Missionaries of Charity

Weaponising FCRA: Controversy surrounds govt refusal to renew licence of Missionaries of Charity

Print edition : January 28, 2022

A Missionaries of Charity nun distributing food to the needy in Kolkata on December 28, 2021. Photo: BIKAS DAS/AP

Sister Mary Prema, head of the Missionaries of Charity, paying tribute to Mother Teresa in Kolkata on August 26, 2019. Photo: PTI

A statue of Jesus Christ that was vandalised at the Holy Redeemer Church in Ambala, Haryana, on December 26, 2021. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The controversy over the FCRA funds licence for the Missionaries of Charity is widely seen as part of the government’s attempt to muzzle NGOs working among the downtrodden, especially those run by Christians.

On December 25, the Ministry of Home Affairs refused to renew the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) licence of the Missionaries of Charity, citing “adverse inputs”. It is unclear what these inputs were. If Amit Shah’s Home Ministry was trying to make a point by not renewing the FCRA licence of a renowned Christian charitable organisation in India on the day of Christmas, the point was made loud and clear, especially as it came on the heels of a series of incidents of church vandalism, disruption of prayer meetings and attacks on pastors across the country. (The United Christian Front claimed that 486 incidents of violence were recorded against Christians in 2021.) Also, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Karnataka passed an anti-conversion law in late December that is largely perceived to be targeting Christian missionaries.

After a fortnight of protests and condemnations against the move, the Union government on January 7 restored the FCRA registration of the organisation until 2026. The issue had reached the House of Lords in the United Kingdom (U.K.) where parliamentarians demanded to know what Britain was doing about the non-renewal of the licence. The issue was also covered widely in the foreign press, with many commentators condemning the move by India. Adverse press probably forced the government to rethink the “adverse inputs” it had cited as a reason to block the Missionaries of Charity from receiving foreign funds.

Protesting against the Centre’s earlier decision not to renew the registration, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee tweeted: “Mother Teresa herself set up Missionaries of Charity. And now they are also not being spared. Malicious attempts to malign their name. The Sisters are being targeted. #BJP want to spare no one. Highly condemnable. Let MOC continue to do their work for the poorest of the poor.” However, the Press Information Bureau (PIB) released a note, stating: “State Bank of India (SBI) informed that the Missionaries of Charity itself sent a request to SBI to freeze its accounts. No request/revision application has been received from Missionaries of Charity for review of refusal of renewal.”

Also read: A witch-hunt

Mother Superior Mary Prema, head of the Missionaries of Charity, said: “We would like to clarify that the FCRA registration has been neither suspended nor cancelled. We have been informed that our FCRA renewal application has not been approved. Therefore, as a measure to ensure that there is no lapse, we have asked our centres not to operate any of the FCRA accounts until the matter is resolved.”

Target of scrutiny

Shortly before the non-renewal of the licence, right-wing extremists had accused the Missionaries of Charity of carrying out forced conversions of Hindu girls at a home in Vadodara, Gujarat. They filed a police complaint against the alleged conversions. It said: “The girls inside the home for girls are being lured to adopt Christianity by making them wear the cross around their neck and also placing the Bible on the table of the storeroom used by the girls, in order to compel them to read the Bible….It is an attempted crime to force religious conversion upon the girls.” The Missionaries of Charity denied the allegations.

This is not the first time that the Missionaries of Charity has come under the BJP government’s scrutiny. In 2018, Maneka Gandhi, Minister of Women and Child Development, ordered an inspection of all the child care homes run by the organisation after a case of child trafficking in Jharkhand came to light wherein three children were rescued after allegedly being trafficked by nuns. However, according to reports, the organisation had shut down its adoption services and deregistered 13 of its orphanages in 2015 itself over differences with the government on adoption policies. Citing revised guidelines that made single parents (separated, divorced or unwed mothers) eligible to adopt children, Sister Amala of the Missionaries of Charity was quoted in media reports as saying: “The new guidelines hurt our conscience. They are certainly not for religious people like us; maybe they are for secular people as the Minister says. But we are concerned about children and their future. What if the single parent who we give our baby turns out to be gay or lesbian? What security or moral upbringing will these children get? Our rules allow only married couples to adopt.”

Although the stated objective of a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ as envisaged by ideologues of the Sangh Parivar is the establishment of a rule of law by the majority Hindus and reduction of Muslims and Christians to the status of second-class citizens, attacks on Christians have been less vicious than those on Muslims ever since the BJP came to power in 2014. The non-renewal of the FCRA licence of the Missionaries of Charity is one of the most pointed attacks on a Christian organisation by the government, and comes as a rude shock just two months after Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Pope Francis in October and invited him to visit India.

