Controversy

Centre starving Christian organistions into submission

Print edition : October 09, 2020

At the office of the Indian partner of Compassion International that was shut down in 2017. Photo: PORAS CHAUDHARY/NYT

The Central government, without giving any reason, has suspended the FCRA licences of six Christian organisations.

Hot on the heels of reports of frequent attacks on Christians and churches comes a notification from the Ministry of Home Affairs suspending the licences of six non-governmental Christian organisations under the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, 2010 (FCRA). These organisations are: the Ecreosoculis North Western Gossner Evangelical in Jharkhand; the Evangelical Churches Association (ECA) in Manipur; the Northern Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jharkhand; the New Life Fellowship Association (NLFA) in Mumbai; the Don Bosco Tribal Development Society; and the Rajnandgaon Leprosy Hospital and Clinics. The government did not specify the reasons for the suspension. Incidentally, an FCRA licence is mandatory for a non-profit organisation (NGO) to receive foreign funds.

According to reports, two United States-based donors are also under the scanner for funding NGOs and groups in India. “Concerns have been raised regarding the impact of the U.S-based evangelical donors including Seventh Day Adventist Church and Baptist Church in regard to Indian associations; a probe is on,” The Hindu had reported.

Christian activists are not surprised at the move. They, however, express dismay at being singled out for action. “I would like to know if the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] has an FCRA licence. Or if the Vanvasi Kalyan Parishad or Adivasi Kalyan Ashram have ever been questioned,” says a volunteer who has worked extensively with the poor and tribal people in Jharkhand.

Vijayesh Lal, general secretary, Evangelical Fellowship of India, says: “The FCRA has always been a tool to harass the minorities. Since Indira Gandhi’s time, successive governments have retained the FCRA and used it as a tool against the NGO sector. Modi has only weaponised it. The FCRA cancellation is nothing new. It was done during Manmohan Singh’s time too. But now the government is going hard at the NGO sector in general and Christian bodies in particular. Two years ago, 26,000 organisations’ FCRA licences were suspended. This is always a sword hanging over your head if you are in that sector. Now, it is going to be even more stringent. Besides the FCRA, they have made Form 12A (income tax waiver certificate) a five-year exercise. Earlier, it was given for a lifetime. I am not personally involved with any of these six organisations. If anybody has flouted the law, he or they should be made accountable. Having said that, how come only the minority bodies are targeted?”

“It is targeted bigotry,” says John Dayal, former national president, All India Catholic Union, and member, National Integration Council.“It is a fraud on the Constitution of India.”

Christian organisations have been hauled up for alleged FCRA violations for many decades. “It is true there were instances of licences being revoked during Manmohan Singh’s time too. Now, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made amply clear what he thinks about the minorities. He is fulfilling M.S. Golwalkar’s agenda. In 2015, when Narendra Modi made a passionate speech at Vigyan Bhawan about religious freedom for all, he gave everybody hope. Equal rights for all, he promised. But none of that has actually come true. We are still being attacked, still being targeted, and on frivolous charges too. I am disappointed,” says Vijayesh Lal.

It is not the first time that Christian organisations have had their licences revoked since the government led by Modi came to power in 2014. In 2017, the U.S-based donor, Compassion International, was ordered to stop operations in India after the Home Ministry claimed that it had found that it funded NGOs that encouraged religious conversions.

John Dayal says: “The FCRA was conceived by Indira Gandhi because she thought Gandhian institutions were getting funds from Germany and other countries to bring about a regime change in India. Initially it was not targeted against Christian organisations. But successive governments, beginning with the Morarji Desai-led government, found it a useful tool to control those religious organisations who were also active in the social field and whose programme included empowering all people, including Dalits, the landless and the marginalised, not necessarily Christians. This is something no government wanted. They wanted people to remain in the margins and not demand their rights.

FCRA: A weapon

The FCRA became weaponised as an instrument to prevent the unity of the poor and to prevent the mobilisation of people in defence of their rights. Non-BJP governments did it once in a while. But, of late, both during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s time, and increasingly under the Modi-I and Modi-II regimes, the instrument has been nuclearised. They went through the entire list of organisations getting funds under the FCRA. Many were Hindu organisations, some were Christian and some were Muslim. The Christian organisations consisted of congregations of fathers, nuns and pastors. The funds come from people who give to all poor people. They are the people whom the corporate sector does not help. No money is given for evangelisation. The money that comes in is for social action and [for building] schools.”

According to Dayal, the money is used for the specific purpose it was collected for. “The money that comes for education goes into the Indian economy. It pays for the repair of schools which are run by Hindus. It pays for students, most of whom are Hindus. It pays for the staff, most of whom are Hindus. It gives scholarships to students, all students, not just Christian students. What the Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP] government didwasfirst weeding out those organisations which did not exist, or whose documentation was not complete. We have no problem with that.

“Then the government started becoming selective. Any organisation working with fishermen, portmen and landless labourers was picked up and their FCRA licence was stopped. For instance, Compassion International. It gave money exclusively for the care of children, for their pre-natal and post-natal care, for schooling, for mid-day meal, for medicare, and so on. That organisation was stopped from bringing money into India. Hindu organisations, secular and non-Christian organisations were all impacted, but the worst impacted were children and the poor, who are beyond the net of governance.”

Is it not a paradox that the licences are revoked at a time when the government is struggling to fulfil the obligations of the mid-day meal scheme? There have been reports of mid-day meals being cancelled at the time of the pandemic.

“How can anybody help those who do not need help? The organisations we talk about help only those who need help. It is a logical question. I will not give my money to anybody who does not need my money. By definition, when you stop the FCRA licence, you impact people for whom the FCRA was being used,” says Dayal.

The groundwork and the actual effort to feed the poor are laudable, but there is a complaint that every Christian, by religious dictates, is supposed to work for conversion and that FCRA funds are diverted towards that end.

Dayal feels it is unfair to target Christians alone as all faiths try to augment their ranks. “All religions, including the Sanatana Dharma and the Arya Samaj, do that. Thousands of Hindu pastors called panditjis have gone abroad. Yoga has been completely religionised and used as a method of propagation. The whole tribal belt has been Hinduised through the Adivasi Kalyan Ashram. In a village where the sarpanch, the Block Development Officer [BDO] and the inspector are Hindus, in a State where the Police Commissioners and the Chief Minister are Hindus, do you think one or two pastors can forcibly or fraudulently convert anybody? The notion of forcible conversion is a fraud on the people. How does one explain the fact that most Christians are poor? I would like to become a Hindu if they agree to make me a Brahmin. There are lakhs of Hindus working in the Gulf. Why don’t the sheikhs make them Muslims?” says Dayal. What he leaves unsaid is that inducement is not a sufficient ground for conversion.

Aware of the emerging problems, the Pontifical Council of Inter-Religious Dialogue issued a statement, emphasising the true call of a Christian. The PCDI statement read: “Mission belongs to the very essence of the Church. Proclaiming the Word of God and bearing witness to it to the world is fundamental for every Christian. At the same time, it is necessary to do it according to the principles of the Gospel, with full respect and love for all human beings.”

Aware of the tensions between the people and communities of different religious convictions and of the various interpretations of the Christian faith, the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, the Ecumenical Council of Churches (CEC) and, at the invitation of the CEC, the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) drafted a document which is not intended to be a theological declaration on mission but one that addresses practical problems in a multi-religious world. “We are assessing the reality. We are vigilant but we have not come to any conclusion,” says Father Jervis D’Souza, deputy secretary general, Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI).

That may be a step in the right direction, but who is to apprise the pontiffs of the FCRA regulations, and the politics behind them?

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