Building a domestic human rights constituency in India

As head of the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre, Ravi Nair has first-hand knowledge of the Indian government’s oppressive behaviour towards human rights organizations critical of the state. Given the phenomenal increase and importance of foreign funds to support thousands of NGOs in India, the Foreign Contribution Relation Act (FCRA) is the first tool the Indian government uses to stifle dissent and monitor NGO activity.

Examining foreign funding flows to all Indian voluntary organizations, I found that funding is channelled to certain types of organizations only for certain types of issues. A large number of associations are not eligible because of their activities, political or otherwise. Registration or prior permission can be denied for any of at least 23 reasons. This precludes most organizations that engage in any form of political activity from registering for the FCRA - even writing an op-ed piece critical of government policy can be grounds for punishment.

These prohibitions have a chilling effect on the rights of groups to engage in collective political and social action; social movement organizations, particularly the more politicized ones, do not register for foreign contributions and those that do cannot engage in any political activity. Minority groups such as Muslims and lower castes (Dalits) in particular encounter greater scrutiny due to their large size and history of contentious political relations with the majority Hindus, making it easy for the state to designate much of the activity they engage in as ‘political’ and ‘disturbing’ social harmony (one criteria for denying registration), and thus ineligible for state or foreign funding. With the rise of terrorism associated with Islamic extremism, Indian Muslim groups seeking foreign funding are likely to receive greater scrutiny than Christian groups.

In addition, voluntary organizations located in states that are declared ‘sensitive’ for security reasons also find it difficult to receive aid from abroad, as Nair has found in his organization’s investigative work on the rape in a Kashmiri village. These states not only include the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir but also the eastern states of Assam, Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram, and Tripura. More recently, as Nair also notes, the government has not allowed Indian Social Action Forum (INSAF), a network of more than 700 NGOs from receiving foreign funds because “they criticized Indian policies.”

However, India is not alone in using restrictive legislation to control civil society. According to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL), “over the past year, nineteen countries have introduced restrictive legislation aimed at weakening civil society. These countries join the more than 30 with existing laws, policies, and practices that stifle the work of civil society organizations (CSOs).’’ These include not only authoritarian states but also democratically elected governments (such as Bangladesh and more recently Israel) that invoke national security concerns to justify restrictions imposed on transnational ties of civil society actors. It is also useful to remember that even the US government prohibits foreign-funded organizations from funding political activity, particularly elections; in the 2010 November elections, the Democratic party accused the US Chamber of Commerce of using foreign membership dues to finance political advertisements in favor of Republicans.

As Nair points out, there is limited domestic funding available to civil society groups that challenge the Indian state. Rich Indians are not only reluctant to support human rights issues due to worries about punitive state actions but they also prefer to donate to religious causes. In 2001-02 of the top 25 Indian associations that received foreign contributions under the FCRA, five were Hindu religious organizations. Indians abroad and in India prefer to give to religious organizations.

While acknowledging the importance of foreign funding in such an environment, the question is whether the domestic fight for human right issues is possible only with outside aid? Given the fickleness of foreign aid, it may be a more prudent strategy in the long term to raise funds from domestic sources as Nair points out many in the human rights community already do – from ordinary citizens. It protects domestic groups from being falsely accused by the state as foreign stooges.

Also, groups that are nurtured with domestic support are more difficult for governments to control and suppress, as they have gained the legitimacy of the wider public. Otherwise, as Amy Hawthorne found, pro-democracy groups in the Arab world “have to fight the stigma that democracy and human rights are foreign - particularly western - concepts”. Indian human rights groups face a similar dilemma when they struggle to gain public support for the fight against bonded labor, police torture, illegal detentions, caste and gender discrimination, or the army’s mistreatment of citizens in border states – issues which to the privileged appear either irrelevant or nonexistent.

Building a domestic constituency and donor base for human rights is of course a monumental task. It requires convincing the Indian public that when human rights organizations support the right of minorities and the underprivileged they are also fighting for civil liberties for all of us. But more than anywhere else, in the land of Mahatma Gandhi to build public support for human rights issues may be less of a challenge, especially if the young are targeted in schools and colleges through human-rights education as Monisha Bajaj found. While this route can be frustrating and time-consuming, it will ultimately be more effective. Otherwise, as Nair himself acknowledges, the recipients of international funding will forever be perceived as agents of foreign powers and not taken seriously.

In the long run, human rights organization such as the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) that rely on membership fees may survive longer and be more successful than Indian Social Action Forum (an important voice for variety of human rights issues) nearly 90 per cent of whose funds are raised from abroad. The PUCL’s success in winning the case at the Supreme Court (PUCL v Union of India) on behalf of India’s poor and hungry is evidence of this model of independence. The National Food Security Bill was recently passed by the Indian Parliament and PUCL can take a large measure of credit for its decade long fight against hunger and starvation.

A foreign funded organization would not and could not have achieved this milestone, which has had such a far-reaching impact on the lives of the poor and hungry. In the long run, financial ties with foreigners cannot substitute for the development of a strong domestic following.