Going local

It may claim to be a tool to protect India’s ‘national interest’, but the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act 2010 (FCRA) is without doubt used to harass individuals and associations and prevent them from raising uncomfortable questions with the Indian government. As Ravi Nair accurately puts it, the FCRA is a political instrument, used to carefully stifle dissent by controlling the funding civil society organizations receive from abroad. 

Originally enacted in 1976 during the Emergency, the FCRA was born out of the government’s paranoia about being destabilized by foreign powers in collusion with domestic parties.  The newer 2010 version of the law was portrayed as an instrument to prevent money laundering and foreign funding of political parties and armed groups. But the law has been consistently misused to target organizations that question or criticize government policies. 

The FCRA’s labyrinthine and opaque processes of screening and scrutiny of funds hang over organizations like the proverbial sword of Damocles, exerting a chilling effect on their freedom of expression and association, and preventing them from promoting a rights-respecting society.

The FCRA also effectively blocks expressions of global support and solidarity for human rights movements. Around the world, people recognize injustice wherever it may occur. Solidarity against injustice and wrongdoing is instinctive in an increasingly interdependent world faced with interconnected crises. 

The international human rights movement has demonstrated repeatedly that global mobilization can help wrest power from those who defend an abusive status quo, and return it to the people. Why then should there be restrictions on people across the world expressing their solidarity, even if it is through financial contributions?

The Indian governing elite deliberately conflate global solidarity for human rights with so-called ‘foreign hand’ concerns. It is true that many developed countries have often cloaked their geo-strategic interests in the Global South as concern for human rights. But the Indian government now uses this as a justification to deliberately fail to recognize the difference between legitimate NGOs and those with vested interests in the region.

Civil society organizations in India do recognize the vital role of robust global communities that extend solidarity to those beyond their borders. However, we must also embrace the possibility of mobilizing a large number of Indians willing to lend their voices and wallets to human rights causes. 

The Indian middle class is often accused of supporting only local issues that do not threaten their personal interests, and of having a socially conservative outlook towards human rights issues. These are questionable assumptions. For instance, Indian media reports often suggests that a majority of Indians support the death penalty. Yet, in a nationwide survey conducted by the New Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), more people said the death penalty should go than those who said it should remain (40 percent to 30 percent). 

Have we then perhaps failed to not engage more meaningfully with the Indian middle class? While challenging the very basis of the FCRA – its intention, its clauses and its arbitrary implementation – why not gain the assistance of those within the country to fight for human rights? 

Large sections of middle-income Indians have shown a willingness to donate to civil society organizations  like CRY and Save the Children. An inclusive human rights movement with deep roots in India, supported by Indians, can build solidarity between all those who stand against injustice – from an auto rickshaw driver to an investment banker. It can challenge the state without fear of being starved of funds or of having to compromise for survival.

This is exactly what PUDR and PUCL have succeeded in doing to an extent. With new technology, their models can be scaled up to engage and mobilize larger groups to sustain a larger organization, much like what Greenpeace India has done. When organizations protesting against nuclear plants and big infrastructure were accused of serving foreign interests, Greenpeace India published an advertisement in leading newspapers mocking the government’s ’foreign hand’ theory.  This move was funded entirely by its Indian members.

A non-profit research body like PRS Legislative Research, New Delhi, which was forced to turn to domestic philanthropists after their FCRA approvals for foreign funding were turned down, has said that the rejection was a blessing in disguise. C V Madhukar, the founder of PRS, says, “(NGOs are) edifices standing on the foundations of democracy. If those foundations aren’t stable then all those edifices will crumble. Those foundations need to be owned by Indians, not foreigners.”

A financially sustainable human rights movement within India can not only challenge the FCRA; it can also make it redundant. This is a dream worth having, and a struggle worth fighting.