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Wednesday 01 Mar 2017 03.13 PM

Modi’s war on civil society; how Christian NGOs are specially targeted


During the recent confirmation hearing for the job as the U.S. Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson was urged by Cory Gardner, the Senator from Colorado to take up the issue of ‘Compassion International,' a Christian Charity that operates 580 centers in India for destitute children, with authorities in India.

‘Since 2014, Compassion (International) has been the target of multiple coordinated governmental attacks because of its unapologetically Christian belief, but it has been delivering humanitarian services to hundreds of thousands of Indian Children. But due to restrictions by the Indian Government, they have been unable to fund its India operations since February 2016, despite having broken no laws. I believe the State Department should take notice that this ill treatment of Compassion International should stop, and it is a broader pattern by the Government of India, where other NGOs have seen similar problems’, Senator Gardner said at the hearing.

Mr. Tillerson responded by saying that he appreciated the Senator bringing this issue during the hearing and assured that he would work with the Senator on the matter once he is confirmed. The Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee Mr. Bob Corker who was said to be actively engaged with the Indian Government over this issue for a year now followed up the exchange with a comment of his own saying that he was grateful for Senator Gardner for raising this issue and further stating that the Chairman Ed Royce of the House International Committee also cares deeply about this matter.

The broad pattern that was referenced by the Senator on Non-Governmental Organizations in India appears to be real and disconcerting to freedom loving people everywhere. What is unraveling in Modi’s India today is the systematic banishment of those organizations that do not share his sectarian or environmental vision.

Indian law stipulates that non-governmental groups register under the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA) to operate while receiving foreign donations. Increasingly this provision is being used by this government as a political tool to stifle dissenting opinions and to undermine the constitutional rights of its citizens.

Civil rights activist Teesta Setalvad, who has fought hard for justice for the 2002 riot victims of Gujarat and accused the Modi Government of allegedly overseeing the violence now stands accused of defrauding funds from ‘Unity for Peace & Justice and Sabrang International,' an organization she headed and subsequently lost the FCRA license. Green Peace India’s Priya Pillai was removed from a flight en route to London to attend a conference on the charges that she would have damaged India’s ‘national interest’ and further yanking out its FCRA privilege. Even NGOs who were engaged in Rights-based advocacy work such as Amnesty International were not spared.

Cancellation of these FCRA licenses would mean that henceforth these organizations areforbidden to receive foreign donations, thereby essentially killing their operations. Many of these NGOs solely depends on the foreign funding as Corporations or other entities in India are reluctant to fund them often characterizing them as either politically charged or a risk due to fear of reprisals from the power centers. It should also be noted that with all the wealth creation that occurred in the last three decades or so, the Indian attitude towards charitable giving is still much to be desired!

It is estimated that FCRA licenses of 20,000 NGOs have been canceled. Some of these organizations have come together and issued a joint statement accusing Modi government of using FCRA as a tool of repression. ’Prima-facie it appears FCRA license non-renewal is neither legal nor objective and thereby impinging on the rights of the human rights defenders in access to funding, including foreign funding,” the apex human rights watchdog in the country said in a notice.

Apart from the sound and fury created by these exchanges between some of the world renowned NGOs such as Green Peace and Amnesty International and the government, there is also a secret war being waged against Christian NGOs that are engaged in welfare work for the very poor in rural India. Caritas International that works with 350 NGOs across India that boasts a force of 25000 volunteers is another victim to Government’s authoritarian agenda and being accused of indulging in anti-India activity.

Undoubtedly, there appears to be an unprecedented, deliberate and systematic effort to dislodge various Christian NGOs from India that may have nothing to do with their performance or violations of any rules. A joint statement from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said the government was using the FCRA to muzzle NGOs.

“The law’s use of broad and vague terms such as ‘public interest’ and ‘national interest’ have left it open to abuse”, read the statement. The ‘national interest’ government invokes in these cases seems to be an excuse for strengthening the Hindu identity of the country and is egged on by the Hindutva activists led by RSS.

