Leading non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are questioning an Intelligence Bureau (IB) report that red-flagged 188 NGOs for alleged misuse of foreign funds and suspected extremist links, saying the government should set up a probe to dig out the truth. Activists demanded the government explain how it drew up the list, with some saying targeting volunteer groups without proof was tantamount to a witch-hunt or harassment.
HT was the first to report that the internal spy agency had sent the home ministry a list of NGOs and that the country’s top tax body, the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT), and Enforcement Directorate (ED), which tracks foreign funds and money laundering, had also been alerted.
The reports were compiled over seven years, beginning 2006, and include global groups such as the Nobel Prize-winning Médecins Sans Frontières or Doctors Without Borders as well as leading Indian volunteer organisations such as civil society group Manushi Sangathan.
“What is the veracity of the charges in the IB report? I don’t know whether the charges are out of malicious intent or not but the entire process is definitely not transparent. The list was compiled during the previous UPA regime and the same NGOs are being targeted again,” said Madhu Kishwar, founder of Manushi Sangathan.
“We urge the government to enact a law that bans the use of foreign money for carrying out political or religious activity in the country.”
She said the government should set up a high-powered, time-bound commission of inquiry to probe if NGOs had been indulging in anti-national activities. Manushi Sangathan has been reported for misusing or misappropriating funds.
With more than 20 lakh registered NGOs and charities, India has a very vocal civil society that has seldom shied away from slamming government policy and excesses by security forces. But authorities have also long viewed such activism with suspicion, saying many NGOs have a vested interest in stalling the country’s development projects or legitimising insurgencies.
Given that NGOs are largely unregulated in the country, security agencies fear that some of them are fronts for foreign groups. The home ministry says nearly 23,000 NGOs are reported to have received about Rs 12,000 crore as foreign contributions between 2011 and 2012.
The French-founded MSF — reported three times by the IB — refused to comment when asked if NGOs were being targeted with no adequate proof. The 1999 Nobel Peace Prize winner has been accused of having links with pro-Maoist elements in tribal areas.
Greenpeace India, which has been at loggerheads with the Centre for blocking funds sent from its Amsterdam headquarters, called the government’s lens on NGOs a “form of harassment”.
“The government action against us has been extremely arbitrary. Despite our efforts, the only communication with the Union home ministry has been through the media. Other than a brief inspection of our tenure records last year in Chennai, we have had no interaction,” said Divya Raghunandan, the Greenpeace campaign director.
The government has to be transparent in its action against errant NGOs if it wants voluntary organisations to follow principles of accountability and transparency, said Harsh Mander, the former country director of ActionAid India.
“Whatever action the government takes has to be fully transparent and accountable, mere charges won’t do,” he said. “The issue is not of foreign funding of NGOs, but that of ethical values and transparency of the funding.”
Rajiv Malhotra, founder of Infinity Foundation, who has been doing voluntary work for the past 25 years, called the government’s action against NGOs as “treating the symptoms, not tackling the root cause”.