Skip to main content

Foreign funding law 'misused' to target civil society: Amnesty, Human Rights Watch

A civil society protest to save the jungles
Counterview Desk
Two top rights groups with presence in several countries, including India, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have said that the “criminal case” against the Lawyers Collective, a Delhi-based high profile NGO with some of the most well-known Supreme Court advocates as its office bearers, is the latest example of how the foreign funding law is being used by the Indian authorities to “harass outspoken rights groups”. 
In a joint statement, they said, the Government of India “appears to be disregarding court rulings upholding the rights of civil society groups to freedom of expression and association”, adding, at the same time, the government has “failed” to provide substantive replies to questions from the National Human Rights Commission regarding “misuse of the foreign funding law against nongovernmental groups”.

The statement:

On June 18, 2019, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) filed a criminal case against the Lawyers Collective for allegedly violating the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA). The group provides legal aid, advocates for the rights of marginalized groups, campaigns to end discrimination against LGBTQ people, and seeks enforcement of workplace sexual harassment laws.
“The Indian authorities are evidently targeting the Lawyers Collective because of their work defending human rights activists and advocating for the rights of marginalized groups,” said Aakar Patel, head of Amnesty International India. “The repeated misuse of the foreign funding law restricts groups’ ability to operate in violation of their rights to freedom of expression and association.”
The CBI has accused the Lawyers Collective of criminal conspiracy, criminal breach of trust, and cheating under the Indian Penal Code, false statement made in declaration, and various sections under the FCRA and Prevention of Corruption Act 1988. These allegations are based on a 2016 Home Affairs Ministry inspection report that alleged financial irregularities against the organization and its co-founders, the prominent lawyers Anand Grover and Indira Jaising.
It claimed that the organization used the funds for activities that violated the foreign funding law, notably “lobbying with members of parliament and thereby influencing the political process and parliamentary institutions.”
While governments may limit certain political activities of nongovernmental organizations in exchange for tax benefits, the broad restrictions on groups that obtain foreign funding violates basic free expression and association rights, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International India said.
The Home Ministry allegation against the Lawyers Collective is inconsistent given that the Indian government, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), amended the FCRA first in 2016 and then in 2018 to retroactively legalize foreign funding made to political parties. The foreign funding law had been enacted largely to prohibit political parties and politicians from accepting foreign support to prevent foreign interests from influencing Indian elections.
But in 2014, the Delhi High Court had found that the BJP and the Congress Party had received foreign funding in violation of the foreign funding law. The law was then amended to prevent any retroactive action from being taken against the political parties.
The government first suspended Lawyers Collective’s FCRA license in May 2016 and later cancelled it in November 2016, also freezing bank accounts. The Lawyers Collective has challenged the cancellation and non-renewal of the license in Bombay High Court. While the case is pending, in January 2017, the court ordered the authorities to release its domestic bank accounts.
The allegations and charges against the Lawyers Collective appear to be an attempt to silence the group because of its work representing people in cases against the government, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International India said. The Lawyers Collective has represented activists facing a range of politically motivated allegations including those that sought prosecutions for the 2002 targeted attacks on Muslims in Gujarat, or others that have defended the rights of tribal groups and Dalits.
Civil society groups, activists, doctors, and patient rights’ advocates have condemned the government’s actions against the Lawyers Collective. The National Human Rights Commissionalso sought a status report from the CBI on its investigation against the group.
Since 2014, several organizations have been targeted under the foreign funding law, including Greenpeace India, Centre for Promotion of Social Concerns, Sabrang Trust, Navsarjan Trust, Act Now for Harmony and Democracy, NGO Hazards Centre, and Indian Social Action Forum.
The authorities’ use of the foreign funding law against the Centre for Promotion of Social Concerns, a prominent Indian human rights organization better known for its program unit, People’s Watch, also highlights the law’s use for reprisal.
When the group challenged the government’s decision not to renew its FCRA in the Delhi High Court in 2016, the Home Affairs Ministry told the court that the group used foreign funding to share information with United Nations special rapporteurs and foreign embassies, “portraying India’s human rights record in negative light…to the detriment of India’s image.”
The government characterized this as “undesirable activities detrimental to national interest,” effectively trying to target the group for promoting international human rights standards.
The government appears to be disregarding court rulings upholding the rights of civil society groups to freedom of expression and association, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International India said. The courts have repeatedly reminded the government that in a democracy, peaceful dissent is protected and may not be muzzled.
The government has also failed to provide substantive replies to questions from the National Human Rights Commission regarding alleged misuse of the foreign funding law against nongovernmental groups, and to explain why these restrictions do not violate international law and standards. For instance, in November 2016, the commission questioned the government’s decision not to renew the FCRA license for Centre for Promotion of Social Concerns.
The government submitted a response in December 2016, but the commission said that its reply “was vague to say the least.” Despite the commission’s repeated calls, the government provided no updated response.
The foreign funding law’s vague provisions and its misuse have also received international condemnation. In April 2016, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and association published a legal analysis asserting that the FCRA was not in conformity with international law, principles and standards. 
In June 2016, the UN special rapporteurs on the situation of human rights defenders, on freedom of opinion and expression, and on freedom of peaceful assembly and association, called on the Indian government to repeal the FCRA, which they said was “being used more and more to silence organisations involved in advocating civil, political, economic, social, environmental or cultural priorities, which may differ from those backed by the Government.”
While it is appropriate to regulate and scrutinize the financial affairs of not-for-profit organizations and nongovernmental organizations to address corruption and legitimate national security concerns, the FCRA is too broad and unnecessarily infringes on the activities of organizations that address social issues in India. 
The Indian government should repeal the law, or amend it so that it does not interfere with the rights to freedom of expression and association, and cannot be misused for political reasons to restrict the peaceful activities of nongovernmental organizations, Amnesty International India and Human Rights Watch said.
“The Indian government talks about inclusive development and commitment to basic rights and yet is targeting lawyers and activists who seek to protect the rights of the most vulnerable,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Democratic governments should not fear criticism, and should certainly not target activists for their ideology or commitment to upholding civil liberties.”