Also read: Hate conclaves targeting minorities

As a significant chunk of the Missionaries of Charity’s funding comes from overseas, its work in India was expected to receive a setback. Moreover, the people who benefit from the charity’s work in India hail from all castes and creeds. Thus, while the non-availability of foreign funds to the organisation symbolically affects the standing of the Christian community, it also harms the interests of thousands of destitute persons that the organisation takes care of and the workers associated with it, who belong to diverse communities.

The charity hoped to stay afloat with local donations. For instance, Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik has sanctioned assistance of Rs.78.76 lakh from the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund (CMRF) to 13 institutions run by the charity in that State (see box).

Legacy and current work

From humble beginnings in the 1950s when it was founded in Kalighat, Kolkata, by a little-known nun from Albania, who became famous later as Mother Teresa, the Missionaries of Charity currently operates more than 175 homes for the destitute, the poor, and physically and mentally challenged adults abandoned by their families.

In addition, it runs 82 children’s homes, 10 large centres for leprosy-affected persons, feeding centres, temporary night shelters, programmes for prisoners, and programmes in education and several other areas for the marginalised sections of society. The mission statement of the sisters reads: “We, the Missionaries of Charity Sisters, give wholehearted and free service to the poorest of the poor irrespective of social class, colour, creed or religion.” It goes on to add: “Missionaries of Charity do not impose their Catholic faith on anyone, but have profound respect for all religions.”

Also read: Remembering Mother Teresa

Even though freedom of religion is enshrined in the Constitution, religious conversions have become a contentious issue in India, especially since most converts to Christianity hail from oppressed castes or poor backgrounds. Even then, the entire Christian population of India is 2.4 per cent of the total population and only 0.4 per cent of Christians are converts from Hinduism, according to Pew Research Centre, a United States-based think tank. All the others were born within the faith. Despite these numbers, by 2021, nine States, apart from Karnataka, had enacted anti-conversion laws.

Christians speak up

Also, leaders of the Christian faith have started speaking up against the excesses of the government becoming a thorn in their side. After Father Stan Swamy passed away, the Jesuits took a stand publicly and stood by the priest. Christian organisations from the Evangelical Fellowship of India to the All India Catholic Union (AICU) expressed anguish at the treatment meted out to Father Stan Swamy.

When farmers protested against three controversial farm laws passed by the Central government, the AICU supported them, expressing deep concern at the “deleterious impact” of the laws. After the Centre repealed the laws, it said: “The Christian community is part of the farm sector in most States, with many of them small and marginal farmers. AICU, therefore, supported the agitation by the farmers. We join the farmers in their victorious agitation which forced the government to withdraw the three contentious laws.”

The AICU also took a strong stand against communalism and said that it was worse than the tragic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, as it was “abetted by politicians who have weaponised bigotry and hate speech targeting religious minorities, including Christians”. It added: “Often, this has led to violence. It is a matter of national shame that even on Christmas Day, as many as 16 incidents of violence took place on churches, congregations, institutions and even on celebrations. The sight of a broken statue of Jesus Christ in the compound of a church shocked not just the community but all peace-loving people of the country. Data keepers have documented over 500 cases of violence on the Christian community this year, the highest since the Odisha violence of 2008. The state has failed to act against the perpetrators….We are alarmed at the open call for genocide of Muslims and elimination of the Christian faith made at mass gatherings in north and central India. Police have been complicit.”

Also read: Christians at receiving end amid growing violence

The AICU also said: “In this environment of hate, governments have added to our pain. Karnataka has passed an anti-conversion law which is the harshest ever enacted by any State in the country. It criminalises inter-faith marriages and almost entirely robs many classes of people, especially Dalits and Adivasis, of their freedom of faith.”

The AICU called upon the Union government to restore the FCRA licences of the Missionaries of Charity and other Christian and civil NGOs “whose work with the poorest of the poor has been severely impacted”.

Non-renewal of 6,000 licences

The non-renewal of the FCRA licence of the Missionaries of Charity was not in isolation. It was one of 5,933 organisations whose FCRA licences lapsed on December 31 and which were not renewed either because they failed to apply to the Home Ministry before the due date or because the Ministry rejected their application. Many of these associations belong to minority groups or have taken an anti-establishment stand at some point.

The list of organisations registered in Delhi whose licences have expired includes Oxfam India Trust, Indian Medical Association, India Islamic Cultural Centre, Jamia Milia Islamia, Saheli Women’s Resource Centre, Women’s Feature Service, Apne Aap Women Worldwide India, The Times of India Relief Fund, Green Park Free Church, Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts, Medical Council of India, Nehru Memorial Museum & Library, The Tehelka Foundation, India Habitat Centre, Lady Shri Ram College for Women, Vishwa Dharmayatan (founded by Chandraswami), Maharishi Ayurveda Pratishthan, Indian Institute of Technology Delhi and Press Institute of India.

