In March, Union Minister of State for Home Nityanand Rai told the Rajya Sabha that the registration certificates of 1,827 non-profits to receive foreign contributions had been cancelled between 2018 and 2022.
For non-profits in India to receive foreign funds, they must to be registered under the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, or FCRA.
Rai, who was responding to a question in Parliament on March 15, said the registration certificates were cancelled “due to violation of the provisions of the Act and rules”.
A day later, director of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative Venkatesh Nayak filed a right to information application seeking access to all 1,827 cancellation orders. He asked the Ministry of Home Affairs to upload them on the FCRA website and share the URLs with him.
But the ministry did not disclose this information. Instead, it told Nayak that details of the 1,808 organisations whose foreign contribution licences had been cancelled since 2018 were available on the FCRA website.
The website, however, had only one order from October 2019 cancelling the FCRA certificates and listing the 1,808 organisations. There are no detailed cancellation orders for every organisation that has lost its FCRA licence, as sought by Nayak.
The ministry’s refusal to disclose cancellation orders comes amid a government crackdown on non-profits, think tanks and civil society organisations critical of the Centre by cancelling their FCRA registrations for various claimed violations.
An RTI to the home ministry
Nayak in his right to information application had asked the home ministry to upload every order issued between 2018 and 2022 under Section 14 of the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, 2010, which specifies provisions to cancel the FCRA certificate.
The FCRA certificate of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative was among those that were cancelled. It was first suspended in April 2021 and cancelled a year later. Nayak, who is also a transparency activist, told Scroll that his organisation had received a copy of the cancellation order but these details were not updated on the FCRA website, as they are supposed to be.
The Ministry of Home Affairs responded after a delay of over 90 days with the October 2019 order and list. A few days after Nayak received a response, the website had updated the list of non-profits whose FCRA licences had been cancelled. Three more non-profits that lost their licences in 2023, so far, had been added, bringing the total number to 1,830. The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative had been listed as well, at number 17.
Nayak said that when he had filed his RTI request in March, the website did not have the updated list. He told Scroll that if he had found the updated list then, he would have included the names of the remaining organisations and asked for copies of their cancellation orders as well.
“In any case, I wanted 1,827 cancellation orders and they say the info is on the website for 1,808,” said Nayak. “That is [an] incomplete and wrong answer.”
Scroll has emailed the home ministry asking for a response to Nayak’s allegation that he was provided “incomplete” information.
Website information deleted
Until last year, the FCRA website maintained detailed information about the non-profits that had been granted licences, the organisations whose papers had been cancelled and or had expired, those that had prior permission to receive foreign contributions and the annual returns of all registered associations.
Reports in July last year said that the ministry had removed most of these details from the FCRA website. The Indian Express, which reported the matter, said that only overall data is available on the website. An unidentified official told The Indian Express that data that was deemed “not useful or unnecessary” was removed.
The deletion of information came weeks after the Central Bureau of Investigation busted a bribery scam involving FCRA home ministry officials in May last year.
Home ministry officials of the FCRA Division and others were allegedly granting illegal FCRA clearance to non-profits, according to the central investigating agency. Six of the 14 suspects arrested are home ministry officials.
Scroll has emailed the home ministry asking why information about the cancellation orders has been removed from the website.
Nayak alleges that the ministry was using the corruption scam as an excuse to withhold information on organisations, including those whose licenses have been renewed. “How do you control corruption by hiding information?” he asked.
According to Nayak, blocking access to the information he had asked for is against the transparency aims of the Right to Information Act and also violates the transparency norms under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act.
Nayak says the refusal to disclose information on cancellation orders is “quite perplexing” since in 2021, the ministry had furnished copies of the orders suspending the FCRA certificates of 20 non-profits between February 2020 to August 2021.
“If suspension orders can be disclosed in 2021, I do not see why cancellation orders cannot be disclosed in 2023,” he said.
He said the manner in which information is being concealed without citing reasons points to the arbitrariness of the decisions that are being made by the FCRA division of the home ministry.
Union Home Minister Amit Shah had told Parliament in December that some non-profits want to use foreign funding to “change the country’s demography”.
“We will not allow any foreign funds to destroy the country,” Shah had said.
The previous year, in December 2021, the Centre had refused to renew the FCRA licences of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity and Oxfam India. The FCRA licence of the Missionaries of Charity, a Catholic charitable organisation, was renewed a few days later in January last year.
But in April, the Central Bureau of Investigation filed a case against Oxfam India for allegedly violating the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act.
In March, the home ministry suspended the FCRA licence of the Centre for Policy Research for 180 days for violating provisions of the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act. The think tank, however, said that it had complied with law.
In June, the FCRA licence of activist Harsh Mander’s Centre for Equity Studies was suspended for 180 days. In its cancellation order, the ministry referred to Mander’s columns for various publications, including Scroll. Section 3 of the Act prohibits acceptance of foreign contributions by correspondents, columnists, cartoonists, editors, owners, printers and publishers of a registered newspaper.