Indian government cracks down on critical NGOs and their foreign funders

Activists address a press conference in Mumbai (Photo credit: Bismillah Geelani)

Human rights activists in India are closely watching the case of an activist couple who’ve been providing legal assistance to the victims of 2002 communal riots in Gujarat. They victim advocates now face prosecution that many say is political vendetta because they seek to expose the complicity of  the political establishment in the violence that left thousands dead. As Bismillah Geelani reports, many see the prosecution of the activists as part of the current government’s ongoing crackdown on NGOs.

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At a press conference in the western city of Mumbai, dozens of human rights activists, intellectuals and artists voice their concerns about the prosecution of noted activist Teesta Setalvad and her husband Javed Anand. Teesta Setalvad has long been the face of a campaign seeking justice for the victims of the 2002 communal riots in the western state of Gujarat. Nearly 2000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in the violence and many blame current Prime Minister Narendra Modi – who was then the Chief Minister of Gujarat – for facilitating the riots.

“This vendetta against us is because we are seeking to show through the justice process even today, that what happened in 2002 in 14 of the 25 districts of Gujarat was not a spontaneous outburst, but was a calibrated, calculated and preplanned conspiracy,” Setalvad explains.

The couple is charged with involvement in anti-national activities and embezzling funds they received from foreign donors. Setalvad says officials have harassed her for more than a decade.

And according Setalvad, there’s been a significant increase in state actions against her since the Narendra Modi-led government came to power last year.

“It’s for the first time in the history of independent India that, in cases related to mass communal violence, we have had judicial remedy to the extent that 117 powerful accused have been convicted to life imprisonment,” says Setalvad. “This has never happened before.”

Authorities recently raided Setalvad’s home and office, canceled her NGO’s registration and froze the group’s bank accounts.

The government has also declared her a threat to national security, and put her main funding source – the Ford Foundation – on a watch list.

Ranjnikant Patel is a minister in the Gujarat government.

“The Ford Foundation has given her NGO a lot of money that she has misused. It has been found that the same money was used against the government and to harm the atmosphere of communal harmony in the country,” says Patel. “It’s on the basis of these findings that action has been initiated.”

Putting the Ford Foundation on the watch list means the group can’t fund any NGOs in the country unless it gets prior approval from the government.

Senior Supreme Court attorney Sanjay Hegde sees this as an attempt to harass foreign donors.

“What is happening now is that the government is telling foreign foundations and foreign money, ‘Every step you take, every move you make, we will be watching you.’ Today it’s Ford Foundation, tomorrow it could be the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation,” warns Hegde.

The curbs on Setalvad and her group are not isolated. In recent months the government has canceled the registration of thousands of NGOs and barred many others from receiving contributions from foreign countries.

The crackdown came after the Intelligence Bureau, or the IB, issued a report claiming that many of these groups are using foreign money to support public protests and to hamper various ongoing development projects.

Among the groups specifically mentioned are Amnesty International and Greenpeace India. Acting on the report, the government revoked Greenpeace India’s license, froze their bank accounts and barred some of its members from traveling abroad.

GVL Narasimha Rao, spokesperson of the ruling BJP, defends the government’s action.

“A lot of these foreign donations come with a specific motive and the motive is to hurt India’s economic interests in certain sectors,” alleges Rao.

But Greenpeace India strongly rejects that claim.  Priya Pillai represents the group. She says they are being targeted because they oppose the development model that they say is anti-poor and causes irreparable damage to the environment.

“There are two stakeholders here,” says Pillai. “There are tribal people, marginalized communities and minorities in this country, and people who are working to protect their rights become anti-national, a threat to the development of this country and a threat to the national security.”

Pillai asks who defines national interests, noting that corporate groups like Adonis, Reliance, and Tatas have benefited from the government’s loosening of laws in favor of big business investment.

The Modi government’s crackdown on NGOs has evoked severe criticism from all the opposition parties in the country. Some foreign governments, including the United States have also expressed concern.

Political analysts see the move as an attack on the right to dissent and say it raises serious questions about the Modi government’s democratic credentials.

“They don’t realize that voluntary societies are the lifeline for the expansion of democratic space,” says Anant Kumar, a sociologist at the New Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University. “You attack civil society, you are actually hurting yourself if you are a democrat. If you are not a democrat, go ahead and destroy whatever has been created in the last 65 years. Previous governments were not casual governments. They also wanted to do a bit of streamlining. But streamlining is one thing and destruction is another thing.”

At the moment, Teesta Setalvad is free on bail and continues to work on behalf of Gujarat riot victims. But with more than half a dozen cases filed against her, a significant amount of Setalvad’s time now goes to defending herself against what she calls an attempt to distract her from her work.

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