Democracy Lab

India's NGO Backlash

India prides itself on its respect for democratic values. So why are civil society groups under attack?

On July 10, India's recently elected government presented its draft budget to Parliament. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley's speech underwent the usual flurry of analysis -- most of which, however, glossed over a particularly insidious detail. Should it become law, the budget will grant revenue officials the power to revoke the registration and tax exemptions of any nongovernment organizations or charitable institutions that run afoul of the country's complex tax rules. The measure spells disaster for India's civil society organizations.

The budget proposal follows the furor over a report produced by one of India's domestic intelligence services that denounces the country's NGOs as fronts for foreign interests that are undermining India's development. The leaked report -- which claims that NGOs are responsible for a 2 to 3 percent loss to economic growth -- was handed to Narendra Modi, India's new right-wing prime minister, days after he took office, and it was circulated to a number of government ministries, prompting fears of an official clampdown.

Although the report names dozens of activists and organizations, it singles out Greenpeace as a "threat to national economic security." The organization, the report alleges, is using its "exponential" growth in terms of "reach, impact, volunteers, and media influence" to "create obstacles in India's energy plans." (The photo above shows Greenpeace activists staging a sit -in to protest the destruction of forests in Madhya Pradesh.) Also in the cross-hairs are groups such as Amnesty International and ActionAid, which are accused of sponsoring "anti-national" protests.

The report bemoans the disruption caused by NGOs in sectors spanning industry, technology, and natural resources, and it comes just as India's new government has pledged to fast-track applications for major construction projects. The coincidence exposes a clear commercial motive: NGOs in India have been particularly active in campaigning against large projects that are environmentally devastating. The report discredits this long and successful history of activism just as India's government has given the green light to firms seeking to exploit the country's natural and industrial potential.

"The government is adopting scare tactics," said Suhas Chakma, director of the Asian Center for Human Rights, in an interview with the Guardian. "It wants to ensure that nobody comes in the way of big projects." The People's Union for Civil Liberties, India's largest human rights organization, also reportedly blasted the report as an attempt to intimidate and silence activist groups. Some activists named in the report -- such as the anti-nuclear campaigner S.P. Udayakumar, who was accused of having "deep and growing connections" with the United States and Germany -- are considering legal action.

The demonization of India's watchdog agencies is neither new nor unexpected, but foreign funding is a particularly sensitive issue. In fact, India's Intelligence Bureau is not the only organ of state investigating the matter. In a follow-up to the report, India's Ministry of Home Affairs claimed that the country's NGOs are "vulnerable to the risks of money laundering and terrorist financing." And on July 4, India's Supreme Court directed the Central Bureau of Investigation, another domestic intelligence agency, to complete its probe into NGO finances after entertaining a public-interest lawsuit last year against the Hind Swaraj Trust, an outfit founded and run by the famous anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare.

Despite having full charitable status in accordance with Indian law, Greenpeace's Indian subsidiary is now subject to a new set of rigid rules. It must obtain the approval of the Ministry of Home Affairs before it can accept any future donations from the U.S.-based ClimateWorks Foundation or its parent body, Greenpeace International.

This policing of NGO finances has an insidious history. In India's war of attrition against civil society organizations, starving them of funds has been the preferred mode of attack. Last year, Human Rights Watch reported that the Indian government was using funding rules to "repress groups critical of the government." The report accuses the government of using ministerial harassment, the threat of criminal investigation, and restrictive financing regimes to force advocacy groups to "toe the line." The consequences have been far-reaching. In May 2013, the government revoked the right of the Indian Social Action Forum, an umbrella organization, to receive foreign funding, constraining the operations of its 700 subsidiaries. Last year, India's Ministry of Home Affairs froze the accounts of as many as 4,000 NGOs for violating rules on international funding. Groups across the spectrum -- campaigning on issues as diverse as torture, domestic violence, and minority representation -- have all been undercut in this way.

The chief culprit is the 2010 Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act. Originally passed as an anti-corruption law aimed at preventing politicians from taking bribes from abroad, the statute mandates an onerous system of financial hurdles for civil society groups. As Maja Daruwala, of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative in New Delhi, notes, under the act, India's NGOs are "unfairly overregulated." They must reregister every five years, cannot accept foreign funds for any activities dubbed "political" by the state, and are denied the investment opportunities available to other legal entities, forcing them to survive on charitable contributions.

This overregulation exposes a despicable double standard on foreign money. India is severing crucial international funding lifelines for NGOs even as it actively courts foreign investment in key industries, including defense, infrastructure, and insurance. Indeed, the July 10 budget speech was a sustained signaling exercise, rolling out sweeping reforms in an effort to seduce international investors.

Campaigners across the globe have fought hard to free India's advocacy groups from these restrictive controls. In 2011, Margaret Sekaggya, then the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights defenders, and, in 2012, the U.N. Human Rights Council's Universal Periodic Review committee both called on India to reform its laws to ensure that civic organizations can operate with freedom and independence. In the absence of such protections, Indian NGOs are left with only two options: They must self-censor or close shop.

