The Centre’s “refusal” to renew the registration of the Missionaries of Charity under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) raises troubling questions. The home ministry is not being very forthcoming in answering them. It has said its decision is based on “adverse inputs” on the charity organisation founded by Mother Teresa, but has not elaborated on what those inputs were. The lack of transparency is worrying, especially in the larger context of how FCRA rules have, over the years, been progressively hardened to give the government sweeping powers over NGOs. The action is also mystifying given that the Missionaries of Charity is an organisation with a long and distinguished record of humanitarian service that began in 1950 on the streets of Calcutta. It remains deeply identified with the altruism of Mother Teresa, an Albanian Christian nun who made India her home, and who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her service. Given the international repute of the charity, it has been a recipient of foreign funds for years now, for which it has consistently submitted annual reports. If it has violated FCRA norms, the law must, of course, be invoked against Missionaries of Charity. But due process — and the law itself — demands that the government declare the nature of those errors.
Civil society organisations in India increasingly operate in an embattled space. Even the vital work done by NGOs in blunting the fury of the pandemic on ordinary people, in stepping in with food and succour when the government was found missing, does not appear to have done much to diminish the state’s suspicion of the work they do. That suspicion was embedded in the FCRA law passed last year, which tied up NGOs in a restrictive red-tape regime and armed the government with additional powers to cut off their foreign funding. As a report in this newspaper indicates, the home ministry has shown little reluctance in wielding that provision of the law against several civil liberties groups, even if the judiciary has eventually struck down some of those orders. In the majority of these suspensions, no show-cause notice was served on the NGO, despite it being mandated by law. In effect, the organisations remained in the dark about the reasons for the action against them. In recent months, the government has suspended or cancelled the FCRA licences of prominent NGOs, some of which have been sharply critical of it, like the Amnesty International, The Lawyers Collective, Greenpeace India and The Ford Foundation.
The action against Missionaries of Charity, coming as it does in the backdrop of attacks on churches and Christmas celebrations in several BJP-ruled states and an anti-conversion bill that has stoked anxieties among minorities in Karnataka, sends out a disturbing signal. The Centre must clear the air, and dispel the impression that a law to regulate foreign funding is being used to shrink the space for certain civil society organisations.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on December 29, 2021 under the title ‘Clear the air’.