FCRA Being Used As a Tool of Repression By Centre, Say Civil Society Activists

Several civil rights groups have slammed the Centre for cancelling the FCRA licence of 25 NGOs and have said that by doing so the government has undermined India's global reputation on human rights.

Credit: PTI

Indira Jaising. Credit: PTI

A large number of civil society organisations and members have come together to “unequivocally condemn the present use of the FCRA (Foreign Contributions Regulation Act) as a tool of repression by the current government” and expressed their solidarity with the 25 organisations that have had their FCRA renewal applications rejected by the Ministry of Home Affairs.

The signatories to the statement included several organisations like Amnesty International India, Greenpeace India, TARSHI Delhi, the Delhi Drug Users Forum, Centre for Social Justice, as well as a large number of individuals.

Critical of the manner in which the legal procedures are being abused vis-à-vis the FCRA, they have charged that “the state is following a systematic and sustained agenda of suppressing those very dissenting voices that have consistently challenged the system.”

“The current FCRA registration refusals,” the statement said, “are the most immediate example of this escalating problem, whereby the government maligns and criminalises those very organisations and individuals that stand for human rights and liberal values. Those who have worked for the most marginalised and disempowered sections of society, while holding the government to account are being persecuted by the state.”

In this regard, the statement also mentioned that while no official list of the organisations whose licences have been cancelled has been made available by the ministry, it has been learnt through media sources that Lawyers Collective, Compassion East India, Centre for Promotion of Social Concerns (People’s Watch), Sanchal Foundation Hazards Centre, Indian Social Action Forum and the Institute of Public Health, Bengaluru, were among the 25 NGOs on this list.

Vaguely worded notices

The statement also addressed how the legal process was also being abused, “the few notices that have come to light are worded such that they can hardly be deemed legally or procedurally valid. Cancellation of an organisation’s FCRA registration by citing a reason as vaguely termed as ‘on the basis of field agency reports’ is arbitrary and unacceptable.”

Further, in keeping with the renewed focus on who and what constitutes ‘nationalism’, the statement also observes “the MHA has also suggested that these organisations are working against ‘national interest’ – terminology that then renders these organisations open to all manner of abuse. The right to dissent, one of the cornerstones of a healthy democracy, has been haunted by this spectre of anti-nationalism, creating a political climate where dissent warrants swift retribution.”

India’s reputation on human rights being undermined 

In demanding that the FCRA itself be revoked as it was a “draconian and repressive law that not only lends itself to being a state-operated repressive tool, but is also in violation of the global human right to freedom of association”, the civil society members have cautioned that “this move by the government has the potential to undermine globally India’s reputation on human rights.”

It has already been pointed out that the MHA’s action has drawn flak both from within the country and from international organisations. In April, Maina Kiai, the United Nations special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, reiterated that the ability to access foreign funding is an integral part of the right to freedom of association, and said that the FCRA restrictions were not in conformity with international law principles and standards.

On a special note, the civil society groups said that they firmly stood behind Lawyers Collective, whose FCRA registration was cancelled on November 27. Pointing to Lawyers Collective’s statement in this regard, the groups said they too “condemn this arbitrary and undemocratic move by the MHA.”

Charging that “what should have been a routine process is now an exercise in repression by the state”, the statement said the founding members of the Lawyers Collective, senior advocates Indira Jaising and Anand Grover have an impeccable record of public service as lawyers and human rights professionals. As such, in the case of Lawyers Collective and the other 24 organisations, the civil society groups have urged the government “to focus on facts being provided to them by these organisations instead of resorting to allegations that have no legal or factual basis.”

‘FCRA turned into instrument of repression’

On its part, Greenpeace India, while supporting the statement, said, “FCRA has been turned into an instrument of repression, one that the government has used to cut off vital funding to groups that may hold positions contrary to the government’s own. By extension, the granting and cancelling of FCRA registration has become grist for the media mill, leaving many organisations including Greenpeace, battling false perceptions and responding to allegations of being ‘anti-national’ and ‘anti-development’ instead of being able to focus on our constructive campaigns for clean air, safe food and a healthy environment.”

Referring to its own FCRA registration, Greenpeace India said it was “currently valid, but is nonetheless the subject of constant conjecture.” While the issue of its continuation has acted “merely as a distraction from our campaigns on far more critical environmental issues”, the organisation said despite the matter being sub judice, in the interest of transparency, it should be known that “since 2014, several attempts have been made to curtail Greenpeace India’s right to receive funds under FCRA, but every single time these attempts have been stayed and our rights have been upheld through a series of court orders.”

It also claimed that as a matter of routine procedure, it had applied for renewal of its FCRA registration and it was renewed on November 1, 2016, for a period of five years, as has been the norm. However, it said, “yet another attempt was made by MHA to cancel our FCRA registration, but this ‘Revision Order’ too has been stayed by an order of the Madras high court on December 5, 2016.”

Stating that “the courts have consistently upheld Greenpeace India’s rights,” the organisation said this coupled with the steady support it has received from its Indian donors has only strengthened its resolve to continue its campaigns in defence of the shared environment.