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How India’s crackdown on NGOs is serving Hindu nationalism

28. Sep 2023

by Lisa Kirchgatterer, MF Norwegian School of Theology, Religion and Society leading up to the MPhil.

Over the past decade, the Indian government has systematically cracked down on dissenting, secular, and minority non-governmental organizations (NGOs) by limiting their access to funding. Organizations have been forced to shut down or severely limit their advocacy and community work. The gap that these organizations leave behind in communities is filled with exclusivist volunteer groups, which promote the government’s Hindu-nationalist (Hindutva) ideology. It appears that the crackdown on organizations is not only aimed at silencing critics, but it is also polarizing communities.

Clear restriction patterns

In August 2012, there were 39.236 organizations in India that were permitted to receive foreign funding. By September 2023, that number had fallen to 16.473. Between 2014 and 2016 alone, around 20.000 NGOs lost their licenses. In most cases, this meant that licenses were either canceled, suspended, or not renewed by the government. Loss of access to foreign funding had consequences not only for the affected organizations, but also for the partner projects they were supporting around the country.

These restrictions on foreign-funded NGOs have of course not gone unnoticed. These developments have been reported on Indian news, organizations’ own websites, and occasionally in research articles covering India’s crackdown on critical voices and minority groups. The pattern of restrictions seems clear: openly dissenting organizations that often promote secularism, and organizations focusing on issues of religious minorities, caste, and gender are hit the most. By contrast, Hindu nationalist organizations close to the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are expanding and continue to receive foreign funding.

Drained and replaced

Two consequences of the government’s funding restrictions for NGOs have been understudied and largely unmentioned: first, their influence on NGOs’ fundraising efforts at home, and second, the consequences for the communities who benefited from these organizations’ services and advocacy efforts.

Representatives of Indian organizations who I talked to in late 2022 stated that the government-administered foreign funding cuts were perceived as a warning by local donors. This includes both individual donors and national donor agencies who wanted to avoid unwanted negative attention from the government for supporting targeted organizations. Consequently, they have been less likely to make donations. Affected organizations are then forced to either continue working with severely limited financial resources, shifting their focus away from what the government regards as controversial or “anti-national” issues, or close altogether.

Interestingly, restricted organizations often have direct connections and access to local communities, either through their own operations or via partner projects. In a recent open letter to the Indian government, the Constitutional Conduct Group, a non-partisan group of former civil servants committed to the Constitution of India, drew attention to the worrying gap that voluntary organizations leave once restrictions have forced them to halt their operations. It seems that the groups tied to the Hindu nationalist organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) are quick to fill these gaps. The RSS is India’s largest voluntary organization and is considered the “ideological root” of the BJP. Some scholars have described this shift as an orchestrated effort to replace critical organizations with an ‘ersatz’ civil society. This ersatz civil society echoes the government’s political agenda and operates on its terms, instead of challenging it and demanding dialogue and accountability. The organizational sector is therefore now experiencing an erosion similar to that seen in academia and the Indian media landscape over recent years.

Dividing communities ahead of elections

Previous research has identified the essential role played by voluntary organizations in the formation of attitudes and political opinions, and in (de)stabilizing communities. These functions were also stressed by the NGO workers I talked to. These organizations create meeting places, provide services like health care and education, and arrange community activities. Naturally, these kinds of programs and activities are shaped by the ideological framework of the responsible organization.

Since the BJP’s national electoral success in 2014, polarization and communal tensions have been rising. It is, therefore, concerning that organizations that aim for dialogue and advocate for a commitment to constitutional values are being drowned out and replaced by exclusivist Hindutva organizations in communities.

Even if this reduction in the presence and influence of pluralist and secular NGOs in communities is only one of many factors contributing to communal unrest, it is not to be brushed aside. Research has in fact shown that building tension in communities and keeping it simmering is one of the ways the RSS manages to recruit support for the BJP ahead of elections. In other words, stoking often violent and at times deadly conflict in communities, often between groups with different religious affiliations, is of political interest to the ruling party.

The next national elections are less than one year away. The political competition for the BJP is weak and the RSS has dwindling organizational competition in communities. Individuals and groups committed to ideas of secularism, non-discrimination, and increased inclusivity, have concerns about what this will mean for both community stability and the election result itself.

In my conversations with NGO representatives and activists, I repeatedly heard worries about India’s political and social future. Again and again, they expressed fears about the government undermining the Indian Constitution. This fear is not new. “Saving the Constitution” has become a core agenda of activists. But their shrinking financial resources and limited community presence to advocate for constitutional values and against the Hindutva vision of India, paired with personal threats against activists, has limited their ability to effectively challenge Hindu nationalism.

NGOs request international solidarity

When I asked these NGO workers about what would help organizations and activists in the current political climate, they all gave the same answer: more attention and pressure from the international community.

They were of course neither the first nor the only ones demanding greater international attention, including from political and corporate actors. There have been plenty of such demands in previous years. But while India is polishing its image as a strong global player, these demands remain unheeded. How many more NGOs, activists, and minority groups need to be forced into silence and inaction before the international community will speak up?

Lisa Kirchgatterer graduated from the master’s program “Religion in Contemporary Society” at MF Norwegian School of Theology, Religion and Society with a thesis titled “An Undeclared Emergency: How the Crackdown on Civil Society Abets the Realization of a Hindu Rashtra in Contemporary India” in May 2023. The project was partly funded by the Norwegian foundation Fritt Ord.