Oxfam India said in a statement: “The Government of India’s decision to refuse renewal of Oxfam India’s FCRA registration will severely affect the organisation’s ongoing crucial humanitarian and social work in 16 States across the country. This includes setting up of oxygen plants, providing life-saving medical and diagnostic equipment such as oxygen cylinders and ventilators and delivery of food to the most vulnerable communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Also read: Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik asks District Collectors to ensure that organisations run by Missionaries of Charity do not suffer

The FCRA has become a weapon in the hands of the Modi government to curb dissent. Earlier, in 2015, the government cancelled the FCRA licences of 4,470 NGOs, including Panjab University, Gargi College and Lady Irwin College in Delhi, the Vikram Sarabhai Foundation and the Supreme Court Bar Association, citing a delay in submission of their tax returns. In 2016, it cancelled the licences of another 9,000 NGOs, citing FCRA violations. In 2019, it came to light in Parliament that ever since Modi took office, the government had cancelled the licences of about 14,500 NGOs.

Recounting his first-hand experience of harassment through the FCRA route, Aakar Patel wrote in his book Price of the Modi Years: “After accusations that we were violating FCRA in some way (although Amnesty India did not even have an FCRA registration), we were ‘raided’ by the E.D. [Enforcement Directorate] in October 2018. I was in the office when it happened and was interrogated from around 1.30 in the afternoon to 11 at night. The officers who came were unprofessional and annoyed that we should be working on such issues as Kashmir and justice for the 1984 riots, being a private company (which is how Amnesty India had been registered). And they were indignant that a ‘foreign’ body should ‘interfere’ in India: neither I nor any of the office bearers, directors or any other individuals at Amnesty India were foreigners. When I asked at one point if our accounts were to be frozen, I was told by one of the officers that ‘goats are not informed if their throats are to be cut’.”

Greenpeace India, which had worked on the issue of coal mining, was also subjected to a raid by the E.D. and had to go through the same process to get its accounts freed. Lawyers Collective had a five-day ‘inspection’ from the Home Ministry and was also raided by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). The Centre for Justice and Peace, led by Teesta Setalvad, who worked on justice for the victims and survivors of the Gujarat pogrom, was also raided by the CBI in 2015. Navsarjan Trust, which works on caste issues; ANHAD, which works on secularism; and the Indian Social Action Forum (INSAF) were also targeted.

Amendments and challenges

In September 2020, the government made the FCRA more stringent. This was challenged by writ petitions Noel Harper and others vs Union of India and Jeevan Jyothi Charitable Trust and others vs Union of India. In particular, the petitions challenged the amendment to Section 7, which forbids a recipient of foreign contributions from transferring the same to any other entity; the amendment to Section 8(1)(b), which reduces the limit of usage of foreign contribution for administrative expenses from 50 per cent to 20 per cent; the amendment to proviso to Section 11(2), which states that the Centre can direct an organisation to not utilise foreign contributions pending an inquiry on suspected violations; the newly added Sections 12 and 17, which state that the foreign contributions must be deposited in the FCRA account created in the specified branch of the scheduled bank, which was later notified as the New Delhi branch of State Bank of India; and the newly added Section 12A, which empowered the Centre to obtain Aadhaar numbers of the key functionaries of an organisation for approval purposes.

In October, a bench comprising Justice Khanwilkar, Justice Dinesh Maheshwari and Justice C.T. Ravikumar heard arguments challenging the constitutional validity of FCRA amendments.

Also read: Targeting missionaries

Defending the amendments, the government said that the changes in the law were necessary to prevent malpractices and diversion of funds by NGOs and claimed that some foreign state and non-state actors take up activities that amount to interference in the internal polity of the country with ulterior motives.

The government said that “genuine NGOs need not shy away” from any regulatory compliance mandated under the FCRA 2010. In a counter-affidavit filed in response to petitions challenging the constitutional validity of the FCRA amendments, it stated that there was “no fundamental right to receive unbridled foreign contribution” and hence, the petitions filed under Article 32 of the Constitution were not maintainable.

Senior advocate Gopal Sankaranarayanan, appearing on behalf of the petitioners, informed the court that during the pandemic, a lot of funding came from foreign sources and that it was “unfortunate that when we say foreign contributions, we keep looking at it with coloured lens at possibility that these may be terror organisations, people sponsoring money laundering, when a large number of them are Indian citizens abroad”.

On October 28, the Supreme Court orally observed that the amendments would have the impact of discouraging NGOs. Additional Solicitor General Sanjay Jain submitted: “We want [that] there should be proper utilisation of foreign contributions received for purposes which are allowed.”

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