With laws like FCRA, govt stifles attempts by NGOs to bring about political change, clamps down on dissent
Laws like the FCRA hold NGOs back from fighting the government's crackdown on dissent and re-imagine ways to bring about political change.
Many have characterised the past four years as a period of crackdown on NGOs in India, and by extension, on dissent. Recent reports suggesting that the Prime Minister's Office has directed state intelligence to monitor the activities of NGOs only adds to the fear that these organisations are losing room to operate, and citizens will have to think of new ways to record dissent, or remain unheard.
Is that such a bad thing though?
The concept of a not-for-profit civil society found increasing global acceptance after the Cold War, with commentators linking it to an effort by Western democracies to spread liberal values worldwide and assist emerging former Soviet nations in shaping themselves. When seen in this light, the suspicion that NGOs attempt to shape a country's policies through foreign influence might make some sense.
Foreign influence on national policies is hardly absent in the Indian context, and in fact, is being sought to be raised in the political sphere. This is ironic given that the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) was passed during the Emergency to curb foreign funding to political parties. Therefore, the argument that NGOs are undermining India's sovereignty is shallow as foreign influence is ubiquitous.
Moreover, the State is cracking down on foreign-funded organisations, but at the same time, it is increasing privatisation of government functions. This indicates that NGOs now play a larger role in governance, be it in policy-framing, or in the provision of services such as running shelters or providing midday meals to students in government schools. This narrows down the resentment against NGOs to a smaller subset of organisations that are more confrontational with the government.
Simply put, civil society groups are great as long as they agree with the State; otherwise, they are a threat.
With the rise of nationalist movements worldwide, a push against what seems like Western hegemonic values represented by NGOs seems inevitable, and the threat to national sovereignty is an important plank of this argument. However, it is high time that individuals engaged in any form of radical politics, or those working with civil society organisations, stop dismissing this argument out of hand.
In Dylan Rodriguez's essay "The Political Logic of the Non-Profit Industrial Complex" in the anthology The Revolution Will Not be Funded, he argues that the bureaucratic nature of the non-profit sector determines their vision of political change, and consequently, restricts such change to only what the law and bureaucracy permits. He argues that by willingly submitting to the State's regulatory mechanism — laws like the FCRA in the Indian context — they remain "fundamentally tethered to the State".
NGOs do not allow for a break from current oppressive structures but merely teach us to co-opt them for potential immediate benefits, without any real reinterpretation of what change could look like. Anyone who has ever written a grant application knows the impossibility of actually achieving their goals within the parameters set by the funding agency.
The point is, having set up NGOs as pressure valves for nations emerging out of colonialism and into democracy, governments are now discovering their potential to foster dissent. NGOs have had a good run, and it is unlikely that any government — regardless of its leanings — will disregard the potential that bureaucratic strangleholds in the form of laws and regulations like the FCRA hold in stifling political change. The crackdown on NGOs is but a very visible tip of a persistent and far more brutal suppression of any kind of radical imagination and political action, the same that NGOs so often seek to moderate. However, it should also be a call to re-imagine what actual political change can look like, without the bureaucracy of NGOs holding us back.
Darshana Mitra is a lawyer, currently pursuing her masters at Columbia University.
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