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Foreign contributions law used to target groups critical of Indian government

The Indian government should vigorously investigate allegations that officials are using the law on foreign contributions to repress groups critical of the government. The government should amend the 2010 Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act to protect the right to freedom of association and expression.

"The Indian government is using the Foreign Contribution Act to make advocacy groups toe the line," said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Nonprofit and advocacy groups say officials harass them with constant queries and threaten investigations in apparently deliberate efforts to curtail dissent."

In recent months, the Foreign Contribution Act has been used by Indian authorities to prevent organizations that question or criticize government policies and practices from receiving funding from abroad, Human Rights Watch said.

For instance, the act was used to target groups protesting against nuclear plants and big infrastructure projects. Among groups that lost permission to receive foreign funds was the Indian Social Action Forum, a network of more than 700 nongovernmental organizations across India. Human Rights Watch knows of at least two other groups doing important work opposing custodial torture and providing assistance to victims of domestic violence that are contending with inquiries from Home Ministry officials.

The Foreign Contribution Act was enacted to prohibit political parties, politicians, and election candidates from accepting foreign support to ensure that Indian elections were not affected by foreign interests. But provisions were also included making it compulsory for associations to register with the government before accepting any foreign contributions and for all nongovernmental organizations to renew their certification every five years.

Under the law, the central government can also restrict those allowed to obtain prior permission before accepting a foreign contribution, and to require information about what the contribution will be used for, the source of the funding, and how it is received.

The Indian government has often said that its independent and vocal civil society is the hallmark of a robust democracy. During the 2012 Universal Periodic Review at the United Nations Human Rights Council, several member countries called on India to ensure that local groups are allowed the freedom to operate with independence. The Indian government responded that it welcomes foreign funds for charitable purposes "but the same is subject to regulation to ensure that no money gets diverted to terrorist financing or money laundering."

In a 2008 letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, when the law was being amended, Human Rights Watch warned that the vague provisions of the act could have a stifling effect on nongovernmental organizations and their work. While the Indian government has legitimate concerns that foreign contributions are not used to jeopardize national security, laws relating to money laundering and other unlawful financial practices are better designed to prevent militant groups from obtaining resources. Other laws keep a check on corrupt or fraudulent not-for-profit entities.

The Foreign Contribution Act has been criticized internationally for restricting the right of nongovernmental organizations to freely seek and receive financial and other resources for their management and activities. During India's 2012 Universal Periodic Review, the United States specifically raised concerns over the application of the law to advocacy groups that created significant challenges to their funding.

UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders, Margaret Sekaggya, visited India in 2011, and expressed concerns that the act could lead to abuse by the authorities when reviewing applications of groups critical of the government. Sekaggya recommended that the National Human Rights Commission "monitor the denial of registration and permission to receive foreign funding for NGOs," with a view to amending or repealing the law.

India is setting a bad precedent in the region because several other countries are contemplating laws similar to India's to restrict advocacy groups, Human Rights Watch said. It called on the Indian authorities to investigate all denials, delays and cancellation of Foreign Contribution Act requests, and to reverse all decisions that are arbitrary, illegitimate, or influenced by political interests.

"The government praises India's robust civil society as a sign of the strength of the country's democracy while at the same time using the Foreign Contribution Act to quash criticism it doesn't like," Ganguly said. "The authorities should send a strong message to ensure that groups are spared undue harassment for protecting people's rights."

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