Last Friday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi used the words “Urban Naxals” to describe those he said were stalling the construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam. This continues a common theme where he has attacked what is called “civil society”, which he sees as an enemy.
On February 21, 2016, he had said at a rally in Bhubaneshwar that he was “a victim of a conspiracy by NGOs”. This conspiracy, he claimed, was aimed at “finishing” him and removing his government. As evidence for this, he said: “You would have seen that morning to night, I am being attacked. Some people keep at it.”
Civil society, he said, was “also upset because I told a few NGOs to give us an account of the foreign funds that they spend here. They ganged up and said ‘beat Modi, beat Modi, he’s asking us for an account of our expenditure’.” The PM added: “They conspire from morning to night on ‘how do we finish Modi, how do we remove his government, how do we embarrass Modi?’. But my friends, you have voted me to rid the country of these diseases.”
It appears that Prime Minister Modi has to a large extent succeeded in achieving this goal. In December 2019, Parliament was told that since Mr Modi had taken office, 14,500 NGOs had been barred from accessing foreign funding. Funding collapsed by 90 per cent from $2.2 billion in 2018 to $295 million in 2019. It is not known how many Indians were affected because of this, not only the employees of the NGOs but those people who they were working with and for.
Mr Modi’s attack on the NGOs manifested in different forms of coercive action and through use of criminal law. Most notably, through changes in the FCRA law. The Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act appeared in 1976 as a piece of legislation aimed at preventing external interference in India’s electoral process and democracy. It prohibited the receiving of foreign money to political parties and their candidates, journalists and newspaper publishers, judges, bureaucrats and members of Parliament.
In time, economic liberalisation meant that many of these categories of people were allowed to get foreign money and the Indian government, in fact, actively promoted the bringing in of such money. For instance, the media, both print and television as well as online, could receive foreign investment.
Even political parties managed to get themselves off the hook on FCRA. On March 28, 2014, the Delhi High Court had held that the BJP and the Congress were guilty of FCRA violations. The parties escaped through a change in the Union Budget of 2016, when the definition of foreign source was changed, legitimising donations received by political parties. With the electoral bonds scheme, the BJP and other parties were free to accept unlimited and even anonymous contributions from foreign sources. What remained regulated in the law were the non-government organisations, or NGOs. These were relentlessly squeezed and defunded through FCRA amendments under Prime Minister Modi.
The changes were in the main four — first, that the 23,000 NGOs which had an FCRA licence to receive foreign money could receive the funds only in the Parliament Street branch of the State Bank of India in New Delhi. The second change was that the NGO could spend only 20 per cent of the money it received on “administrative expenses”. Salaries, travel expenses, rent and all such things that constitute the bulk of what most NGOs spend their outlay on could only receive 20 per cent of the total. Third, that the law now prevented an NGO from redistribution of the funds it had received to other NGOs even if they were FCRA-compliant. This would hit the sector as NGOs do not compete with one another as the rest of the private sector does, and operate as networks. This change would damage their alliances and capacity to work with one another. Fourth, the law required that NGOs registering or renewing their FCRA licence would have to mandatorily give the Aadhaar numbers of all office-bearers, directors or other key functionaries. It also gave the government the authority at its discretion to suspend the FCRA for as long as it wanted. This is, needless to say, not how the rest of the private sector is treated. The corporate sector is not ordered to spend its money in a particular way or regulated in this seemingly arbitrary fashion. Such action is reserved for NGOs.
This kind of antagonism towards civil society was not new. As the chief minister of Gujarat, Mr Modi had said in a 2014 speech: “Another conspiracy — a vicious cycle is set up. Funds are obtained from abroad; an NGO is set up; a few articles are commissioned; a PR firm is recruited and, slowly, with the help of the media, an image is created. And then awards are procured from foreign countries to enhance this image. Such a vicious cycle, a network of finance-activity-award is set up and, once they have secured an award, no one in Hindustan dares raise a finger, no matter how many the failings of the awardee.”
As Prime Minister, he has had the agency and the freedom to go along with his desire to severely damage, if not entirely finish off, India’s civil society. And in substantial measure, through innovative ways, he has managed to achieve this.