The restrictive and illiberal trend that has characterized India over the past five years has a new data point. The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has decided that Christmas Day is a good time to deny the renewal of a license to Missionaries of Charity to receive foreign funds.
Founded by Mother Teresa, whom the Catholic Church canonized in 2016, this order of Christian nuns has been operating in the country since 1950. But because Modi and her Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swear by a “Hindutva” ideology, the engaging in a vision of India as a “Hindu Rashtra”, or Hindu nation – the government has waged a broad campaign against organizations that its bigotry will not respect.
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Since all NGOs in India need official authorization to receive foreign funds for their operations under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) of 2010, the government can exercise significant power over civil society. . And Modi’s national security adviser Ajit Doval has made it clear that the government intends to use that power. In a recent speech that stunned the country, Doval referred to NGOs as “the new frontiers of war”, arguing that “it is civil society that can be subverted, suborned, divided, manipulated to harm the interests of a nation “.
The government has grabbed the Achilles heel of unwanted NGOs: many of them are supported largely by international donors, foundations and charities. For example, in 2015, the Union’s Home Office revoked Greenpeace’s foreign funding authorization and, in 2020, froze Amnesty International’s accounts, effectively crippling their operations in India. In June 2021, he did the same with the highly respected Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative.
But while these secular groups have been targeted for their liberal political leanings and their human rights work, the government has reserved a particular level of hostility to foreign-funded religious NGOs, which it suspects of. ‘trying to convert unwitting Hindus. So, in September 2021, the Home Office suspended the foreign funding license for Harvest India, a Christian missionary organization, alleging that it had violated the FCRA.
In action against the Missionaries of Charity, Modi and the BJP broke with previous Indian governments, all of which hailed Mother Teresa’s noble (and Nobel Prize-winning) work in the service of the poor, dying and needy. . Many Hindus have long treated her with great reverence because of this work. But since the rise to power of the BJP, its achievements are increasingly criticized as simple attempts at proselytism.
Responding to media questions about the Missionaries of Charity’s decision, the Home Office said “some negative contributions were noted” when considering the charity’s renewal application. In December, a police complaint was filed against the organization in Gujarat – which Modi ruled for many years – alleging missionaries were forcing Hindu girls to convert. But the group denies the allegations, insisting it has “neither converted nor forced anyone to marry the Christian faith.” Formal charges have yet to be filed in court.
While the government has made it clear that it will crack down on efforts to use charity as an incentive to convert, the organizations targeted have also made it clear that they are doing nothing of the sort. The authorities’ Hindutva bias is evident. There is a widespread perception that only Christian and Muslim organizations come under critical scrutiny, while Hindu charities continue to receive foreign funding. For example, Hindu groups have openly attempted to convert the Aborigines Adivasi Indians (collectively referred to as “tribals,” most of whom practice animist religions) in the northeast of the country, but none have been targeted by government crackdowns on them. foreign funding.
The government’s efforts have already had a measurable impact. According to Bain & Company, there was a 30% drop in international funding for nonprofits in India between 2016 and 2021. During this period, the Home Office sued 13,000 NGOs and canceled 4 800 licenses, for various reasons.
The focus on conversions is in line with the larger Hindutva project. Hindu devotees see India as a Hindu nation that has historically been beset by invaders and intruders who want to change its essential character. In their opinion, converting Hindus to other religions would dilute Indianness itself.
The BJP is thus engaged in a systematic effort to curb entities whose work, ethics or principles go against the narrow vision of the Government of India. After Doval’s speech and the Interior Ministry’s action against the Missionaries of Charity, civil society organizations have to assume that things will only get worse.
India is at an inflection point. For decades, it was considered a rare democratic achievement in the developing world. He had a reputation for celebrating his diversity, embracing differences and enabling all groups, faiths and ideologies to flourish. But with its restrictive, fanatic and increasingly autocratic approach, Modi’s government is signaling to the world that it would not mind if India earned a very different reputation.
It could lead to some diplomatic awkwardness in the New Year. In October, following a private meeting with Pope Francis at the G20 summit in Rome, Modi invited the pontiff to visit India. Religious sources say the Pope will likely visit India later this year. But Frances will hardly be able to ignore her flock’s concerns over a country where ruling party-aligned groups have been credibly accused of attacking churches and disrupting Christmas celebrations, and where the Christian charity la better known now faces severe restrictions on its ability to continue the work initiated by one of the Saints in the Church. This could make a busy visit indeed.