Activists expressing solidarity with Setalvad in New Delhi. (Photo: Bismillah Geelani)

Activists expressing solidarity with Setalvad in New Delhi. (Photo: Bismillah Geelani)

India has placed the US-based aid group Ford Foundation on a national security watch due to it’s funding of a group that is seeking the conviction of Prime Minister Narendra Modi for human rights abuses.

The groups leaders Teesta Setalvad and her husband Javed Anand are is facing charges of being involved in anti-national activities and embezzling funds they received from foreign donors.  

Filmmaker Anand Patvardhan says the charges are bogus and politically motivated.

“There is no doubt in my mind that the reason that Teesta and Javed is being persecuted right now is because of the work they have done to bring the guilty to book. And I think it is our duty as citizens of this country to stand by Teesta and Javed and not allow this witch hunt to continue,” said Anand.

Teesta Setalvad has been the face of the campaign seeking justice for the victims of 2002 communal riots in the Western state of Gujarat.

Nearly 2000 people mostly Muslims were killed in the riots and many blame the current Prime Minister Narendra Modi who was then the Chief Minister of Gujarat for facilitating the riots.

Teesta Setalvad says she has been facing harassment throughout these years.

“The targeted attack began from 2004 onwards ever since the Citizens for Justice and Peace-the organization that I represent, consistently gave legal aid to the survivors of 2002 riots and did not simply stop at documentation. It’s for the first time in the history of independent India that in cases related to mass communal violence we have had judicial remedy to the extent that 117 powerful accused have been convicted to life imprisonment. This has never happened before,” she said.

Setalvad says, the intensity of the attacks on her significantly increased since the Narendra Modi-led government came to power at the centre last year.

“This vendetta against us is because we are seeking to show today; that what happened in 2002 in 14 of the 25 districts of Gujarat was not a spontaneous outburst but was a calibrated, calculated and pre-planned conspiracy,” she said.

At the moment Setalvad is free on a bail.

The authorities have raided her home and office, cancelled the registration of her group and frozen her bank accounts.  

The government has also declared her a threat to national security and put her main funding source the US-based NGO Ford Foundation on their watch list.

Ranjnikant Patel is a minister in the Gujarat government.

“The Ford Foundation has given her NGO a lot of money which she has misused.  It has been found that the same money was used against the government and to harm the atmosphere of communal harmony in the country. And it is on the basis of these findings that the action has been initiated,” he said.

Putting the Ford Foundation on the watch list means the group cannot fund an NGO unless it gets prior approval from the government.  

Senior Supreme Court advocate Sanjay Hegde sees this as an attempt to harass the foreign donors.

“The Ford Foundation has been seeding organizations and building institutions and what is happening now is that the government is telling foreign foundations and foreign money every step you take every move you make we will be watching you.  Today it’s Ford Foundation Tomorrow it could be the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation,” he said.

The curbs on Setalvad and her group are not an isolated case.

In recent months the government has cancelled the registration of thousands of NGOs and barred many others from receiving contributions from foreign countries.

The move came after the national intelligence agency reported that many of these groups are using foreign money to support protests.

Among the groups that are specifically mentioned in the report are the Amnesty International and the Green Peace India.

Acting on the report the government ordered freezing of Green Peace India’s bank accounts and barred some of its members from travelling abroad.

GVL Narasimha Rao, the spokesperson of the ruling BJP defends the government’s action.

“A lot of these foreign donations come with a specific motive and the motive is to hurt India’s economic interests in certain sectors. This is symptomatic of many organizations that they receive foreign funds and work to the detriment of India’s interests. There’s no bar on anything but when it becomes prejudicial to the national interest the government has a duty to intervene and this is a message to all of them as a whole,” he said.

But the Green Peace India strongly rejects all the Charges.

Priya Pillai represents the group.  

She says they are being targeted because they oppose the development model that is anti-poor and causes irreparable damage to the environment.

“There are two stakeholders here. There are Tribals, marginalized communities and minorities in this country and people who are working to protect their rights become anti-national, a threat to the development of this country and a threat to the national security.  And on the other hand you have corporate groups like Adanis, Reliance, and Tatas and you have a government that is diluting laws, changing laws and bringing in the land ordinance to promote corporate takeover, and that is supposed to be in the national interest. So who defines national interest?” she said.

Green Peace has been on the forefront of the movement against nuclear energy and coal mining.

 It has been urging the government to shift its focus to clean and renewable sources of energy.

The Modi government’s crackdown on NGOs has evoked severe criticism from all the opposition parties in the country.

Some foreign governments, like the United States have also expressed concern on the issue.

Anant Kumar is a sociologist at the New Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University.

“They don’t realize that voluntary societies are the lifeline for the expansion of democratic space. You attack civil society you are actually hurting yourself if you are a democrat. If you are not a democrat go ahead and destroy whatever has been created in the last 65 years. Previous governments were not casual governments. They also wanted to do a bit of streamlining. But streamlining is one thing and destruction is another thing,” she said.


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