When State snuffs out voices
Perhaps no other country has as great and complex a maze of laws and rules that give arbitrary or unlimited powers to the state as India. And no other state has abused them as comprehensively as has India to censor free expression, manipulate opinion, curb dissent, criminalise protest, and harshly victimise people — in order to impose manifestly harmful decisions on them. The maze includes scores of new laws (200, according to one estimate), in addition to the Indian Penal Code, Criminal Procedure Code and Indian Police Act, inherited from the colonial era.
One such law is the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, 2010 (FCRA), which enables the government to control the flow of overseas funds to non-profit non-governmental organisations (NGOs) through an elaborate system of screening and scrutiny containing several exclusions, and with powers to order summary suspension of permits to receive foreign funding. FCRA’s origins lie in the Emergency (1975-1977), imposed by Indira Gandhi partly out of her paranoid conviction that ‘certain foreign powers’ were out to destabilise her by instigating domestic political groups. FCRA originally banned funding for political parties, election candidates, trade unions, the media, etc. All applicants for a permit to receive foreign funding would have to be registered for at least three years and would be closely screened by the Intelligence Bureau, no less.
It has never been easy to get an FCRA permit. The process usually takes a couple of years, if not longer. Only 39,000 out of India’s two million-plus NGOs have such permits. The permits were originally granted for an indefinite period. But in 2010, FCRA was amended and new Rules were introduced. These restricted permits to five years and debarred groups from ‘political actions.’
Under Rule 3(vi), the government arrogated to itself the power to take action against any group that ‘habitually indulges in bandhs, hartals, rasta roko, rail roko, or jail bharo.’ Now, these are all nonviolent and democratic forms of protest, which emerged from India’s Freedom Struggle, and are recognised around the world as legitimate. Banning such activities is self-evidently discriminatory.
This rule can be used against almost any organisation which supports rights-based mobilisations of various groups — women, landless farmers, Adivasis, Dalits, students, religious minorities, people affected by industrial, mining and irrigation projects —irrespective of political alignment.
The government has even used the rule to refuse a permit to the NGO PRS Legislative Research, which analyses the functioning of Parliamentary institutions and receives media exposure. It also provides research assistance to MPs who ask for it. Some 250 MPs cutting across party lines use the service, but the government evidently doesn’t trust their integrity and regards the service as potentially subversive.
The home ministry last year cancelled the FCRA permits of some 4,000 NGOs citing minor technical grounds such as change of address. Some of these cancellations smack of a witch-hunt.
The worst case of such abuse of power under FCRA pertains to the Indian Social Action Forum (INSAF), a coalition of 700 people’s organisations and NGOs active in various anti-communal mobilisations, anti-displacement struggles, and campaigns against destructive ‘development’ projects such as Posco, Koodankulam and Vedanta, besides Special Economic Zones.
On 30 April, the home ministry summarily suspended INSAF’s FCRA permit and froze its bank accounts on the ground that its activities are likely to ‘prejudicially affect the public interest,’ without any explanation of which specific activities would do so. This violates FCRA’s stipulation that the reasons for such suspension must be ‘recorded in writing’. Two days later, it demanded answers to 31 queries — a case of ‘shoot first, ask questions later!’
Set up in 1995, INSAF has established a strong identity as a platform where autonomous secular and democratic groups can come together in pursuit of their common aims of ‘protecting democracy, resisting iniquitous forms of globalisation and combating communalism’. INSAF’s work has expanded the space for those affected by state policies and helped to bring their concerns to national attention and asserted their democratic right to intervene in and influence development policies.
INSAF has made important interventions in public debates on issues of national concern, including land grabs by Indian companies in Africa, violations of technical and statutory norms in respect of mining, deforestation and nuclear energy projects, on the deployment of ‘black laws’ such as the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act against human rights defenders, and state violence against Dalits, Adivasis and minority religious groups.
INSAF has been targeted because it is among the most vocal critics of recent changes in the legal and regulatory framework aimed at criminalising those who question the authority of the state or challenge its policies. INSAF has consistently highlighted and opposed violations of human rights irrespective of whether they are perpetrated by state agencies, corporations or political parties.
INSAF has petitioned the Supreme Court against the new FCRA Rules that give the government unbridled powers to snuff out the activities of organisations working for public causes by branding them ‘political’ and blocking their access to funds. Ironically, the action was taken using Section 13 of FCRA against the only organisation which has legally challenged that very Section! Clearly, the government is targeting progressive NGOs and crippling them by abusing FCRA. The arbitrary and excessive powers FCRA bestows on the state make nonsense of the principles of justice and public accountability.