Choking the charity’s funding is one of the expected consequences of Hindu nationalism.
On December 19 this year, India’s nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi recalled his meeting with Pope Francis in October at the Vatican when he invited the head of the Catholic world to the country. “This is the greatest gift you've given me,” Modi quoted the Pope as saying about the invite.
Barely a week later, Modi’s government barred the Missionary of Charity — founded by Catholic nun Mother Teresa — from receiving foreign funds that sustain its work for the poor, from education, medical care, social assistance to disaster relief.
The irony was not lost on anybody. In 2016, the Pope had bestowed sainthood on Mother Teresa, a 1979 Nobel Peace Prize winner who was born to Albanian parents. She came to India in 1950 and founded the Missionaries of Charity in Kolkata, where she lived for most of her life. She died in 1997.
True to its tradition, the charity found itself in international headlines again this week — albeit for the wrong reasons.
Once the news broke that the Indian government has refused to renew the organisation’s license to receive foreign funding under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), it triggered disbelief and consternation the world over.
Coming in the backdrop of increasing attacks on churches and Christmas day celebrations across the country, the government move put the very future of the charity under a cloud. It heightened fears that the organisation run by Christian missionaries could have run afoul of India’s ruling dispensation that propagates the primacy of its Hindu population over communities of other religious faiths. Christians constitute a minuscule 2 percent of India’s 1.2 billion population.
Though the charity has not been barred from functioning, the cutting off of foreign funding could seriously endanger its operations and imperil the well-being of those that the organisation shelters. By rough estimates, some 22,000 individuals, including abandoned babies, are currently looked after by the charity that received some 1,099 crore Indian rupees (around $148 million) in foreign donations over the past 15 years.
Modi vs NGOs
The non-renewal of the license naturally drew sharp reactions from those critical of the government. “While the law is paramount, humanitarian efforts must not be compromised,” cautioned Modi-critic Mamata Banerjee. Kolkata, the global headquarters of the charity, is the regional capital of the West Bengal state that Banerjee governs as the head of a political party opposed to Modi.
That the charity, despite its global stature, is no more a favourite of the Indian government has been evident for some time. The police in Gujarat – the home state of Modi – registered a complaint against it earlier this month for ‘forcing girls to read Christian religious texts and participate in prayers’. Further, Nishikant Dubey - a member of parliament belonging to Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party – accused the charity recently of furtively encouraging religious conversions.
But more than anything else, the charity’s troubles have highlighted the Indian government’s fraught ties with non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
Enjoying a brute majority in parliament, Modi’s government has a reputation of being extremely impatient with criticism. It is also said to be suspicious of civil society, which it views as an impediment to India’s development.
A report by the Intelligence Bureau soon after Modi stormed to power in 2014 accused several NGOs of impacting the country’s GDP growth negatively by up to 3 percentage points by opposing several of its development projects.
Many of the NGOs – and India has tens of thousands of them – suffer from a lack of transparency and have often been dogged by accusations of corruption.
But it is also undeniable that many of them act as watchdogs and have consistently raised issues of public importance, often vigorously disagreeing with the government.
Many of them were actively involved in the recent protests that raged against three farm laws that the Modi government wanted to enforce to reform the ailing agricultural sector. Modi was forced to repeal the laws in the face of stiff opposition.
The hostility between NGOs and the Indian government has a long history. Several outfits had on the grounds of public safety and environmental concerns opposed a nuclear project in Kudankukum in south India in 2012, prompting a government crackdown.
Ties, however, have markedly deteriorated since Modi assumed power in 2014. A slew of new rules has tightened the screws on NGOs, forcing some very big names such as Amnesty, Greenpeace India and the Ford Foundation to effectively shut shop in India.
One such bizarre rule was that every NGO in a vast country such as India that receives foreign funds must receive them through a particular bank branch in Delhi.
Organisations such as Amnesty were repeatedly raided too by government agencies. Amnesty finally ceased operations last year, shortly after it brought out two damning reports – one on Kashmir after it was controversially stripped of its special status by the Indian government, and the other on communal riots that rocked Delhi in early 2000.
The latter reconfirmed popular perception that the police were complicit in the violence.
Statements by top Indian officials have shone light on the deepening distrust that has come to engulf relations between the government and the NGOs, many of which focus on sensitive issues such as human rights and civil liberties.
Addressing a meeting of the National Human Rights Commission some months ago, Modi criticised the 'selective approach’ of some of the outfits and accused them of “denting India’s image and that of democracy”.
Ajit Doval, his national security adviser, also struck an ominous note when he recently told a batch of new police officials to be wary of civil society. According to him, civil society was the new frontier of war as it could be manipulated against the nation’s interests.
Critics of the government say the Missionaries of Charity could well be in the crosshairs of the predominantly Hindu nationalist government primarily over such apprehensions.
The good work done by Christian missionaries is a cause for suspicion at a time when India is high on Hindu nationalism. Choking the charity’s funding is therefore an expected consequence.
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