Prime Minister Narendra Modi sees enemies all around him, and non-governmental organisations or NGOs are high up on his list. Just a few days ago, at a farmers rally organised by the Bharatiya Janata Party in Bargarh, Odisha, Modi said that NGOs were conspiring to defame him and bring down his government.

NGOs (like black marketers in the chemical fertiliser industry), he said, were robbing and destroying the nation and were “morning and evening conspiring to figure out how to finish Modi, how to remove Modi’s government, how to dishonour Modi”. The prime minister added that efforts aimed at forcing NGOs to account for the money they receive from abroad had turned them against his government.

Modi’s antipathy to non-governmental organisations is of long standing. A speech he made on the subject in 2006 sets out his view. Like many others he sees charitable work like feeding the poor, maintaining cow shelters, housing pilgrims, organising blood donation camps, as honourable social work. Registered NGOs are, however, “monkey traders” who jump from one issue to the next following the funding. He specifically singles out organisations receiving foreign funds as self-serving businesses in his 2006 speech:

“Funds are obtained from abroad, an NGO is set up: a few [media] articles are commissioned, a PR firm is recruited and slowly, with the help of the media, an image is created. And then awards are procured from foreign countries to enhance this image. Such a vicious cycle of finance – activity – award is set up and once they have secured an award, no one in Hindustan dares raise a finger no matter how many failings of the awardee”.

Tilting at NGOs

There are many who will agree with Modi that there must be better regulation of non-governmental organisations, that there are many that follow the money and even some that exercise disproportionate influence over government policy. But most will wonder why the prime minister of India is tilting at NGOs.

The foreign money NGOs receive is small change in an economy the size of India’s. Home ministry figures show that in the period 2011-'12, the total inflow of foreign funds to organisations registered under the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act or FCRA was Rs 11,546.3 crore. More than half of this (approximately Rs 6,000 crore) was for religious organisations, two-thirds of which was spent on education, training and maintenance of priests, preachers and religious schools. Compare this to the Centre and states budgeted expenditure on just education for 2012-'13 which is Rs 4,03,236.5 crore.

Among the recipients of foreign funding are myriad non-governmental organisations affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP’s ideological guide. With the BJP in power, these organisations exert considerable influence on government. While the prime minister talks of NGO conspiracies to do him in, the RSS systematically collects information about such organisations in areas in which it is active. At the moment, the Vanvasi Kalyan Parishad, the RSS body working with tribal communities, is conducting a survey of grassroots-level NGOs working in the tribal sub-plan areas of Rajasthan. The survey is designed to collect detailed information on whether these non-governmental organisations agree with the RSS view on key issues or not.

Like previous governments, this one too relies on NGOs to implement many of its social development programmes at the grassroots. A conservative estimate puts the government’s grants to the NGO sector at Rs 1,000 crore. In fact, NGOs are an acknowledged part of Modi’s pet projects like the Swachh Bharat programme. NGOs are also the go-to people for ideas and project implementation in most social-development related ministries.

But NGOs that irk the prime minister the most seem to be the ones acknowledged abroad as doing good work. This is curious given Modi’s own love for being feted in foreign countries. To help his case against these as-yet-unnamed NGOs, the prime minister has a handy Intelligence Bureau report that says exactly what he does. The report, a re-issued, slightly edited old bureau report on NGOs commissioned by the UPA government includes a verbatim extract from Modi’s 2006 speech on NGOs quoted earlier.

Seeking transparency?

Since the IB report was published, the government has cancelled the registration of nearly 10,000 NGOs under the Foreign Contributions (Regulation) Act 2010. NGOs like Greenpeace and funding bodies like Ford Foundation and Caritas have had restrictions placed on their functioning in India too. The government has also targeted human rights defenders, among them former additional solicitor general Indira Jaising’s Lawyers Collective.

The home ministry, which is the ministry responsible, said that its endeavour was “to bring in transparency and accountability while ensuring national security”. National security’s obverse is anti-national activity. The government has signalled that its definition of anti-national activity includes people’s dietary preferences, student protests, the demand for justice for victims of communal riots or anything that is critical of the government or outside the belief system of the Sangh Parivar.

As the Jat quota agitation unleashed violence in Haryana, and the periphery of Delhi, Modi was telling people in Odisha, “morning through night there is turmoil around me, some people are constantly trying to get at me.” The NGOs, he said, had “all got together saying ‘Modi ko maro, Modi ko maro’" (pull Modi down, pull Modi down).

When the prime minister singles out NGOs as the cause of his troubles, is he setting up straw men to knock down, or does his government’s persecution of those who disagree with it suggest something rather more calculated? Only time will tell.