By Likhita Banerji

Last year, The Guardian published a powerful piece on the global crackdown on human rights groups. It spoke of a new trend in which countries are using restrictive laws and regulations to bring about a systematic crackdown on NGOs by stopping their funding and ability to legally organise. This reflects  a legal trend where the noose around human rights NGOs is tightening. Some UN bodies and global civil society groups have responded to this trend with investigations and detailed reports documenting the phenomenon.

The most salient feature of this trend is to clamp down on foreign funding, an act for which governments give many justifications. For example, in many countries there has been an increase in legislation with a domino effect: such legislation limits access to foreign funding, which makes exercising freedom of association difficult. Justifications offered to pass these draconian laws include claims that some organisations’ functions might be a threat to national security and sovereignty, a threat to religious and cultural values or a threat to growth and development. A verifiable pattern is emerging: the organisations most affected by these laws often work on environmental issues, issues exposing human rights abuses by the state and armed forces and LGBTQIA issues. Human rights defenders also face systematic campaigns that aim to tarnish their public image by labelling them as “foreign agents” or “anti-national.” This discredits them and further thwarts their ability to receive funding from alternate domestic sources. They also face numerous hurdles in obtaining registration and renewal licences. In this atmosphere, NGOs worldwide are self-censoring and shutting down activities that may attract the attention of governments.

In India, too, the current government under Narendra Modi’s leadership has used many legal provisions to crack down on foreign funding for NGOs. Following the release of the Intelligence Bureau’s (IB) report in 2015, which claimed that some NGOs were detrimental to national growth, licences for 13,000 organisations have been cancelled in the past year alone. The law, which is being used to justify the cancellation of licences and the crackdown on irregularities in foreign funding, is the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), passed in 2011. However, what is more worrying is that the government has posted the 2015 Foreign Contribution Regulation Amendment Rules, a draft of new regulations which are even more restrictive. The draft rules say that NGOs cannot use foreign funds to carry out activities that are “detrimental to national interest, likely to affect public interest, or likely to prejudicially affect the security, scientific, strategic or economic interest of the state.” However, the lack of clearly defined terms means that they are likely to be misused. The draft also required NGOs and banks to report the receipt of foreign fundings in shorter periods of time. The reporting requirements under the FCRA rules of 2011 were already tough and cumbersome for NGOs that must operate at smaller scales. These new rules will make it even more difficult on some organisations. Not only this, NGOs will also have to give details of their social media accounts and, any foreigner associated with an NGO visiting India will have to tell concerned authorities the purpose and dates of their visit.

While the current government is responsible for misusing FCRA and cancelling licences of many organisations by citing it as a justification, India has always been suspicious of foreign funding. Its post-colonial tradition has made it especially wary of foreign interference and threats to sovereignty. This is one of the main reasons behind the absence of a broad based human rights movement, which could hold the state accountable for violations. Human rights organisations mostly do local or contextual work to stay under the radar of the state. This means that broad-based issues, such as this issue of clamping down on the freedom of association or abuses by the armed forces, which have a nationwide importance, have limited reach and fail to inspire far-reaching wins. Human rights work of this kind is, by nature, at loggerheads with the state, and thus likely to be denied foreign funding. And yet, due to India’s restrictive laws and suspicion towards foreign interference, a foreign funded NGO addressing these problems would not be seen at legitimate. Reversing this rhetoric and pushing for progressive laws is critical for promoting a nationwide human rights movement with international links. Putting the weight of civil society behind reversing this trend is not only critical to prevent steps backward in the fight for freedom of association and assembly, but also is important for proactively altering human rights organising in India by building up a national and broad-based movement.

Apart from the alarms raised by UN bodies and international NGOs, there has been little consensus on how to best move forward on this issue. This simultaneously global and national issue requires action along the ABCs of human rights campaigning by joining hands at local and international levels. At the national level, multiple strategies should be used. The first should be strategic litigation: two high profile cases pending before the Indian courts–Greenpeace and Sabrang Trust—should be targeted for strategic litigation to ensure that judicial victories are achieved. In both cases, licences to operate had been revoked citing irregularities in complying with FCRA norms.   The key would be to attack this crackdown as a violation of the right to freedom of association and assembly both under international law and under the Indian constitution. In tandem with strategic litigation, a powerful media strategy is a prerequisite for shaping public opinion to counter the inevitable defamation campaigns.

A campaign to demand the withdrawal of the draft FCRA rules of 2015 and propose amendments to the FCRA rules of 2011 is urgently needed. National human rights NGOs in India should put their weight behind calling for the National Human Rights Commission to explore the constitutionality of the the FCRA law and take into its official agenda the issues of funding and supporting human rights defenders. In addition, a focus on developing partnerships with global networks of Human Rights Defenders would attract international attention to these violations.

Putting the issue of funding and human rights’ defenders at the forefront will ensure key victories in repealing the FCRA and advancing the cause of human rights defenders and protecting their freedom of association.

Credit for featured image: AK Rockefeller.,CC Flickr. License can be found here.