The government’s admission that it refused to renew the foreign funding license of a prominent human rights organisation because it had allegedly portrayed India’s human rights record in a ‘negative light’ internationally could set a dangerous precedent for legitimate human rights work in India, Amnesty International India said today.

On 18 January, a representative of the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) filed an affidavit before the Delhi High Court stating that one of the reasons the Ministry had not renewed the foreign funding license of the Centre for Promotion of Social Concerns (CPSC) in October 2016 was because its Executive Director “was found to be providing material and information to UN Special Rapporteurs and US Embassy and British High Commission officials, portraying India’s human rights record in negative light”. It described the organization’s activities as “undesirable activities detrimental to national interest” and alleged that the organization had “helped foreign forces to project the image of India in a poor light”.

The CPSC, better known by its programme unit People’s Watch, has challenged the MHA’s decision to not renew its license under the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) in the Delhi High Court.

“The government’s affidavit reveals that the non-renewal of CPSC’s FCRA license was a blatant act of reprisal for its work, which includes engaging the United Nations and the larger international community to advance human rights,” said Aakar Patel, Executive Director at Amnesty International India.

“People’s Watch and its head Henri Tiphagne have a stellar record of human rights work in India. Like several other organizations, they also have a long history of engaging well-established international human rights mechanisms, many of which India itself has helped create.

“Civil society activism plays a crucial role in the international human rights framework. The Indian government must respect these norms if it wants to be taken seriously as a global power.”

Between October and December 2016, the government refused to renew or cancelled the FCRA licenses of dozens of NGOs without providing valid reasons. Among them were Citizens for Justice and Peace and Sabrang Trust, run by civil rights activists Teesta Setalvad and Javed Anand. The activists have been involved in justice for victims of the 2002 communal violence in Gujarat.

On 3 January 2017, India’s Central Bureau of Investigation charged the activists with violating the FCRA by having one of their publishing houses receive about INR 19 million from the Ford Foundation without the prior approval of the MHA. The CBI had said earlier that the transfer of the money to the publishing house reflected “interference towards the internal security and activities of India”. Teesta Setalvad has said that the publishing house had a consultancy contract with the Ford Foundation, which excluded it from the restrictions of the FCRA. The next hearing in the case is scheduled for 3 February.

“The charges against Teesta Setalvad and Javed Anand are politically motivated, and appear to be intended simply to persecute them for their human rights work,” said Aakar Patel.

Lawyers’ Collective, another prominent human rights organization whose FCRA license was cancelled and bank accounts frozen by the MHA in November 2016, has challenged the measures in court. On 30 January, the Bombay High Court ordered Lawyers Collective’s bank accounts to be unfrozen. It stated: “[T]he central government cannot stifle the very functioning and the activities of individuals or associations.”

“The government’s use of the FCRA to target NGOs is being shown up as the ill-conceived move it is. Instead of going after the messengers, the government should address the critical human rights issues raised by these organizations,” said Aakar Patel.