In the United States, we have agreed that certain privileges doled out by the government can be enjoyed only if private entities agree to certain limitations. For example, if a faith-based organization partners with the government to provide social services utilizing state dollars, it may do so on the condition that it does not engage in “inherently religious activities,” such as proselytization. If an American or foreign charity (NGO) wants the benefit of being tax-exempt, it must agree to refrain from endorsing political candidates, limit its lobbying, and make annual tax filings. Simply put, government privileges come with the price of obeying the law of the land.
Similarly, India regulates certain privileges, such as the ability of Indian NGOs to accept foreign contributions. The Foreign Contributions Act of 2010 (FCRA) seeks to ensure foreign funds are received from legitimate sources and utilized for legitimate purposes. It requires periodic financial filings and states that only NGOs registered under the FCRA can receive foreign funds. The FCRA and other applicable laws also prohibit certain uses of funds, including uses which may be detrimental to the public interest or create disharmony between diverse communities. The United States and other democracies routinely enact laws in order to protect what they deem to be the public interest.
There are over three million NGOs operating in India, of which approximately 30,000 are FCRA registered. As of early 2017, 20 were on the GoI’s Prior Permission List, a stop-gap short of revoking FCRA eligibility of noncompliant NGOs. It requires prior clearance by the Indian government of every foreign dollar transfer. Ten were placed on this list by the current BJP government; the remaining by the previous UPA/Congress government. More recent additions include Salafist preacher Zakir Naik’s Islamic Research Foundation and George Soros’ Open Society Foundation. The reasons for an NGO being placed on this list have ranged from diverting funds to other non-FCRA NGOs to engaging in other activities prohibited by the FCRA rules.
The “crackdown” on NGOs, similar to the BJP’s unprecedented demonetization campaign, is part of its larger, and legitimate, plan of rooting out corruption, making transparent the flow of all monies in the country, and improving law enforcement. The government, to this end, did crack down on non-complying NGOs (both secular and faith-based) last year and cancelled some 10,000 FCRA NGO registrations for failure to submit financial reports for three consecutive years. Recall that in 2011, the IRS similarly automatically revoked the tax-exempt status of 275,000 nonprofits for failure to file their Form 990s for three consecutive years.
India has also begun more robust investigations of other areas of NGO noncompliance. According to media reports and Indian government sources, the initial investigation of Compassion International began with possible tax evasion by its India affiliate, Caruna Bal Vikas (CBV). CBV was also found to be distributing funds to non-FCRA NGOs and numerous religious NGOs—as opposed to social service NGOs—contradicting its own FCRA and tax applications. The suggestion that Christian charities are being targeted betrays the fact that Compassion and its affiliates violated several Indian laws, and more importantly, that the top FCRA approved donors and FCRA recipients are consistently Christian.
As Hindu and Indian Americans, we applaud American charities offering humanitarian assistance in India. But history affirms that too many Christian charities see India as a fertile land, ripe for converting “spiritually poor,” dark, heathen souls, otherwise known as Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Muslims, and Sikhs to 10-40/4-14 missiologists, like Compassion International’s Dr. Dan Brewster. Compassion’s mission statement expresses that “as an advocate for children,” they seek “to release them from their spiritual, economic, social and physical poverty...to become responsible and fulfilled Christian adults” (emphasis mine).
The offering of aid with the intent or on the condition of conversion, or discriminating on the basis of religion to determine eligibility for social services—Compassion measures outcomes in part by the assistance recipients’ “...demonstrated commitment to the Lordship of Christ”—is predatory and unethical, and must be condemned by any American who respects not just religious freedom, but equality and pluralism.
Religious freedom, whether in India or here, entails the right to share one’s faith, and be moved by another so much so that one wants to change their religion. But it must also acknowledge the right to retain one’s religion. While force, coercion, and violence are universally condemned, so too must unethical and predatory proselytization and resulting conversions be condemned and legislated against.
If Compassion International violated Indian law, then it must face the consequences. The same goes for all other American NGOs operating in India—respect their laws the way we expect them to respect ours.