My Amnesty Experience & How Modi Govt ‘Wreaked Havoc’ On India’s NGO Sector

08 Dec 2021 9 min read  Share

The Modi government’s war on civil society manifested itself in various forms of coercive action, frivolous and expensive court cases, frozen accounts, inspection notes, and labels, such as ‘threat to national security’. The Bharatiya Janata Party rewrote a key foreign-contributions law, changing the way NGOS could receive foreign money, crippling the sector. An exclusive excerpt from a new book, ‘Price Of the Modi Years’.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi interacting with chief ministers in June 2020 via video conferencing during the Covid-19 pandemic/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Bangalore: My organisation Amnesty International India had cases regularly filed against it in Bangalore. The ABVP filed a sedition case against us in 2016. This was over an event in which the mothers of those who had been killed in Kashmir by security forces but received neither justice nor acknowledgment from the government were telling their stories. Their sons had been murdered in what the police had accepted were fake encounters, but no action had been taken. The event was an attempt to bring these stories to the rest of India. 

The case was frivolous and was thrown out by the court more than two years later. But this came at great expense both to the government—it had to send the video material from the event for forensics testing and spent, according to what I was told by the police, over Rs 1 crore on the entire matter, other than considerable human resources—and to Amnesty India. We were hit in terms of our ability to raise money because of the particularly nasty media coverage. Of course, harassment was the primary reason for the case being filed.

After accusations that we were violating FCRA in some way (though Amnesty India did not even have an FCRA registration), we were ‘raided’ by the ED in October 2018.  I was in the office when it happened and was interrogated from around 1.30 in the afternoon to 11 at night. The officers who came were unprofessional and annoyed that we should be working on such issues as Kashmir and justice for the 1984 riots, being a private company (which is how Amnesty India had been registered). And they were indignant that a ‘foreign’ body should ‘interfere’ in India: neither I nor any of the office bearers, directors or any other individuals at Amnesty India were foreigners. 

When I asked at one point if our accounts were to be frozen, I was told by one of the officers that ‘goats are not informed if their throats are to be cut’. 

The accounts were, in fact, frozen, but through a writ in the high court, we got them unfrozen in a couple of months. The ED action was vulnerable because it was illegal and did not follow due process, and the court agreed. The next year we were ‘raided’ by the CBI. I spent a couple of days with the CBI at that point, going through much the same thing as I had with the ED, being asked the same things and being accused of the same things. A further two days were spent with officers of the Ministry of Home Affairs, who came to the office to check our documentation, asked the same things and left, and were never heard from again, presumably because it was all in order but more likely because the baton for harassment had been passed on to the CBI.

Through the period when I was with Amnesty India, our doors were knocked on by some or the other part of the government wanting to see if it could tie us down or prevent our operating in some way. The Ministry of Corporate Affairs sent three notices for inspection, again of the same documents. This is not the way in which the rest of the private sector is treated. 

Greenpeace India, which had been working on the issue of coal mining, was also subjected to a raid by the ED and had to go through the same process to get their accounts unfrozen. Lawyers Collective had a five-day ‘inspection’ from the MHA and were also raided by the CBI. The Centre for Justice and Peace, led by the redoubtable Teesta Setalvad who had worked on justice for the victims and survivors of the Gujarat pogrom, was also raided by the CBI on 14 July 2015. Others targeted have been the Navsarjan Trust, working on caste issues; ANHAD, which works on secularism; and the Indian Social Action Forum (INSAF). 

The judiciary has shown little interest in the abuse of authority by the government and has been content to look away while India’s civil society has been brutalised by the State under Modi. The world has noticed. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association said that FCRA was ‘not in conformity with international law, principles and standards’. The law was analysed and found to be defective and oppressive for its violation of freedom of association. 

After the attack on Jaising’s Lawyers Collective, three UN human rights experts asked India to repeal FCRA, saying that its provisions were ‘being used more and more to silence organisations involved in advocating civil, political, economic, social, environmental or cultural priorities, which may differ from those backed by the Government’. 

And this was before the 2020 amendments that made FCRA even more restrictive. 

The downgrading of India’s civic space on the Civicus monitor to first ‘Obstructed’ in 2014 and then to ‘Repressed’ in 2019 reflects a change that most in the sector have experienced first-hand. Civicus is a global alliance of civil society organisations and activists. The attack on civil liberties was also noted, as we have seen in the chapter ‘Brand Vs Product’, in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s degrading of India’s democracy, Freedom House’s report, the World Justice Project’s index and Reporters Sans Frontiers’ index. 

Modi’s actions have wreaked havoc on the civic sector, as he desired. In the space of 35 days starting from 5 May 2015, the registration of 4,470 NGOs was cancelled on the grounds that they had delayed in submitting their tax returns. The list included Panjab University, Gargi College and Lady Irwin College Delhi, the Vikram Sarabhai Foundation and the Supreme Court Bar Association.

