Demystifying the ‘Civil Society’: Foreign funded organizations campaigning against Indian sedition laws

In this series of articles, we have made an attempt to deconstruct the aura surrounding the ‘civil society’ and comprehend the motivations that drive them to say what they do and act as they do. In the first article, we learned that most of those who were raided or arrested in connection with the violence at Bhima Koregaon and an alleged plot to assassinate Prime Minister Modi had links, either directly or indirectly, to the Coordination of Democratic Rights Organizations (CDRO). We also discovered that organizations associated with CDRO have a history of links to Maoists.

In the second article, we discovered that one of the organizations which published the report, ‘Amarnath Yatra: A Militarized Pilgrimage’ had clear separatist inclinations and was affiliated to CDRO, a fact that was ignored by various media outlets which peddled the narrative of the report without any attempt at a critique or inspection. In the third article, we learned that the other organization involved with the publishing of the aforementioned report received contributions from foreign Christian organizations for research and advocacy work in tourism. And in the fourth, we investigated the links of PUCL, an organization linked to CDRO through its fraternal organization PUDR, with the implementation of NOTA as a valid option for voting.

In this article, we shall investigate the organizations behind the campaign to abolish sedition laws, a narrative that gained much momentum among the intellectual circles following the fracas at JNU involving Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid. It is also pertinent to mention that Kanhaiya Kumar had stated that he would fight for the repeal of sedition laws.

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One of the organizations that strongly advocates the repeal of sedition laws is the Human Rights Law Network (HRLN), which is a division of the Socio-Legal Information Centre (SLIC). We have reported earlier that the HRLN is part of a campaign to abolish sedition laws along with PUCL, PUDR, APDR, CPDR, APCLC, which are coordinating organizations of CDRO. The June 2012 bulletin of CDRO also reports that a resolution was adopted against ‘Sedition and other repressive laws’ to which the HRLN was a signatory. The HRLN also used reports by organizations associated with the CDRO to further the notion that “The spectre of communalism in UP is overwhelming and we will need to band together if we are to have any effect in the state.” In the first part of the series, we have explored extensively the links of CDRO to Naxalites.

We have mentioned earlier in the series that the HRLN works in a variety of areas such as Child Rights, Labour Rights, Prisoners’ Rights, Criminal Justice, Refugee Rights among a host of others. Quoting from our earlier article, “Notably, the HRLN claims it has been providing free legal aid to Rohingya detainees across the country. The network has filed PILs related to the implementation of the RTE Act. HRLN has also filed a PIL in the Supreme Court on behalf on Najeeb’s mother, the missing student from JNU, upon which the SC directed the Delhi government, the Police and authorities at JNU to be even more rigorous in their probe to find him.”

Under such circumstances, we deemed it prudent to look into the background of the organization. Conspicuously, the SLIC has received contributions worth crores of rupees from Bread for the World and Misereor, two Christian organizations which also donated to Equations, one of the organizations that published the report on Amarnath Yatra in collaboration with JKCCS, an organization with clear separatist organizations affiliated to the CDRO.

The organization has also received contributions from the International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations (INCLO), an organization it is a member of; Oxfam, an organization that has been accused of covering up the sexual exploitation of women in Haiti by its senior members; Australian Volunteers International and the Oak Foundation.

Most interestingly, the SLIC has received contributions to the tune of over 2 crore rupees from the European Union (EU) Delegation to India between April and June 2016. And between April and June 2017, the SLIC received over 2 crore rupees in contributions, this time from the European Commission, which is the executive of the EU.

It is also pertinent to mention that the organization also received a contribution of more than 4 crores from George Soros’ Open Society Institute between January and March 2016. The nationalist government of Hungary that strongly opposes the influx of refugees into the European Union has been at war with George Soros for quite a while. Last year, the Hungarian government made it mandatory for NGOs that received funding from abroad to register with the state, a move that was seen to be targeted towards Soros which did not go down well with the European Union. The Hungarian also passed a legislation titled ‘Stop Soros’ in a crackdown on illegal immigration. In December 2015, Russia banned two foundations funded by the progressive Jewish-American philanthropist George Soros, claiming they posed a “threat to national security” and were undermining the Russian constitution.

George Soros is a ‘liberal’ and has stated in the past that his organization would work to ensure a Democratic victory in the mid-sem polls in the United States in November. Thus, there is clear precedent that the Open Society Foundation engages in political affairs of countries, albeit at least in the United States where lobbying is legal.

Another organization that is fighting hard against sedition laws is Common Cause, an NGO that has Prashant Bhushan and Paranjoy Guha Thakurta in its Governing Council among others. As per Darpan, a government website that allows citizens to access information on NGOs, Common Cause is registered under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA). However, the organization has not specified its source of funds or the amount it has received as a contribution.

In 2016, Adv. Prashant Bhushan had appeared in the Supreme Court on behalf of Common Cause and S.P. Udaykumar, an anti-nuclear activist who was charged with sedition for his involvement with the protests against the Koodankulam Nuclear Project. The petitioners had alleged that the sedition laws were being misused to routinely persecute students, journalists and intellectuals.

Common Cause (CC) has filed several PILs with political implications. In 2013, it filed a PIL in the Delhi High Court for “Strengthening the institution of the Lokayukta” where it urged “the High Court to set aside the orders of the Lt. Governor.” It also filed a PIL in the Supreme Court of India seeking an inquiry against Justice K.G. Balakrishnan which could have led to his removal from the chair of National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). CC has also filed a contempt petition in the Supreme Court for the non-appointment of Lokpal by the NDA government. CC has also filed a PIL challenging the appointment of Rakesh Asthana as the Special Director (SD) CBI. The matter was dismissed by the Supreme Court on November 28, 2017.

CC has also been trying to influence the National Education Policy. In its suggestions to the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), it writes “The NEP should go beyond the Right to Education Act, 2009 and include children and adolescents between 3 -18 years from the present 6-14 category.” It also says, “The KVs and NVs should be treated as a basic standard of all schools under RTE.” It is pertinent to mention here that the RTE Act applies to only Hindu-run schools and a very significant portion of them do not have the funds or the resources necessary to upgrade their infrastructure to such an extent.

Interestingly, Common Cause (CC) has conducted a study with the Center for the Study of Developing Societies on contentious issues. “Upper-Caste Hindus Fear The Police The Least, Sikhs The Most,” reports India Spend citing a study by CC and CSDS. “Interaction with police highest among Muslims, least for Dalits and women, shows study,” reports The Print citing the study by CC and CSDS. CSDS too receives a significant amount of contributions from abroad.

It is evident that organizations which receive funding from abroad, foreign government bodies and controversial organizations are attempting to shape laws and public policy in India and engaging in controversial political activism.

Although the organizations are doing nothing illegal, the scope of their functions should give the Indian government plenty to worry about. It does not bode well for the nation if foreign funding is motivating organizations based in India to file certain PILs, that has deep-rooted consequences for Indian politics, to help their cause.

It was former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself who had once claimed that foreign funding of NGOs was behind the protests against the Koodankulam Nuclear Project and the commercialization of GM crops. Therefore, it’s of critical importance that the government reviews its FCRA policy.

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