Comments

TRENDING

Buddhist shrines massively destroyed by Brahmanical rulers in "pre-Islamic" era: Historian DN Jha's survey

Nalanda mahavihara By Our Representative Prominent historian DN Jha, an expert in India's ancient and medieval past, in his new book , "Against the Grain: Notes on Identity, Intolerance and History", in a sharp critique of "Hindutva ideologues", who look at the ancient period of Indian history as "a golden age marked by social harmony, devoid of any religious violence", has said, "Demolition and desecration of rival religious establishments, and the appropriation of their idols, was not uncommon in India before the advent of Islam".

Did Modi promote Dholavira, a UNESCO site now, as Gujarat CM? Facts don't tally

By Rajiv Shah  As would generally happen, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s tweet – that not only was he “absolutely delighted” with the news of UNESCO tag to Dholavira, but he “ first visited ” the site during his “student days and was mesmerised by the place” – is being doubted by his detractors. None of the two tweets, strangely, even recalls once that it’s a Harappan site in Gujarat.

Labelling a Jesuit a Marxist? It's like saying if you use a plane, you become American

Jesuits: Cedric Prakash, Stan Swamy By Fr Cedric Prakash SJ* A thirteen- fourteen-year-old has many dreams! That's an impressionable age; at the cusp of finishing school. It is also a time when one tastes a different kind of freedom: to go for camps with boys of your own age (not with ones family). Such camps and outings were always enjoyed to the hilt. The ones, however, which still remain etched in my memory are the mission camps to the Jesuit missions in Maharashtra and Gujarat.

Giant conglomerates 'favoured': Whither tribal rights for jal-jungle-jameen?

Prafull Samantara By Mohammad Irshad Ansari*  The struggle for “Jal, Jungle and Jameen” has been a long-drawn battle for the tribal communities of India. This tussle was once again in the limelight with the proposed diamond mining in the Buxwaha forest of Chhatarpur (Madhya Pradesh). The only difference in this movement was the massive social media support it gained, which actually seems to tilt the scale for the tribal people in a long time.

If not Modi, then who? Why? I (an ordinary citizen) am there! Main hoon naa!

By Mansee Bal Bhargava*  The number of women ministers is doubled in early July from the first term after cabinet reshuffle by the present government led by Narendra Modi. While there were 06 women ministers in the previous term, this term there are 11. The previous two governments led by Dr Manmohan Singh had 10 women ministers in each tenure. Are these number of women ministers something to rejoice in the near 75 years of independence? Yes maybe, if we think that things are slowly improving in the patriarchal system. This change is less likely to achieve gender balance in the parliament otherwise we require more than 11 as per the 33% reservation . This change is also less likely because the men politicians’ inability to handle the country’s mess is becoming more and more evident and especially during the corona crisis. Seems, the addition of more women ministers may be a result of the recent assembly elections where women played a decisive role in the election results. For example

Effluent discharge into deep sea? Modi told to 'reconsider' Rs 2275 crore Gujarat project

Counterview Desk  In a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, well-known Gujarat-based environmentalist, Mahesh Pandya of the Paryavaran Mitra, has protested against the manner in with the Gujarat government is continuing with its deep sea effluent disposal project despite environmental concerns.

Swami Vivekananda's views on caste and sexuality were 'painfully' regressive

By Bhaskar Sur* Swami Vivekananda now belongs more to the modern Hindu mythology than reality. It makes a daunting job to discover the real human being who knew unemployment, humiliation of losing a teaching job for 'incompetence', longed in vain for the bliss of a happy conjugal life only to suffer the consequent frustration.

Gujarat govt gender insensitive? Cyclone package for fisherfolk 'ignores' poor women

By Our Representative A memorandum submitted to the Gujarat government by various fisherfolk associations of the Saurashtra region of Gujarat under the leadership of Ahmedabad NGO Centre for Social Justice's senior activist Arvind Khuman, who is based in Amreli, has suggested that the relief package offered to the fishermen affected by the Tauktae cyclone is not only inadequate, it is also gender insensitive.

Debt bondage, forced labour, sexual abuse in Gujarat's Bt cottonseed farms: Dutch study

By Rajiv Shah  A just-released study, sponsored by a Netherlands-based non-profit, Arisa , “Seeds of Oppression Wage sharecropping in Bt cottonseed production in Gujarat, India”, has said that a new form of bondage, or forced labour, exists in North India’s Bt cottonseed farms, in which bhagiyas, or wage sharecroppers, are employed against advances and are then often required to work for years together “without regular payment of wages.”

Tussle between Modi-led BJP govt, Young India 'key to political battle': NAPM

Counterview Desk  In its month-long campaign, civil rights network National Alliance for People’s Movements (NAPM) carried out what it called Young People's Political Persecution and Resistance in “solidarity with all comrades facing political persecution and remembering human rights defender Stan Swamy…”