India: Halt judicial harassment of rights groups over foreign funding

CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance, condemns the recent case filed by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) against the Centre for Promotion of Social Concern (CPSC) and its programme unit called People's Watch on allegations of 'conspiracy' and 'illegal foreign funding withdrawal' under the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA), 1976.

We call on the Government of India to halt the judicial harassment against the organisation and their staff and refrain from further weaponising the FCRA to curb the work of civil society and human rights defenders in the country.

The Centre for Promotion of Social Concern (CPSC), founded in 1981, is the umbrella for several initiatives, including People's Watch. CPSC is a prominent human rights organisation working relentlessly to advocate for various cases of human rights violations - including death under custody, extrajudicial killings and caste atrocities.

The CBI filed the recent criminal case against the CPSC and Peoples Watch on 6 January 2022, based on a complaint made by the Ministry of Home Affairs in 2012 and 2013 for allegations of illegally receiving foreign funding. The complaint was challenged before the High Court of Delhi in 2014, which issued a ruling to permit CPSC to operate accordingly. Two days after the case was filed, CBI officials searched CPSC and People's Watch' premises in Madurai and confiscated documents for investigation, assuring it would return.

There has also been a striking failure of the National Human Rights Commission to effectively intervene in the matter despite a case being filed with it since 2016.

"The case against CPSC and Peoples Watch is another attempt by the Indian government to weaponise the FCRA to restrict civil society and to intimidate those who exercise their civic and fundamental freedoms in the country. It is an attack against activists who dare to criticise the government and to expose the truth around human rights violations the authorities have committed," said Cornelius Hanung, Asia Advocacy and Campaigns Officer of CIVICUS.

Other civil society groups had the FCRA registration suspended or revoked in recent months, many without further explanation. Without the registration, the organisations would not be allowed to receive funding from foreign donors.

The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) had its FCRA registration suspended in June 2021, following which the group challenged in the Delhi High Court. According to provisions of Section 13 in the Act, the suspension lasts 180 days each time. In December 2021, a second suspension order was issued.

Oxfam India on 5 January said that the Central government has refused to renew its FCRA registration which would severely affect the organisation's ongoing crucial humanitarian and social work in 16 states. It is still unclear what led to Oxfam India losing its registration.

CIVICUS has previously documented how the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act 1976 and its amendments in 2018 and 2020 impose discriminatory restrictions on civil society organisations' access to funding, making their authorisation procedure onerous, highly bureaucratic and difficult to navigate, under the pretext to keep foreign influences checked in India. Over the years, it has been invoked against human rights groups to justify an array of highly intrusive measures, ranging from official raids on NGO offices and freezing of bank accounts to suspension or cancellation of registration.

The United Nations has also raised concerns about the FCRA, saying that it is 'actually being used to deter or punish NGOs for human rights reporting and advocacy that the authorities perceive as critical in nature.' Groups forced to shut down in recent years due to this law include Greenpeace and Amnesty International India.

"Instead of tightening its grip on civil society, the government should nurture an environment that enables its people to exercise their fundamental freedoms without fearing reprisal. All laws and regulations that hinder this aspiration should be revised or repealed," said Cornelius Hanung.

ABOUT CIVICUS

CIVICUS is a global alliance of civil society organisations dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society around the world. CIVICUS has more than 10,000 members worldwide.

CIVICUS Monitor is an online platform that tracks the fundamental rights of freedom of assembly, association and expression in countries across the world. The CIVICUS monitor rates India' civic space as repressed.