Modi's second term likely to keep choking philanthropy, especially from Christians

A group of social workers and teachers working with children in a Delhi slum. Some have salaries and some are volunteers from a local church.

A group of social workers and teachers working with children in a Delhi slum. Some have salaries and some are volunteers from a local church.

(NEWS ANALYSIS) Among tightly clustered buildings and narrow alleys in North Delhi, a red gate opens to a courtyard with green grass, swings, slides, and classrooms with black chalkboards and posters of Bible verses in Hindi and English. A white Jesus in white robes gazes from a poster on the wall at the 20-something students, ages 6 to 9, fidgeting in their desks.

The Indian reverend who brought me there asked one boy, named Muhammed, to stand.

“Our Father in heaven, hallowed by your name,” Muhammed began reciting in English the Lord’s Prayer, as said by Jesus in the Bible. “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Poor Hindu and Muslim parents were skeptical at first, the reverend explained, but the promise of their kids learning English, meeting the occasional foreigner during donor visits (or a reporter like me), having better access to better jobs – all this convinced them to send their kids to the school anyway.

Until 2017, the school received funding from Compassion International, the American Christian charity that aims to alleviate poverty around the world by providing underprivileged kids with quality education, medical care and meal surety. That ended (along with support for about 500 other grassroots partners of Compassion’s) when the Indian government cancelled Compassion’s foreign funding license in 2018, on accusations of converting people to Christianity. The reverend asked not to be named to protect their school from government interference as they look for more funding.

“How can we convert someone?” he asked. “That’s a matter of conscience and the heart. We only teach the kids morals and that’s something all religions have in common.”

A wall of the classroom in North Delhi.

A wall of the classroom in North Delhi.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won reelection Thursday May 23, with a sweeping majority in parliament that no one predicted just months ago. Though his government tried to hide unemployment data that showed a 45-year jobless high in 2017, and violence against Muslims and Christians has increased, a terrorist attack earlier this year animated Modi to campaign on Islamophobia and a hardline stance toward Pakistan that appealed to many of India’s 900 million voters.

The BJP is expected to pick up where they left off during election season and continue to financially choke groups they ideologically disagree with—those defending the rights of religious minorities like Muslims and Christians, seen as foreign religions; those pushing for justice for Dalits, tribal people whose land is grabbed for natural resources, and other marginalized groups with grievances against the government and military, like Kashmiri Muslims; those trying to protect the environment from illegal mining; and those seen as conducting religious conversion, like Compassion.

Despite a history of secularism and tolerance, India has some “freedom of religion” laws that criminalize proselytizing. The anti-conversion laws were perhaps meant to protect especially vulnerable people like Dalits (the lowest caste of Hindus and considered untouchable in some communities) and tribes from feeling coerced to convert to Christianity in exchange for financial help, as may have happened with Western missionaries. Hardline right-wing Hindus see tribal people, usually practicing animism, as originally Hindu. But many Dalits and tribals who convert to Christianity face additional hardships. When Dalits convert, they lose their legal status to receive welfare benefits from the government. 

“Christians will be continued to be viewed as the masters of convertors, despite the census figure remaining stagnant since independence,” said A.C. Michael, a Christian and former member of the Delhi Minorities Commission. Less than two percent of the country is Christian. “But it does not mean we Christians will stop practicing our faith as guaranteed in the Constitution of India.”

The Hindu nationalist-led government has cancelled the licenses of about 20,000 non-government organizations (NGOs) since 2015. Philanthropy to India from abroad fell by 40 percent from 2015 to 2018, according to Bain and Company, a consultancy.  (Though a bright spot is that private individuals’ philanthropy is increasing in India and set to increase further.)

NGO licenses were cancelled, according to India’s Home Ministry, for violating the law. The Foreign Contributions Regulatory Act (FCRA) was originally instituted by India’s Congress Party in 1976 to ban foreign funding of political activities in India. In 2010, then-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (Congress Party) amended the FCRA to allow the government to question “any organisation of a political nature” about their income sources. When the BJP stepped into power in 2014, they talked up a leaked intelligence report that claimed foreign-funded NGOs like Greenpeace and Amnesty were “serving as tools for foreign policy interests of Western governments” and decreased India’s GDP by 2-3 percent to justify a backlash against foreign NGOs.  

A new NGO has to operate for three years before it can even apply for a foreign funding license. The wait for approval varies widely but could take about a year. Many are rejected without clear reasons, similar to visas.

Ironically, Modi’s government has also opened the doors for anonymous donations to political parties, meaning this year’s election result could have been propelled by foreign corporate interests. Anyone can purchase electoral bonds, given to political parties which can exchange them for cash that’s not taxed - all without donors named. In 2017, India’s parliament removed a cap on corporate donations, allowing brand new companies (shell companies) to donate to political parties without naming which party or how much they donated. 

The BJP received more than five times the income than its closest rival in 2017-2018, according to the Election Commission of India. And spending on this year’s election is predicted to rise by 40 percent to $7 billion (500 billion rupees), according to the Centre for Media Studies.

In 2018, Modi even rejected foreign aid for flood relief in the southern state of Kerala when nearly 2 million people lost their homes and 370 died.

Despite the BJP’s record on minorities, many foreign investors and businesses see Modi as the best choice. Foreign Direct Investment has risen significantly under Modi as well as India's global ranking in the "Ease of Doing Business”. 

Gunjan Bagla, a California-based managing director of the consultancy Amritt, Inc. advises American companies doing business in India. Many want to fulfill corporate social responsibility goals in India.

“I advise them to seek out Indian charities that are compatible with their goals and values and invest their funds and efforts in the local regions of India where they operate,” Bagla said. “This is harder than turning to familiar and trusted American names such as United Way but is worth the extra time and due diligence and demonstrates a commitment to Indian causes.”

American Christians who want to donate to Indian causes may have to follow suit and find Indian NGOs with foreign-funding licenses.