Delhi In India under the antidemocratic, “no news, but good news”, reign of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the old saw about two things you can’t escape, death and taxes, has been combined into one thing when the façade of taxes is being used to kill international nonprofits that the government views as a threat. The big news recently was of course when the tax authorities swooped into the BBC offices in Delhi with fully armed military to seize mobile phones and computers in reaction to a less than favorable documentary by the BBC in Britain over Modi’s role in the communalist slaughter of Muslims in Gujarat when he was governor there. He was sending a message, and since it involved the media, it was news everywhere. What hasn’t been international news in the same way has been his government’s assault on NGOs over recent years, which in many cases as put them out of business or crippled their work and programs.
We met one day with Amitabh Behar, the head of Oxfam India, and another day with Avinash Kumar, the former head of Amnesty International in India. Neither of these organizations typify your garden variety nonprofits which have been attacked by the hundreds on similar specious grounds, if any are even offered. It started with Greenpeace, which opposed some coal-based power plants and other environmentally destructive government projects. They were labeled as anti-India and an obstacle of growth and progress. Oxfam, Amnesty, and Greenpeace are all easily recognized organizations around the globe with big profiles, budgets, and staffing. For other nonprofits to say this has been chilling is an understatement. All actions, including our own, are measured against the risk.
In the case of Amnesty, the Indian program was relatively small, but that didn’t stop the raid and the fact that their bank accounts were frozen and remain frozen, putting them out of business. Avinash said that was two years ago. The authorities have filed court charges, as have they, and that’s where it all stands and is likely to remain for years.
Amitabh of Oxfam explained to us that the authorities and police came in. They took phones and computers and cloned them of all information, business and personal. He was forced to stay overnight while authorities searched the premises. They were looking for cash, but Oxfam had a policy of not keeping cash. The government was hoping to find evidence of tax avoidance.
In both cases these organizations were accused of multiple offenses, including some private sector abuses even though they were duly registered as nonprofits. Their FCRA registrations were taken away. The foreign contribution’s registration authority allowed them to accept contributions from outside of India. The Modi government likes nothing about foreign contributions and even blocked them for long periods during the pandemic health crisis. Oxfam went from $10 million a year to $1 million in locally raised resources, decimating its program. They are still in business even, if only a shadow of their former self. They haven’t been silenced. They are in court. Amitabh has written op-eds in the Times of India assailing the attack. As opposed to many, he has become louder, rather than being quieter.
At over a billion in population and touting its role as host of the upcoming G20 meetings of the major world economies, India likes to claim still that it is the world’s largest democracy. Nothing about these Gestapo-style attacks on nonprofits, large and small, is democratic. India needs a slogan that comes closer to the facts on the ground, where every day the government is taking the gloves off the iron fist of tyranny.