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The Regulation Suffocating Christian Ministries in India

Designed to monitor foreign funding, more recently FCRA has crippled numerous organizations. Is it intentional?
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The Regulation Suffocating Christian Ministries in India
Image: saiko3p / Getty
Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Home Affairs building at Rajpath in New Delhi, India

Christian ministries operating in India are continuing to lose the government’s authorization to legally collect foreign donations, in what is amounting to a devastating financial blow to many organizations.

This March, Vision India, an organization that provides leadership training for Christian young people, was unable to renew its Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) license.

“A week prior, the government conducted an enquiry, and a week later, refused the renewal,” said Vijay Mohod, director of Vision India.

The then–prime minister of India, Indira Gandhi, introduced FCRA during the Emergency period in 1976, claiming there was foreign interference in domestic politics. The first FCRA required organizations intending to receive foreign contributions to register with the Ministry of Home Affairs. The subsequent iterations in 2010 and 2011 made this policy stringent, requiring organizations to renew their FCRA licenses every five years, among other new clauses, and its most recent iteration, passed in 2020 and amended in 2022, is even more restrictive. One clause, for example, requires all FCRA organizations to have their accounts at a specific branch of a bank and prohibits interorganizational grants.

Theoretically, these five-year licenses are renewed based on an organization’s annual submission of reports, detailing the foreign funds received and demonstrating they were properly utilized for their stated, approved purposes. However, as Christian ministries have failed to see their licenses renewed, some leaders have questioned if the government has an ulterior motive.

“So many organizations depend on foreign funding,” said archbishop Anil Joseph Thomas Couto, general secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI). “If they don’t receive funds, then many of their projects have to be kept on hold or completely removed.”

The first sizable organization of any faith to lose its FCRA license was Compassion International in 2017. At the time, the organization brought about $45 million annually into India, more than any charity.

As CT reported in 2017, Compassion was desperate to stay in the country:

[Compassion] talked to Indian lawyers and accountants. They testified before the US House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee. They asked then–Secretary of State John Kerry to mention them to his counterpart in India. (He did.) They asked sponsors to write their members of Congress. (More than 35,000 did.) They asked everybody they knew in positions of power both in the US and India for help.

“All along, both Compassion and its local offices remained committed to addressing the concerns raised by the government, but to no avail,” said the ministry’s president and CEO Santiago “Jimmy” Mellado.

He traced the license loss back to 2011, when India strengthened FCRA, giving it the power to regulate organizations it disagreed with philosophically. (Previously, an organization’s FCRA license had practically been for life.)

For many, the move was also seen as another step toward Hindu nationalism and authoritarianism since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s election in 2014. While the Home Ministry cites compliance issues and misuse of foreign funds, many NGOs accuse the government of taking an increasingly harsh approach to compliance that raises minor technicalities or directly targets groups over their ideological stances.

Last year, the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) and the Church of North India lost their licenses. The license of EFI, the umbrella body for evangelicals in India, was refused renewal for the stated reason that it would affect “prejudicially” the “public interest” and “harmony between religious, racial, social, linguistic, regional groups, castes or communities.”

“Given that EFI is involved significantly in interfaith, charity, and prayer initiatives to build bridges in society and to promote reconciliation and social harmony, it came as a surprise that the government would categorize us in this way,” said Vijayesh Lal, general secretary of EFI. “I have been told that perhaps we were punished for speaking about religious freedom for Christians and others through our various reports and because we have challenged violence against Christians in the Supreme Court as well as several anti-conversion laws in various high courts—but I hope that is not the case.”

In January, the Indian government canceled World Vision’s license after initially suspending it in 2022. Though the ministry, which has a presence in more than 6,000 “urban, rural and tribal communities,” has not left the country, it said it was “profoundly disappointed” and has still had to close projects and lay off staff supported by FCRA funds. The organization said that the decision would “have a significant impact on many vulnerable people across the country in the coming years.”

“The axe seems to be brought down more stringently on Christian organizations who may have made slight mistakes in some aspects or compliances of the law,” said archbishop Cuoto.

