In reaction to what they view as India's growing crackdown on foreign-funded charities and activists, a group of NGOs has appealed in an open letter to PM Narendra Modi to put an end to "coercive actions" against them.
In an open letter to the prime minister, a host of domestic and foreign civil society organizations expressed deep concern about how they and their donors were being labeled and targeted. They accuse the Indian government of freezing funds, selectively releasing intelligence reports aimed at painting NGOs in poor light, and subjecting the disbursal of their funds to case-by-case clearance, among other things.
These actions, the NGOs allege, have created an atmosphere of "state coercion" and "intimidation" in India's civil society arena. The list of signatories of the document, published on May 8, include Greenpeace India, HAQ Centre for Child Rights and National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights.
"There is irrefutable documentary evidence that State action against select organizations has been arbitrary, non-transparent, and without any course of administrative redress," reads the letter. "The effect has been to harm important work being done by NGOs at the grassroots and send a signal of threat to civil society," it added.
Saying that it does not fit well with the democratic traditions to label any and every conflicting voice as "anti-national," "against national security" or "donor driven," the organizations called on the PM to put an end to "coercive actions" against NGOs and donors.
The Modi-led government has placed a string of restrictions on charitable and environmental groups, in a move viewed by critics as an attempt to stifle the voices of those who oppose New Delhi's economic agenda.
In late April, India's Home Ministry said it had canceled registration of nearly 9,000 charities for failing to declare details of donations from abroad, claiming they had failed to file the mandatory annual tax returns.
Greenpeace and the US Ford Foundation have also been hit with restrictions. One of the world's largest charitable funds, the Ford Foundation has been put on an official watch list for giving grants to a group called the Sabrang Trust, claiming that the money was used for anti-national activities.
The trust is said to have used the Ford money in part to hold meetings and workshops on religious violence, including the deadly riots that shook Gujarat in 2002, when Modi was the state's Chief Minister. The Foundation now has to obtain approval from the ministry for any grants it makes to Indian organizations.
In the meantime, after 14 years in the country, Greenpeace India warned that it may be forced to shut down its operations within a month following the New Delhi's decision to block foreign funding and domestic accounts of the environmental group. The authorities argue Greenpeace had violated rules governing international financial transactions.
They claim that the funds received by the NGOs were being transferred into the individual or personal accounts and not into the accounts approved to receive foreign donations under the country's Foreign Control regulation Act (FCRA).
"The Home Ministry's decision to block Greenpeace India's domestic bank accounts could lead to not only the loss of 340 employees of the organization but a sudden death for its campaigns which strived to represent the voice of the poor on issues of sustainable development, environmental justice and clean, affordable energy," said Greenpeace India Executive Director Samit Aich in a recent statement.
Environmentalism vs economics
The group has accused New Delhi of watering down environmental rules after it allowed industries to operate closer to protected green zones. In DW interview, Aich had explained what he believes is the real reason behind the government's actions: "The Home Ministry is trying to shut Greenpeace India down because we make life difficult for companies that wish to put profits above people and the planet."
He argued that Greenpeace's recent campaigns for renewable energy, community rights to their forests and in favor of organic farming "have earned us powerful corporate enemies in the coal and pesticide sectors. These same companies are known to have deep links to some in the government."
Last June, a leaked document attributed to India's intelligence services said Greenpeace and other lobby groups were damaging the country's economy by campaigning against power projects, mining and genetically modified food.
Restrictions on foreign funding for non-governmental organizations, however, are not uncommon in India, where suspicion of "foreign meddling" in the country's internal affairs runs deep. NGOs operating in the South Asian nation have required government approval since 1976.
The previous Congress party-led government, which ruled the country for ten years until 2014, also denied a raft of NGOs permission to receive foreign funding alleging that the organizations were involved in activities that threatened the public interest. Back then, thousands of smaller NGOs were also restrained from receiving money from abroad claiming that they "did not comply with reporting requirements."
Nevertheless, this time around, following the restrictions on both Greenpeace and the Ford Foundation, US ambassador Richard R. Verma voiced rare public criticism of the Modi-led administration: "I read with some concern the recent press reports on challenges faced by NGOs operating in India. Because a vibrant civil society is so important to both of our democratic traditions, I do worry about the potentially chilling effects of these regulatory steps focused on NGOs," Verma said in a recent speech.
The US Ambassador added that in today's world, a great deal of the search for the refinements that can improve our governments is undertaken by civil society organizations. "They are fighting peacefully around the world for advances in health, inclusive economic growth, environmental protections, human rights, and to strengthen democracy."