India should stop using abusive foreign funding law: Human Rights Watch
Rights groups seek the government to amend the FCRA to bring it in line with international law and human rights standards.
GENEVA: As many as ten human rights groups have asked the Centre to stop using the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) and other abusive laws to silence civil society in India. The rights groups also urged the BJP government to immediately stop harassing the Centre for Promotion of Social Concerns (CPSC) and its program unit People’s Watch.
The rights groups include Amnesty International, International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Front Line Defenders and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) in the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders.
A statement issued by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in this regard noted the raid conducted by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) at the office of CPSC in Madurai on January 8, 2022. The CBI officers informed the CPSC that they were investigating allegations of fraud and financial irregularities under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), a law that regulates foreign funding for Indian nongovernmental organizations.
The rights groups recalled that in 2016, the Ministry of Home Affairs rejected CPSC's application for renewal under the FCRA. When the organisation challenged the government’s decision in the Delhi High Court, 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.”
The government’s response in court is evidence that it is violating India’s international obligations by targeting a group for promoting respect for international human rights instruments and cooperating with UN human rights mechanisms. The government also alleged financial irregularities even though the Delhi High Court had previously cleared the group of those charges in 2014 after the organization challenged similar suspensions in 2012 and 2013. The case is still pending, the statement noted.
"The government appears to have routinely disregarded court rulings in favor of civil society organizations and their constitutional rights to freedom of expression and association. The courts have repeatedly reminded the government that in a democracy, peaceful dissent is protected and may not be muzzled," the statement said.
"This crackdown is part of the wider repression of civil society in India, including through the use of draconian laws such as sedition and terrorism. Over the years, a number of United Nations bodies have expressed concerns over the use of the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act to silence dissenting voices," the organisations held.
Yet, in 2020, the Indian parliament passed amendments to the law, adding intrusive governmental oversight, additional regulations and certification processes, and operational requirements, which have further adversely affected civil society groups’ access to foreign funding and their ability to carry out human rights work.
The rights organisations demanded India’s National Human Rights Commission to promptly investigate the government’s refusal to renew the registration of the CPSC under the law and take all appropriate and necessary actions to protect human rights defenders and organizations, including their right to freedom of association and access to funding.
"The government should also amend the FCRA to bring it in line with international law and human rights standards and stop using it to target defenders and others exercising their basic human rights. It should further ensure that all human rights defenders and organizations are able to carry out their activities without any hindrance or fear of reprisals," it said.