Though CBCI’s license was renewed last year after being on hold, the government has denied a license for the National Biblical Catechetical and Liturgical Centre (NBCLC) in Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore), and several other Catholic dioceses under CBCI in India have reported that their FCRA licenses are on hold, says Couto.

The loss of an FCRA license for another Christian organization, the Church’s Auxiliary for Social Action (CASA), has been crushing, says bishop Subodh C. Mondal, CASA’s vice chairperson.

“CASA’s entire work is jeopardized. They had to terminate close to 350 staff in India,” he said. “Ninety percent of their work is affected by this. We will apply afresh for FCRA.”

In many cases, the reasons stated for cancellation of FCRAs are often unclear and sometimes even illegitimate, said one leader of a reputed Christian NGO who spoke to CT on conditions of anonymity.

“It raises doubts about whether the current administration truly intends to allow any organization to operate and receive foreign funding in India going forward,” he said.

There seems to be no discernible pattern to the denials or cancellations of FCRA statuses, says another widely respected FCRA expert, who also requested anonymity.

“There is no clarity in terms of the reasons that they are giving. One cannot identify what went wrong and where,” said the expert. “Because [FCRA] is an internal security legislation, the courts also have held that the government is under no obligation to make it public (to elaborate on or explain the objections).”

The crackdown extends far beyond Christian organizations. Prominent secular human rights groups, humanitarian aid organizations, and policy groups have also lost their licenses. This includes Oxfam India, the Centre for Policy Research, CARE India, the Programme for Social Action, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, Amnesty International, as well as the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation and Charitable Trust headed by former Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi.

According to the Ministry of Home Affairs’ FCRA website, about 16000 NGOs and associations hold active FCRA licenses as of April 2024. The Home Ministry has revoked the FCRA registrations of over 20,701 NGOs or associations, but the website does not state how far that number dates back to.

In July 2023, a group of retired civil servants and officials called the Constitutional Conduct Group sent an open letter to Amit Shah, the minister of home affairs, expressing concern over what they termed the “harassment” of NGOs through selective FCRA enforcement. The letter urged the government to “cease needless harassment” of organizations providing vital services, especially to India’s “most marginalized and disadvantaged sections.”

NGOs have fought the Home Ministry’s decisions through appeals. But few exceptions have been made; in 2022 the government reinstated the FCRA registration for the Missionaries of Charity founded by Mother Teresa, less than two weeks after initially declining to renew it, citing vague “adverse inputs.”

The one-off reversal has done little to quell overall fears and outrage from NGOs and civil society advocates, who argue the widespread crackdown poses an existential threat to India’s democratic fabric and constitutionally protected rights like freedom of association. Critics contend the Modi government is intolerant of dissent and unwilling to accept criticism of its Hindu nationalist ideology and policies.

They allege the FCRA enforcement is being used as a systemic tool by the government to financially choke and muzzle NGOs working on issues like minority rights, human rights, transparency, and the alleged discrimination toward and religious persecution of minorities like Muslims and Christians under the rule of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. There are also concerns that the disruption of NGOs providing critical services could have devastating impacts on poverty, hunger, gender equality, and marginalized communities.

“It will definitely impact the work most of the charity sector is doing. It has a double whammy effect—both the beneficiary and the benefactor are affected,” said the NGO leader. “The [charity sector is] working at grassroots levels, and those are the people who are most affected. Lots of people’s livelihoods depend on NGOs, for it is the only vocation they have.”

Foreign policy analysts warn the domestic NGO crackdown risks damaging India’s global reputation and making Western nations and donors more reluctant to donate aid, given fears they may be blocked from reaching legitimate organizations.

Though some Indian organizations plan to reapply for their FCRA licenses, a few, like the Centre for Policy Research, have sued the Indian government. The think tank, which lost its license at the beginning of 2024 for allegedly misusing foreign funds, stated that the government’s decision made no sense and was too harsh, calling it “incomprehensible and disproportionate.” (The organization’s license was due for renewal in 2021, but it has faced numerous bureaucratic obstacles since.)

Most, however, may not take the way of confrontation via appeals out of fear of further crackdown.

“It is foolish to live in Rome and fight the pope,” said the FCRA expert.

April
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