Of course, not all nonstate groups are benign. It was the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti (Save Education Movement), a group that claimed to be safeguarding collective interests, that forced the recent pulping of The Hindus, a history of Hinduism by University of Chicago scholar Wendy Doniger. The group sued Penguin, the book's publisher, for offending religious sentiments, triggering a four-year legal battle that ended with Penguin's capitulation earlier this year, when it agreed to an out-of-court settlement. Emboldened by this victory, the Save Education Movement has now set its sights on other works of art and literature that it has deemed transgressive.

Yet it's not this sort of activity that prompts the ire of NGO critics. The Intelligence Bureau report taps into a deep well of knee-jerk public hostility toward nonstate groups, especially those that are nonnative. The Intelligence Bureau's conclusions raise some important questions about the quality of India's nonstate space: How tolerant is the government of critical voices? How willing is it to remedy complaints and be held to account? The Intelligence Bureau report dismisses the work of some of India's most prominent NGOs as "anti-national" -- a nebulous offense encompassing almost anything that goes against the government's platform. Some political groups have welcomed the possibility of a clampdown, accusing NGOs of falsely claiming to be working in the public interest to avoid scrutiny. The vagueness of these charges reflects a mounting threat to Indian civil society.

The tragedy is that the Intelligence Bureau's fresh assault on NGOs is entirely unprovoked. Claims that NGOs have held back India's growth are highly dubious. There is little evidence of a nefarious "foreign hand" at work, and there is scant suggestion that NGOs have broken any laws. But the damage has already been done. India's Ministry of Home Affairs called a meeting on July 4, after the leaked report made headlines, and decided that the implementation of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act needed to be "tightened" and that there should be "greater scrutiny of those NGOs about whom the government has [received] an adverse report."

As Daruwala has argued, "True democracies celebrate involvement of citizens." The covert war that India has waged against civil society groups places serious hurdles in the way of popular participation and corrupts the quality of nonstate space. First, the demonization of NGOs diminishes India's proud history of civic activism, which deserves credit for everything from catalyzing the country's independence movement to campaigns for women's rights. But more worrying is the creation of a climate of fear and self-restraint. As the anti-nuclear campaigner Achin Vanaik said in the aftermath of the report to the Guardian, "We are fearful that this is a kind of witch hunt with longer-term implications to repress all kinds of popular struggles."

Photo by PUNIT PARANJPE/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

'Strike Him with an Axe'

A pro-Russian separatist's how-to guide for terrorizing eastern Ukraine includes advice on robbing banks, sabotage, and staging drive-by shootings.

With each passing hour it looks increasingly likely that pro-Putin militants are responsible for shooting down the Malaysian airliner over eastern Ukraine. (President Obama said today that the missle that destroyed the plane came from "territory controlled by the Russian separatists.") This really shouldn't come as a surprise. The pro-Russian fighters have already shown that they're utterly ruthless in their efforts to subvert the Ukrainian state.

A recently released report by Amnesty International charges the rebels with "savage beatings and other torture meted out against activists, protesters and journalists in eastern Ukraine over the last three months." Ukrainian officials accuse the separatists of using local civilians as "human shields" and of shelling apartment buildings. Pro-Russian militants have also firebombed vehicles as well as blown up bridges, mines, and refineries.

Such tactics are not random excesses. To the contrary, they are entirely premeditated -- as one can see from a handbook for insurgents recently published by one of the leaders of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, as the leading separatist group in eastern Ukraine refers to itself. Pavel Gubarev, the self-styled "governor" of Donetsk and the leader of the Novorossiya (New Russia) movement, recently posted the manual, entitled "Methodological Guide for Struggle Against the Junta," on his personal website. (The "junta" is the separatists' name for the Ukrainian government in Kiev.) There is no reason to doubt the authenticity of the document.

Gubarev begins the manual by admonishing those who take up the fight against the government in Kiev to maintain maximum operational security. He then outlines how to form a group, train, and obtain weapons and cash.

"Cops have always had a lot of informers, and you won't be able to just go and recruit volunteers," Gubarev warns, urging his followers to recruit no more than four supporters. "These should be people you know and believe or those who have bloody debts to the junta." He cautions would-be recruiters against ubiquitous "informers," and to remember that they themselves will be regarded as such by potential volunteers for the cause. "Winning people's confidence will not be easy."

The next step is to find money, transport, reliable communications, and weapons. Robbing banks is dangerous, says Gubarev, so smashing ATM machines is the way to go. Access to a large number of used cars and throwaway cell phones is also advisable. As for weapons, "the best way is to acquire them from criminal acquaintances." He bemoans the fact that "idealists well-disposed toward the partisan movement are not likely to have such acquaintances." And he warns that "there are many informers among the criminals, even at the top levels of the criminal hierarchy."

Attacking and disarming Ukraianian police forces is risky, he observes, as is buying weapons from Ukrainian soldiers. The most practical approach is to "rob weapons depots. This is also a risky and serious operation, but at least the chances of success are higher."

