15 April 2015 - The rise in bureaucratic harassment and demonisation of civil society organisations and activists in India is raising increasing concern. Defamatory public statements by senior government officials and the vilification of activists in the media have contributed towards a prohibitive operating environment for India’s civil society, says global civil society alliance, CIVICUS.
“Recent attempts to stigmatise civil society members who contribute to national life in myriad ways are severely tarnishing India’s reputation in the international sphere”, said Mandeep Tiwana, Head of Policy and Research at CIVICUS. “Mature democracies allow space for dissent and celebrate their civil societies. Activists supporting the rights of minorities and impoverished communities should be protected not targeted.”
In a speech delivered on 5 April 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged senior judges to ask themselves whether the judiciary was being driven by “five star activists” in an apparent attempt to paint the civil society sector as being elitist and out of touch with realities on the ground. Last month, the Delhi High Court legally rebuked the government’s “look-out notice” against Greenpeace activist, Priya Pillai who was off-loaded from a plane in January while on her way to London to speak to British Members of Parliament about the negative impacts of coal mining by a British company on the forests and local communities in the state of Madhya Pradesh. In addition, the Supreme Court recently declared that certain legal provisions within the controversial Information Technology Act were unconstitutional because they gave police sweeping powers to arrest anyone for posting “offensive” messages online. By design, these legal provisions were frequently used by authorities to target citizens who ridiculed influential politicians.
Civil society groups in India, particularly those working on land rights and environmental justice have been critical of the current BJP government’s pro-business policies which have included the loosening of environmental norms and restrictions on land acquisition and forest rights through executive orders and proposed amendments to existing legislation. The changes in legislation and policy are designed to favour large manufacturing and extractive industries to easily acquire land for their activities. Activists have argued that the proposed changes will work against the interests of small farmers and local communities, including indigenous peoples that rely on forests and natural resources for their subsistence. Many continue to face criticism from government officials and members of the ruling party for their work.
In June 2014, India’s Intelligence Bureau (IB) submitted a report to the Prime Minister’s Office declaring that several foreign funded NGOs were using “people centric issues” to create an environment which lends itself to stalling India’s economic development. Seven sectors/projects were listed as being adversely affected by NGO activities. These included nuclear power, uranium mining, thermal and hydroelectric power, farm biotechnology, extractive industries, and mega industrial projects.
Furthermore, India’s controversial Foreign Contributions Regulation Act, 2010 (FCRA) subjects civil society groups seeking to receive international funding to complicated bureaucratic requirements and exercise of executive discretion. In January 2015, the High Court of Delhi ordered executive authorities to release Greenpeace India’s funds received from abroad which were arbitrarily frozen. Earlier this month, on 9 April, the Central Government announced that it had suspended Greenpeace India’s licence to receive international funding under the FCRA.
“The restrictions imposed by the Government of India on Greenpeace India have now been dismissed twice by the Judiciary, in recent months. It is clear that organisations like them are being targeted because their views question the government’s development policies. India’s vibrant civil society is a national asset and an inseparable part of the country’s democratic culture,” said Tiwana.
CIVICUS urges the Government of India to create an enabling environment for civil society in line with its constitutional and international law obligations.