CIVICUS, a global civil society alliance, is extremely concerned about the Indian authorities’ latest investigation against Oxfam India for alleged violations of the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA). This action continues a worrying trend of law enforcement agencies being systematically used to persecute civil society organisations (CSOs). FCRA regulates the acceptance and use of foreign funding for civil society.
The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) registered a First Information Report (FIR) on 19 April 2023, accusing Oxfam of “planning to pressurise” the Indian government for FCRA licence renewal through foreign governments and institutions. Oxfam India is also accused of receiving funds after its FCRA had ceased, continuing to “pay sub grants to various partners” following a 2020 ban, and circumventing an FCRA-designated account between 2013 and 2016 by routing funds. The CBI also carried out searches at its office.
On 6 April 2023, Oxfam India claimed that it was ‘fully compliant with Indian laws and has filed all its statutory compliances, including Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) returns, in a timely manner since its inception’.
This is the latest attempt to harass and intimidate the Oxfam staff. In January 2022, the government refused to renew Oxfam India’s FCRA licence. The organization has filed a plea in the Delhi High Court against the decision. In September 2022, the Income Tax Department conducted an invasive “income tax ‘survey’” of Oxfam India, during which staff were not allowed to leave the premises and denied access to communication devices with the internet shut down by the authorities.
“The investigation against Oxfam India is the latest attempt to target an organisation that has worked for more than 70 years in the country to end discrimination and create a free and just society. Hindering it will affect thousands of people who benefit from its services. CIVICUS calls on the authorities to halt the judicial harassment against them and their staff immediately,” said David Kode, Advocacy and Campaigns Lead at CIVICUS.
As a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), India must respect, protect and fulfil the right to freedom of association.
The CIVICUS Monitor has documented how the FCRA of 2010 and its amendments in 2018 and 2020 impose discriminatory restrictions on CSOs access to funding and makes their authorisation procedure difficult to navigate and highly bureaucratic, under the pretext of preventing foreign influence 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.
United Nations experts have raised At India’s review at the Human Rights Council in November 2022, several states called for the repeal or amendment of the FCRA to ensure the right to freedom of association.
“As a democracy, India must create a safe and enabling environment for civil society organisations to conduct their work instead of seeking to criminalise NGOs or squeeze their funding. The government must review the draconian FCRA to bring it in compliance with the ICCPR and other international human rights law and standards” added Kode.
Civic space in India is rated as "Repressed" by the CIVICUS Monitor.