In August last year, in a shocking move, the Union Home Ministry suspended the FCRA licences of 4,000-odd non-governmental organisations (NGOs) operating across the country, effectively rendering foreign funds unavailable to them. The reason? According to the government, these groups had an “anti-national agenda”, although no substantial reasons were cited about how it reached that conclusion. Questions have since been raised about the controversial Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), 2010, the law governing foreign funding of NGOs in India.
It is in this light that a judgment passed on 19 September by the Delhi High Court assumes landmark proportions. Responding to a writ petition, the court quashed a home ministry order that had suspended the FCRA licence of the Indian Social Action Forum (INSAF) — a network of more than 700 grassroots organisations and people’s movements. According to the MHA, INSAF’s activities were “prejudicial to public interest”. Without explaining what this meant, it froze the organisation’s bank account and suspended its licence on 30 April.
Setting aside the MHA order, Justice VK Jain of the Delhi High Court ruled that “if the government decides to suspend an organisation’s certificate, it can only do so for reasons recorded in writing, which need to be incorporated in the suspension order itself”.
The judgment gives hope to NGOs that have been raising their voice against the “arbitrary cancellation” of FCRA licences. “This order will put in place checks and balances that the government has been evading,” says Sandeep Pandey, founder of the Asha Foundation for Education.
While the “lack of substantial reasoning for suspension” has been a common grouse among most NGOs, many also allege that procedural norms were flouted. Himanshu Kumar’s Vanvasi Chetna Ashram, which works for tribal rights in Chhattisgarh, faced a suspension order in 2009 on the grounds of “threat to national security”. Himanshu says that he was asked to go to the District Collector’s office for the inspection of documents, whereas according to FCRA norms, the inspection is supposed to take place in the organisation’s office, whose licence is under consideration. A month-and-a-half later, he was asked to come to Delhi to submit the records in the ministry, but when that too failed to bring any relief, he sought legal recourse.
A lower court judge presiding over the case ruled against the MHA’s order. Interestingly, the judge was changed and the matter is still pending in a Chhattisgarh court. “If the government doesn’t want democratic political activities, what does it want?” asks Himanshu. “Does it want the people to take the law into their own hands?”
Equally appalling is the case of the Centre for Promotion of Social Concerns (CPSC), a human rights advocacy group from Tamil Nadu that was slapped with three suspension orders. The first order came after it organised a silent march in July 2012 to protest against alleged atrocities by the Special Task Force during Operation Cocoon that led to the killing of forest brigand Veerappan and his aides in 2004. The process of inspection followed soon after and a presentation was made to the ministry. “We sent them 15 reminders, but there was no communication from the ministry,” says Henri Triphagne of People’s Watch, a programme run by the organisation. “Our second suspension order interestingly came on the day the first ended.” Their third one came in March this year.
The CPSC case highlights another problem: the government’s inability to dispose of cases within 90 days, the time-frame laid down by the FCRA regulations. A former director of the FCRA in the ministry admitted that the department is understaffed and is unable to deal with the increasing number of cases.
While the Delhi High Court order comes as a beacon of hope for many civil society groups, many say that no legislation can settle the trust deficit between civil society and the government; only sensitivity can.