For a while now, Greenpeace has been in the >cross hairs of the government , first under the UPA and now under the BJP, as it championed civil liberties and causes. Its activists have been prevented from travelling abroad. The non-governmental organisation (NGO) stands accused of concealing and mixing foreign contributions with local contributions. The latest step by the Ministry of Home Affairs simply cancelling Greenpeace’s registration was but an expected next stage in the chain of events leading to a gag that is meant to choke. The obvious assumption is that without funds Greenpeace in India will not be able to function. This has come even as a petition from Greenpeace seeking release of funds to pay its staff, and alleging arbitrariness in the government’s action, is before the Delhi High Court. The action taken under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) — which many NGOs say is a bad application of a poorly drafted piece of legislation — means Greenpeace will not be able to receive any foreign donations. The move has made other NGOs vulnerable too; they face a tough choice, of either complying with the government’s line, or fading out. The media have reported that the invoking of the provisions of the Act followed certain actions by Greenpeace that were deemed inimical to the economic interests of the state. Everything from placing advertisements in newspapers to organising protests against the Kudankulam nuclear plant to anti-nuclear activism, was deemed inimical. Already there is word of some NGOs trying to tailor their activities to suit the interests of the government. What can a democratically elected government possibly achieve by enforcing such compliance and conformity?
Also, it is time to have another look at the FCRA. Passed in 1976 and amended in 2010, it has come in for criticism not only for the overarching control it seeks to have over people-based movements but also for the guidelines framed around it. The MHA is now changing the rules, spelling out what NGOs are required to do, even seeking to scrutinise their social media engagement. Whether the MHA should be looking into expenditure incurred by an NGO to teach street children, for instance, is a moot question. There is hypocrisy involved when some political parties are free to receive corporate donations, especially from abroad, without any questions asked. Equally, all NGOs must respect the law of the land, maintain transparency and remain above board: admittedly, there are some black sheep. Most of them comply; some don’t. But that should be no excuse to gag. Civil liberties and free speech go hand in hand. The government will be ill-advised to trample on these.