The Prime Minister’s Office cannot afford to rest. It has now instructed Niti Aayog to formulate a national policy to regulate civil society organizations so that, according to a member of its working group, a ‘healthy partnership’ between the government and CSOs is enabled. Since the government decides what is healthy, sceptics could suspect that compliance with it and its dominant party’s objectives and silence instead of criticism would mean health. Niti Aayog is professedly revising a 2007 policy regarding the regulation of voluntary organizations but the aim, according to the agency, is also to identify CSOs breaching the rules governing them, especially those deriving from the amended Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act. In 2020, the International Commission of Jurists said that these amendments violated the country’s international legal obligations and the Constitutional rights of freedom of association and expression. However, the government is no doubt alert to embezzlement and duplication of funds by CSOs in spite of the restraints on accessing and using foreign funds for non-governmental organizations, mandatory registration of CSOs applying for tax exemption on the portal, Darpan, from which the government gathers data on funds, a 40 per cent drop in foreign financing and the shutting down of 13,000 NGOs between 2014-18. Bringing CSOs in line seems to be an unending battle.
Registered voluntary organizations must abide by an array of laws, perhaps for very good reasons. Surely those violating laws can be identified by the ever vigilant agencies of the government? What would a national regulatory policy mean in this context? Are NGO projects going to be ‘regulated’ or will the actions a CSO can take be defined by the government? The insistence on transparency for NGOs — no transparency is required for electoral bonds — and the government’s reiterated belief in their tendency to dishonesty make up the case for ceaseless vigilance. Narendra Modi’s government — Darpan was reportedly Mr Modi’s idea — could be perceived as aiming at a complete assimilation of the non-governmental space. The alternative is dangerous, with the likes of Stan Swamy and Shoma Sen, for example, allegedly conspiring to assassinate the prime minister and overthrow democracy. It is only natural that Niti Aayog should include the joint secretary of the home ministry’s counter terrorism and counter radicalization division/combating of funding of terrorist cell in the working group.