US ambassador to India Richard Verma Wednesday expressed “concern” over the “potentially chilling effects” of regulatory steps taken by the Narendra Modi government against certain NGOs, including the Ford Foundation.
“Both of our countries are home to vibrant and vocal civil society organisations seeking change in every conceivable area. India is home to a vibrant community of over two million legally registered NGOs. The US also has a robust civil society community,” he said.
“With so many voices engaged in the debate, there are sure to be some whose views others find objectionable. That is part of the beauty of the vibrant, thriving democracies we have chosen. I read with some concern the recent press reports on challenges faced by NGOs operating in India. Because a vibrant civil society is so important to both of our democratic traditions, I do worry about the potentially chilling effects of these regulatory steps focussed on NGOs,” he added.
Verma was delivering a lecture on the ‘Foundation of the US-India strategic-plus relationship’ at Ananta Aspen Institute, a think-tank.
He said those who act peacefully to seek change are not anti-government, nor are they trying to weaken national security. “I believe in the inalienablhoe right of citizens in a democratic society to argue peacefully for a government they believe is more just, more moral, and more reflective of their individual beliefs. This is the same right that found a manifestation in Gandhiji’s satyagrahas in Africa and India,” he added.
In a crackdown on NGOs allegedly receiving illegal foreign funds, the government last month cancelled the licences of nearly 9,000 such entities for violation of the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act.
The US-based Ford Foundation has also been put on the ‘watch list’ by the Home Ministry, which directed that funds coming from the international donor suld not be released by any bank to any Indian NGO without mandatory permission from it. The government also barred Greenpeace India from receiving foreign funds.
Verma said he was looking forward to some tough discussions with India on certain issues, indicating that action against NGOs may be one of them. “I also know there will be times when we disagree, and I look forward to those conversations, too,” he said.
After the Ford Foundation was put on the watch list, the US State Department had protested against the decision. The issue is also understood to have been raised by under secretary for political affairs Wendy Sherman during her meetings with senior Indian officials here last week.
The US envoy said the perception is that “regulatory actions that are being taken (against NGOs) could have a chilling effect on speech and expression”.
Asserting that democracy was much more than elections, Verma said, “We cannot avoid hard questions in the name of political expediency. We cannot avoid discussions simply because we might not like the answers.”