New Delhi — Global human rights organization Amnesty International has halted operations in India, accusing the government of an “incessant witch-hunt” and “constant harassment” over its reports criticizing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.
Indian authorities froze Amnesty’s bank accounts earlier this month for allegedly receiving foreign funds illegally, a charge the rights group denies. The organization said it had been forced to lay staff members off and pause its work in India because it could not access its funds.
“India’s stature as a liberal democracy with free institutions, including media & civil society organizations, accounted for much of its soft power in the world. Actions like this both undermine our reputation as a democracy & vitiate our soft power,” Shashi Thraoor, a member of the opposition Indian National Congress party, said on Twitter about the government’s action against Amnesty.
“Guilty unless proven otherwise”
Amnesty’s bank accounts were frozen just days before the Indian government tightened up laws on foreign funding for non-governmental organizations.
The Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) 2020, approved by India’s Parliament last week, gave the government sweeping new powers to cancel FCRA certificates issued to non-profit groups, prohibited the transfer of foreign funds to any other organization, put a cap on administrative expenses at 20%, and requires organizations to have a bank account in Delhi, among other restrictions.
Major non-profit groups and social workers in India see the new law as a crackdown by the government, and warn it could cripple them as the Asian nation grapples with major economic, social and health challenges, including the.
The Population Foundation of India (PFI), a non-profit that has promoted family planning, women’s empowerment and literacy in India for 50 years, warned that the new laws “will kill collaboration and cooperation amongst NGOs.” The organization said the government appeared to be “looking at all foreign contributions with suspicion,” which it said could damage India’s global reputation as a free democracy.
“These amendments also assume that NGOs that are receiving foreign funds are guilty unless proven otherwise,” said Poonam Muttreja, executive director of the PFI. “We are here because of the failure of the executive and government, because they do not do their jobs and we come in to fill the gaps.”
“This is the worst possible time to hamper civil society… just when this country needs its entire civil society to work together with the private sector and the government to address the multiple,” the Voluntary Action Network India (VANI), an alliance of more than 550 non-profit groups in the country, said during a press conference last week
Indian government data show there are more than 20,000 non-profit groups registered to receive foreign grants under the FCRA. Many of these organizations have worked for years with smaller