In April 2016, another 9,000 NGOs had their licences cancelled for ‘FCRA violations’. 

In December 2019, parliament was told that since Modi had taken office, 14,500 NGOs had been barred from accessing foreign funding. Funding fell 90 per cent from $2.2 billion in 2018 to $295 million in 2019 (though not all returns had been filed because of the pandemic). A report by Ashoka University’s Centre for Social Impact and Philanthropy found that incoming donations under FCRA’s ‘prior approval’ route fell from Rs 326 crore in 2013 to Rs 49 crore in 2017. The number of NGOs funded through this route fell from 233 in 2014 to 139 in 2017. Excluding faith-based organisations, the number had fallen from 207 in 2012 to 21 in 2017. 

It is not known how many Indians were affected because of this, not only the employees of the NGOs but those people who they were working with and for.


A Civicus report said, ‘India’s vibrant associational life and its media are threatened by the actions of the government of Prime Minister Modi, which severely limit the social and economic contributions of civil society and leave victims of human rights violations exposed without recourse to justice. With millions of Indian CSOs (civil society organisations) working on a range of issues, it is time for the government to review its response to civil society and recognise the contributions civil society makes to Indian communities, human rights and democracy.’ 

It added that the ‘public vilification and demonisation of civil society organisations, human rights defenders and journalists only empowers state and non-state actors, including members of the private sector, vigilante groups and some sections of communities, to attack those who stand for human rights. This climate of demonisation comes from the top. If the Prime Minister and senior government officials, rather than attacking civil society publicly, condemned attacks from non-state actors, high levels of self censorship would reduce and the environment in which civil society operates would greatly improve.’

This was, of course, akin to asking the perpetrators to empathise with their victims and it did not happen. What has happened through all the Modi years is the stepping up of attacks on the sector and its individuals through the use of not just FCRA but also UAPA. Suspicion and conspiracy theories have been used by the State to discredit and demonise the groups it has sought to attack and shut down. In June 2014, the Intelligence Bureau submitted a report to Modi titled ‘Impact of NGOs on Development’. It claimed foreign-funded NGOs had impacted GDP growth negatively by up to 3 percentage points. The report described Greenpeace’s work as ‘a threat to national economic security’. In January 2015, the government offloaded Greenpeace’s Priya Pillai from a flight. She was to speak to British parliamentarians. A few months later, Greenpeace’s FCRA licence was cancelled

Ford Foundation, which funded the Green Revolution in India and has operated here since 1952, found itself hounded by Modi because it was supporting justice for the victims of the Gujarat pogrom. The Gujarat government accused the Ford Foundation of interfering with the judicial system, defaming the Indian military, and acting against the stated goal of promoting communal harmony. It accused the funding agency of encouraging Setalvad’s NGOs to advocate ‘a religion specific and Muslim supportive criminal code and also keep the 2002 riots incident alive’. 

The government has also accused the Ford Foundation of ‘blatantly supporting one religion (Islam) with a strange argument that it helps secular democracy’. 

The head of the organisation in India left and for a while it seemed like Ford Foundation would shut in India. Part of the problem was that the bureaucracy had no explicit instructions on this and divined their cues from what they thought Modi wanted done. Thus the bureaucrats who operated the machinery ‘lean towards the most conservative course until given some clear, unambiguous direction’. 

Modi’s crusade against India’s civil society, as his language showed, was for personal reasons. There was no State imperative to persecute Indians who were working on causes for India, and often those causes on which almost nobody else worked. When we examine the scale of what he did in his vindictiveness, the long-lasting and real harm done to the country begins to be clear. 

When the second wave of the Covid pandemic hammered India, Modi turned to the same NGOs he had brutalised for help. Ten NGOs the BBC spoke to for a report on its Newsnight show said they all had trouble distributing aid because of FCRA. Indian hospitals and charitable trusts could not receive Covid relief material sent by donors abroad because, though the Modi government on 3 May 2021 permitted imports without GST for these items, it did not exempt them from FCRA law. 

This jeopardised plans to donate oxygen plants and concentrators, especially for rural areas. In one hospital where two dozen people had already died for lack of oxygen, foreign donors could not donate an oxygen production plant because FCRA approval was holding up the process. No entity could receive foreign aid, even as medicines or equipment, without FCRA registration. Moreover, the very stringent provisions of the law meant that the intended use of the foreign contribution had to also ‘match the specified objective of the trust at the time of FCRA registration’. 

In addition, remember that the 2020 amendment prohibits entities receiving aid in whatever form from regranting it to others. 

The damage could not be undone and the direct harm to Indians from Modi’s FCRA changes now became apparent to the world.

Excerpted from the chapter ‘The Devil’s Workshop’ in Aakar Patel’s new book Price Of The Modi Years. Bangalore-based Patel is a syndicated columnist, author and chair of Amnesty International India.