Almost eighty percent of the Charity work among the poorest of the poor is delivered by Christian NGOs in India often on difficult terrains and under trying conditions. ‘Compassion’ began operating in 1968 in India, where today its Indian-staffed development centers care for more than 145,000 children. ‘Compassion sends about $50 million per year in humanitarian aid to India. That makes it the single largest contributor of aid for children living in extreme poverty’ said Tim Glen, the US communication director for the organization.

Why Modi government is shutting down ‘Compassion’ and denying vital services to this vulnerable part of the society may be debatable considering that this particular organization or similar entities rarely get involved in policy debates to the discomfiture of the establishment! However, one thing is certain, the politicians and bureaucrats who are formulating these disastrous policies are unaffected in their own bubble and do not seem to give a hoot about the well-being or the future of these children. “In Compassion’s case, Prime Minister Modi’s Government has since April blocked $3.5 million in aid to India’s most vulnerable children, as far as we can tell, no other reason than that Compassion is founded on and demonstrates Christian values” wrote Compassion president and CEO Santiago Mellado in an article for the ‘Hill’. ‘The Ministry of Home Affairs views Christian values as a threat to the ‘national interest’, particularly if those values are taught to the poor’ said Charity’s lead Attorney Stephen Oakley.

In December 2016, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce convened a hearing to discuss Compassion International’s work in India. The hearing was entitled “American Compassion in India: Government Obstacles”. As the Chairman of the India Caucus and champion of the US-India civil nuclear agreement on the House floor, Mr.Royce was well placed in mediating a resolution to the standoff but to no avail. The belligerence from the administration was finally on full display when a Compassion official was subjected to a ‘dressing down’ at the Ministry of External Affairs thereby dashing any hope for a positive outcome.

These moves appear to be consistent with the Hindutva philosophy that the Modi government has embraced to advance the saffron agenda that challenges the very idea of India as a multi-cultural and pluralistic society. Modi appears to pay lip service to Gandhiji’s idea of India upon his visits abroad but remains silent when Institutions that are supposed to promote those principles come under attack back at home.

While the BJP government is hard at work restricting Christian NGOs from receiving funds from abroad, no such limitations are placed on the Sangh Parivar organizations that collect millions of dollars from Western Democracies. A recently released report from the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) states that “While the Indian government continues to use the FCRA to limit foreign funding for some NGOs, Hindutva supported organizations have never come under the scrutiny of the FCRA. With the new amendment to the FCRA, these foreign-based radical Hindu organizations will be able send funds to India, without restriction, to support hate campaigns. Under the new definition of FCRA, so long as the foreign company’s ownership of an Indian entity is within the foreign investment limits prescribed by the
government for that sector, the company will be treated as “Indian” for the purposes of FCRA.” The latest report on the constitutional and legal challenges faced by religious minorities in India comes after the controversy last March when Indian government denied USCIRF the visas to visit the country. The powerful US religious freedom bodythat exercises considerable influence on the US Senate and Administration had at that
point described the situation in India as “worrisome”.

It is also common knowledge that Christian church leaders from the United States have a harder time obtaining a visa to visit their fellow faithful in India or attend a conference while no such restrictions are placed on Indians based on religious affiliations. It is indeed hypocritical to deny a religious conference visa to an American citizen while crying foul about H1B visa program that could take jobs away from American workers!
More than 100 million children in India live without access to proper nutrition or other basic needs. The government does not have well established anti-poverty programs to address this critical issue and relies primarily on foreign aid groups for humanitarian relief. It would not only be irresponsible on the part of the government but immoral to let these children fall through the cracks for the sake of political expediency or in the name of religious bigotry.

George Abraham, (Writer is a former Chief Technology Officer of the United Nations and Chairman of the Indian National Overseas Congress, USA)

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