Narendra Modi govt’s crackdown on NGOs triggers chills on US campuses

India has long been a top destination for many projects that US universities carry out in partnership with NGOs


Samagra, a Pune-based NGO, runs a community toilet programme, which received a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in August 2014. Photo: P. Akhilesh/Mint
Samagra, a Pune-based NGO, runs a community toilet programme, which received a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in August 2014. Photo: P. Akhilesh/Mint

At universities across the US, students invent and innovate as part of projects often intended to benefit humanity. Pilot projects are implemented in sectors ranging from health and sanitation to education, in partnership with non-governmental organizations (NGOs), in regions of the world where the need is greatest. India has long been a top destination for many of these projects.

In 2014, for example, researchers from top US universities, including Duke, California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and Cornell, exhibited prototypes of the next-generation toilet at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s ‘Reinvent the Toilet Fair’ in India.

That level of engagement may now change as a consequence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s crackdown on NGOs.

The Modi government’s actions are “cutting India off from a lot of potential benefits in the world, not just money, but also real inventions and innovations”, said Thomas Blom Hansen, the Reliance-Dhirubhai Ambani professor of South Asian studies at Stanford University.

The crackdown in India has produced chills that are being felt on US campuses.

Students are “very worried by this and what this will mean, and whether their ability to work with people in India will be affected”, said Hansen.

The Modi government cancelled the registration of nearly 9,000 charities in April allegedly for failing to declare foreign donations and followed it up with another 4,470 cancellations in May and June, according to news reports.

The Obama administration responded with concern, but a State Department official, citing US policy not to comment on private conversations between governments, declined to say whether it had directly raised these concerns with the Modi government.

In public, however, Richard Verma, the US ambassador to India, said in a 6 May speech that he does worry about “the potentially chilling effects of these regulatory steps focused on NGOs”.

Marie Harf, who was at the time spokeswoman for the US state department, said the Obama administration is “concerned about the difficulties caused to civil society organizations by the manner in which the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act has been applied” in India.

As part of its crackdown, the Modi government suspended Greenpeace India’s licence and put US-based Ford Foundation on a security watch list, which would require it to seek government permission for any of its activities in India.

The Ford Foundation said in a statement that it would take “swift and appropriate steps” to incorporate any methods the government of India may suggest to “strengthen and improve our grant-making processes”.

In January, Greenpeace India activist Priya Pillai was prevented from boarding a flight from New Delhi to London. The government has since revoked its order barring Pillai from travelling abroad.

“These tactics are more reminiscent of the Soviet Union or current day People’s Republic of China rather than a country that takes pride in its democratic institutions and its commitment to civil liberties and personal freedoms,” said Sumit Ganguly, director of the Center on American and Global Security at Indiana University in Bloomington, referring to the targeting of Pillai.

“What’s the point of being a liberal democracy if you are so threatened by a foundation that spends a few million dollars in your country,” he added.

However, Hansen said it is not international NGOs but smaller Indian ones that are the real target of the crackdown.

“It’s a way of telling them that ‘if you start collaborating with international funders and larger NGOs across the world, we will put you under surveillance’. That’s the real message, and that’s very disturbing,” said Hansen, who is also the director of Stanford’s Center for South Asia.

“On the surface (the crackdown) looks like it’s about protecting India’s sovereignty, and a lot of people will buy into that argument. But the real effect is to make people in civil society and the NGO sector across India think twice before they start collaborating with anyone,” he added.

Not every foreign NGO working in India has been targeted. Spokespersons for two US foundations that are deeply engaged in India—the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation—said the crackdown has not affected their work.

Sarah Lewis, a spokeswoman for the Gates Foundation, said the foundation has no plans to change the way it operates in India.

And Neill Coleman, a spokesman for the Rockefeller Foundation, said the foundation has not experienced any change in its status in India. “We continue to engage in work on Smart Power India, including an event in April for this initiative which the minister of power attended,” he said.

“We are always mindful of complying with legal requirements in all countries where we support or fund work,” he added.

But unrelenting pressure from the government may force some international NGOs that have worked in India for decades to lessen their engagement and eventually shift focus elsewhere.

“There is a misperception among the Indian economic and political elite that India is, and can be, completely self-sufficient. It completely misrecognizes one of the great strengths in India compared with, say, China, that India has a long and deep connection with many, many different facets of the world economy, world circulation of knowledge, and people and so on,” said Hansen.

“If India is going to rise to be a new economic power, that is part of the asset that India has. This (crackdown) is squandering part of that asset on a cheap nationalist trick,” he added.

The Modi government isn’t the first to curb NGOs’ activities—previous governments have done so too.

“There is an element of hypocrisy,” Ganguly, who is also the Rabindranath Tagore chair in Indian cultures and civilizations at Indiana University, said of the criticism of the Modi government. While describing the Modi government’s actions as “deeply disturbing”, he added: “But they are also not entirely novel, except in so far that the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) has used a rather blunt instrument and has gone about it in a particularly crude way.”

In such an environment, what future do groups such as Greenpeace have in India?

“The question is not just about Greenpeace India’s future,” said Samit Aich, executive director of Greenpeace India. “The question is: what kind of a future does our democracy have? If the (ministry of home affairs) succeeds in silencing Greenpeace, who will be next?”

Ashish Kumar Sen is a Washington-based freelance journalist.

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