Of critical importance, according to Gubarev, is that all this be done under the strictest secrecy. "The stable forces of the regime are all around," he counsels. "Your group is in danger." So he offers a series of prescriptions, incuding use of pseudonyms, abstinence from alcohol, and the concealment of identifying marks, including tattoos: "Attract no attention to yourselves; wear gray." Home computers and personal cellphones should never be used for operational purposes. Identifying documents should never be carried. Details of military operations should never be discussed on phones or in front of family members. Gubarev also advises that fellow partisans should wear gloves to hide their fingerprints. "If time permits," he adds, "read books and watch films for tips about self-concealment. In the USSR and Eastern Europe in the 1940s-1960s these things were well illustrated in films."

Gubarev then recommends three primary forms of action: Liquidating individual enemy fighters, shooting at cars, and random acts of terror.

As for the first, these are, in essence, "simple killings." A rebel who happens to see one or two government soldiers leaving their base should shoot them, then "get in your car and run." One particularly effective way of killing soldiers is to target them as they're tending to their natural needs in the bushes: "Many people have been killed, captured, or robbed in this manner. You don't have to shoot the man; you can strike him with an axe, with almost no resistance on his part. But it's better not to use cold steel until you've killed a few men: it could be risky if you're not morally prepared for such an action and your hand hesitates."

Gubarev devotes a brief paragraph to the topic of "shooting at cars," by which he means, essentially, "ambushes" against enemy forces. Acts of terror, meanwhile, are of far greater interest to him. They should, he emphasizes, be directed against "bands of nationalists," "little Nazis," and sundry other civilian supporters of the Maidan uprising and the central government in Kiev. "Use your car to approach these people quickly and suddenly, and open fire on them through the windows of your car. Crush those who try to hide and those who are wounded." Indeed, he advises, "shoot without hesitation, even minors and girls. They aren't dealing with you in the same manner only because they're stupid; remember that they wouldn't spare you." (This section of Gubarev's manifesto earned him a rebuke from United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay. "Such blatant incitement to violence is utterly reprehensible and a clear violation of international human rights law," she said in a statement issued earlier this month.)

The actions touted by Gubarev have three goals. Fighters should "weaken the rear of the Ukrainian armed forces, the National Guard, and the paramilitary formations, all of which will help the fighters in the East." (Interestingly, elsewhere in the document he advises fellow rebels to abstain from attacking police or Interior Ministry troops, since these are "potential allies in the future" -- perhaps alluding to groups such as the Berkut paramilitary police, who were accused of killing pro-democracy demonstrators during the uprising against former President Viktor Yanukovych.)  Next, the rebels should conduct operations "aimed at destabilizing political conditions in the region." And finally, they should aim at "the physical destruction of the fighters of the junta and its leading personnel." In pursuing these goals, fighters are encouraged to engage in outright provocations: "Don't pass up any opportunity to engage in some atrocity that can be blamed on the junta's fighters."

Gubarev ends his manual with an upbeat epilogue. Fighting, he notes, has already broken out in cities such as Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk, and Odessa. "The process has begun. The former Ukraine is bankrupt. It won't survive for long: within a year, or possibly until the New Year, it definitely won't exist in its current boundaries."

Is compromise possible with the likes of Gubarev? Probably not. He detests Ukraine and Ukrainians, and his agenda consists of little more than terrorism. Can Russian President Vladimir Putin control him? That, too, is by no means clear: fanatics such as Gubarev are by definition uncontrollable.

If so, the Poroshenko government may have no choice but to attempt to crush Gubarev and his militant groups. The bad news, for Kiev, is that Gubarev is implacable and is willing to die. The good news is that his manual clearly, if unintentionally, reveals that the militant groups are isolated, on the run, and in constant fear of exposure. His open admission that "[w]inning people's confidence will not be easy" hardly reflects deep popular support. As the document stresses, the terrorists cannot trust the local population, not even the local criminals who in the early days of the insurgency actually comprised a significant portion of the fighters. Nor can they rely on their own comrades to remain silent, if captured, for more than a "few hours."

Moreover, their worries about money, arms, transport, and communications are never-ending. Gubarev devotes a large part of the manual to the weary task of replenishing supplies after a terrorist act has been carried out -- and have no easy solutions. Worst of all for Gubarev, the Ukrainian security forces appear to be strong, alert, and relatively immune to corruption: "Your chances are slight, and there's a high probability that the SBU [Ukrainian Security Service] or the cops will eliminate you."

It would be naïve to think that Putin does not know who his proxies in eastern Ukraine are or what sort of means they routinely employ against civilians and soldiers. While the airline shootdown is almost certainly the handiwork of the pro-Russian thugs in eastern Ukraine, ultimate responsibility for the atrocity must lie with Putin.   After all, Russia has been providing the separatists with the very money, arms, transport, and communications they so desperately need. In the week before the shootdown, the Kremlin escalated its intervention in Ukraine to the point that "war" is the more accurate term for Russia's aggressive activities. Given such a context, it's hardly surprising that the rebels have declared war on everything Ukrainian -- or on everything, such as the Malaysian plane, they thought was Ukrainian.