Mumbai The issue with nonprofits in autocratic countries is all about power and control. There’s nothing inherently threatening about nonprofits. Most are alarmingly small. Too many eschew any advocacy or commitment to action or even change, and instead focus their time and money on social services, education, culture, the value of the tax exemption, if any available, and burnishing their reputations and extending their legacy into the future. Who would really be afraid of that? Only governments unwilling to brook any alternative comment or criticism and paranoid about how their internal affairs are independently shared around the world. As I said, power and control, especially when it comes to interaction of foreign parties with domestic nonprofits.
None of this is new, nor is it necessarily all that recent a phenomenon, although the profile has grown as the size and scale of the nonprofit sector has ballooned in recent decades. When the Organizers’ Forum visited Russia with a delegation in 2007 we met with many groups including Greenpeace and well-regarded domestic nonprofits and heard draconian tales about new edicts there requiring bizarre registration and accounting systems, most of which have forced many foreign and domestic groups out of business both then and in the intervening years. Groups we met in 2019 in Tunisia, a decade after the Arab Spring, in the subsequent power seizure saw their accounts seized and many were forced to close.
It’s not even new in India. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s declaration of martial law in 1975 was followed by a blanket restriction on groups receiving foreign assistance. In one of the little known but amazing stories in community organizing, Misereor, the German Catholic foundation supported by their government, arranged to give and prepay a grant for twenty years in declining amounts to a Kolkata-based direct action community organization. I’m not saying that it all worked out perfectly in that case, but tell me of any other funder that would make such a long-term commitment to a community organization in order to get them funds before Gandhi’s deadline made it illegal? If they exist, I definitely want to meet them!
In India, the fight is over new regulations and restrictions on groups with an FCRA or foreign contributions number. The government recently released figures indicating that they had cancelled the FCRA registrations for 1827 NGOs over the last five years, supposedly for violations. Further, they say that 16,383 certifications are currently valid and almost 15,000 of those have submitted mandatory annual returns for 2021-22. This is no small feat, since to maintain an FCRA registration requires that all such nonprofits open and operate out of accounts with a specific state-owned bank based in Delhi. Meaning, of course, that the government has the unilateral ability to access and review your accounts. Power and control, control and power.
There are numerous nonprofits and charitable organizations in India without FCRA numbers who depend on local contributions, which is good and sustainable. The rules on foreign donors partnering with them have also blocked that avenue. ACORN’s affiliates fall in these categories, and many rules also govern them, as well. All of which is “chilling”, whether a nonprofit has a number or not, everyone has gotten the message, loudly and clearly, that they could be shutdown arbitrarily and permanently. One executive explained to us that his personal cellphone was taken in a raid and scanned, and he was questioned about his personal political activity, completely unrelated to his professional job. The reaction to that distinction by most in the nonprofit world was not sympathetic. Like I said, these governmental assaults have worked to suppress dissent, instruct behavior, and mandate silence. The nonprofit operating consensus, easily understood, reinforces that posture, feeling resistance is futile, and the only proper path is forbearance and hunkering down. The consequences of survival on such terms are likely to be lasting and regrettable.