Rs 12,64,671 during the financial year 2011-’12 to 2017-’18 as professional receipts/ payments from the FCRA account of the association [CES]”, which is in violation of “Sections 3 and 8 of the Act and conditions of registration under Section 12(4)(a)(vi) of the Act.” 

Section 8 of the FCRA says that the funds received through FCRA shall only be used for the purposes for which the contribution has been received and not for any “speculative businesses”. Section 12(4)(a)(vi) of the Act prohibits any diversion of foreign grants for personal gains. The suspension of CES’s FCRA means that the organisation will be ineligible to receive any foreign grants for its activities without the ministry’s clearance.

The government notification claims that the foreign grants received by the CES were used to pay Mander’s co-authors who published reports and articles in different media platforms.  

“One such example is the article written in Scroll on August 6, 2018, by Harsh Mander, Anjali Bhardwaj and Amrita Johri. It is reported that Amrita Johri and Anjali Bhardwaj have been paid Rs 1,13,251, and Rs 25,64,550 from the FCRA account of the association,” the notification said.

“He is also publishing columns with other columnists who are being paid from FCRA account of the association. For example, Mr. Abdul Kalam Azad has written a column with Harsh Mander dated 02.01.2019 titled ‘People no county wants’ & Abdul Kalam Azad has been paid Rs. 5.73 lakhs from CES FCRA bank account,” the ministry said. 

The ministry also said that the foreign contributions were used by the CES to pay off non-FCRA associations with whom the former collaborated at various junctures. The notification cited a 2020 report, Labouring Lives: Hunger and Despair Amid Lockdown, which was a collaborative project between the CES, the Delhi Research Group and Karwan-E-Mohabbat, as an example of FCRA violation. The 2020 report was supported by the German foundation Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung.

“Utilization of foreign contribution for such purposes is likely to affect prejudicially the sovereignty and integrity of India,” the government said, adding that the think tank received foreign contributions “specifically for the purposes which are beyond the objectives of the trust”. 

The home ministry also alleged that a financial mismatch was found upon scrutiny of the CES’s annual returns, and that the think tank failed to respond to a questionnaire sent on March 3, 2023. The notification also claimed that the governing council members of the CES were paid through foreign contributions in violation of Section 8 and Section 12 (4) of the Act. 

An unprecedented step

It is perhaps unprecedented for any organisation to lose its FCRA license just because its chief, in his individual capacity, is a news columnist. It is fairly common for leaders of advocacy organisations which have an FCRA license to publish their points of view on different issues. The government invoking Section 3 of the Act to suspend the FCRA license of CES may set a new precedent in India.

Mander, however, has been under the government scanner for over two years now. The home ministry in March 2023 had ordered a Central Bureau of Investigation inquiry against Aman Biradari, another NGO headed by him, for alleged violation of FCRA. 

In September 2021, Mander’s house in New Delhi, the CES office, and a children’s home – Umeed with which Mander has been involved – were also raided by the Enforcement Directorate in connection with money-laundering allegations. The progress of the case remains unclear at the moment. Several civil society activists at the time had alleged that such raids were meant to silence and intimidate the government’s critics.

In October 2020, two children’s homes with which Mander worked closely were also raided by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights. It alleged that children from the homes were taken to protests organised by Mander. Again, the child rights body has maintained silence on the issue following the raids and did not produce much evidence to back its claims. 

Speaking with The Wire, Mander said, “We will legally challenge the order in a few days. At the moment, I can only say that it (suspension of CES’s FCRA license) is a direct attack on the principles of freedom of expression and freedom to dissent – far from being in the interest of the nation and its sovereignty as the government is trying to project.”

“One can’t write articles, one can’t talk freely. Is this what the government wants?” Mander asked.

He said the issue “goes well beyond” CES. “It suggests on the one hand that to speak up for justice, equality, fraternity – indeed in defence of the constitution – is to act against the nation. And that if you work for an organisation that received foreign funds and you receive any remuneration, you are barred from writing a column or article. The question, therefore, is of the fundamental right of conscience, of the freedom to dissent,” he told The Wire.