Are India’s liberal think tanks in trouble?

Civil society is concerned about the Narendra Modi government’s crackdown on think tanks, which it views as an attempt to stifle dissent.

Published : Oct 03, 2023 18:54 IST - 5 MINS READ

At a protest for press freedom in New Delhi.

At a protest for press freedom in New Delhi. | Photo Credit: Javed Akhtar/DW

The Centre for Policy Research (CPR) is one of India’s premier public policy think tanks. However, the CPR has been unable to pay salaries for six months after India’s government suspended the think tank’s foreign funding licence in February, and later cancelled its tax exemption status and froze its bank accounts.

The CPR is challenging the government’s moves in a New Delhi court. It said that at least 80 scientists and other employees have left and that its research activities have ground to a halt.

The think tank’s lawyer, Arvind Datar, told the court during his last appearance that the organisation was paying the price for “dissent”. “You may not like any dissent in the country … It is extremely sad if an Indian think tank is going to be closed… One bit of dissent and it is done.”

Set up in 1973, the CPR describes itself as a “non-partisan, independent institution” conducting research that “contributes to a more robust public discourse about the issues that impact life in India”. The current president and chief executive of CPR is Yamini Aiyar, the daughter of senior Congress party leader and former Union minister Mani Shankar Aiyar.

And the CPR is not the only think tank that is under pressure. In September 2022, Indian tax authorities raided Oxfam India and the Independent and Public-Spirited Media Foundation (IPSMF), along with CPR.

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On October 2, Indian authorities raided the homes of several journalists and commentators connected with NewsClick, an independent, progressive news website, under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), which ostensibly targets “terrorist organizations” but has been criticized for being used to silence the press.

Journalists said that their laptops and telephones were confiscated. Delhi police said a fresh case “related to terror links” had been registered against the news website. NewsClick was already under investigation for allegedly receiving illegal funding from China, which it denies.

Cutting off foreign funding pressures think tanks

Many think tanks in India depend on foreign funding. The Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) regulates the receipt and use of foreign funding by non-profits in India. Successive governments have been accused of misusing the law to arm-twist civil society organisations.

Data shows incidences of FCRA suspension have grown over the last decade. Between 2019 and 2021, FCRA certificates of as many as 1,811 organisations were cancelled. These include international NGOs like Oxfam, Greenpeace, and Amnesty International, besides Indian civil rights organisations like Lawyers Collective, Sabrang Trust, and Anhad.

Chairman of the board of Amnesty International in India, Aakar Patel, said that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is using the FCRA to suppress non-profits and civil society organisations. “You could argue that it has sharpened since 2014. And FCRA has been weaponized in a way that it hasn’t been before,” he told DW. “This is happening because of a lack of tolerance. This government under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) does not believe in giving the civil society free voice. It fundamentally opposes growth of civil society,” he added.

Government-friendly think tanks in favour

However, other prominent think tanks have not come under government pressure. The Observer Research Foundation (ORF), a think-tank founded in 1990, is funded by one of India’s richest industrial houses, Reliance. It is also close to India’s foreign policy apparatus.

Since 2016, ORF has been hosting Raisina Dialogue, which has now become one of the world’s premier events in the foreign policy and strategic affairs space. The event is jointly hosted by ORF and the Ministry of External Affairs, which also shares the event’s funding. External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar’s son Dhruva Jaishankar heads the ORF’s US chapter, ORF America.

Independent journalist Jyoti Malhotra told DW that the Modi government wants “to control the narrative” and it seeks to do that “by controlling the media, think tanks and online space”. “If think tanks are funded by the government, they seem to be much more beholden and will echo the government’s message. If you are less dependent on the government, then you are able to speak out and publish more,” she said.

Think tanks a venue for Hindu nationalism

Another think tank, the Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF), is affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which is also the BJP’s ideological fountainhead. Ajit Doval, Modi’s national security advisor (NSA) since 2014, was VIF’s founding director. Doval’s son Shaurya Doval is among the founder members of another RSS-linked think tank, the India Foundation. The organisation’s other founder, as well as its president, is RSS leader Ram Madhav.

Alok Bansal, a director at the India Foundation, told DW that although some of the foundation’s members are linked to the RSS and BJP, the foundation itself is an independent organisation.

“Many of the positions we take are similar to the positions taken by the government of the day, because we are an organisation that looks at these issues from a nationalistic perspective. But on many issues, our views may or may not be the same as the government,” he said, but did not provide any examples where this was the case.

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Mainstream media gives a lot of space to analysts associated with government-friendly think tanks, which provide their commentary with a wide platform.

Journalist Urvashi Sarkar has been researching the role of think tanks in India. She told DW that the visibility of government-friendly think tanks has definitely gone up. “We don’t know whether they are influencing public policy but they are definitely influencing public opinion,” she said.

But the people at the helm of these organisations refute this criticism. Alok Bansal said, “India Foundation has been around for 14 years, VIF for longer than that, and ORF even longer. If there is a perception that ORF is the government’s favourite then it has been every government’s favourite. It has the wherewithal and intellectual bandwidth to deliver,” he said.

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