Those seeking change are not anti-govt: US to India on NGOs

Those seeking change are not anti-govt: US to India on NGOs

The US today hit out at Modi government for the punitive action against scores of NGOs, saying those who act peacefully to seek change are not anti-government and not trying to weaken national security.

US Ambassador Richard Verma further said citizens have a "inalienable right" in a democratic society to argue peacefully and ask questions or challenge laws.

"I read with some concern the recent press reports on challenges faced by the NGOs operating in India. Because a vibrant civil society is so important to both of our democratic traditions, I do worry about the potentially chilling effects of these regulatory steps focused on NGOs," Verma said.

He was delivering a lecture on "Foundation of the US-India Strategic-Plus Relationship" at Ananta Aspean Institute, a think-tank.

In a crackdown on NGOs allegedly receiving illegal foreign funds, the government last month had cancelled licences of nearly 9,000 such entities for violation of the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA).

The US-based Ford Foundation has also been put on the 'watch list' by the Home Ministry, which directed that funds coming from the international donor should not be released by any bank to any Indian NGO without mandatory permission from it. The government had also barred Greenpeace India from receiving foreign funds with immediate effect.

Noting that it was natural to have areas of disagreement between the two countries, he said he was looking forward to some tough discussions with India on certain issues, indicating that action against NGOs may be one of them.

"I also know there will be times when we disagree, and I look forward to those conversations, too. Yes, I look forward to the tough discussions because my argument is not that our two sovereign countries must be exactly the same," he said.

After the Ford Foundation was put on the watch list, the US State Department had protested and the issue was also reportedly raised by under secretary for political affairs Wendy Sherman during her meetings with senior Indian officials here last week.

The US envoy said the perception is that the "regulatory actions that are being taken (against the NGOs) could have a chilling affect on speech and expression".

Asserting that democracy was much more than elections, Verma said, "Free societies must engage in a constant and deliberate debate on topics of public concern. We cannot avoid the hard questions in the name of political expediency. We cannot avoid discussions simply because we might not like the answers."

Talking about India's "vibrant community" of over two million NGOs, the Ambassador said that with so many voices engaged in various debates, there are sure to be some whose views others find objectionable.

"Whether it is by changing laws or policies, challenging them in court, or by strengthening their enforcement, those that act peacefully to seek change are not anti-government. They are for better government. By seeking to improve government, they strengthen national security, not weaken it," Verma said.

The US Ambassador said, "I believe in the inalienable right of citizens in a democratic society to argue peacefully for a government they believe is more just, more moral, and more reflective of their individual beliefs.

"This is the same right that found a manifestation in Gandhiji's satyagrahas in Africa and India," he added.

Talking about rights of the citizens and civil society groups, Verma also mentioned Jawaharlal Nehru, B R Ambedkar and Lokmanya Tilak.

"The American Revolution was steeped in the quest for liberty from tyranny. Our founding fathers sought a government that would be run by the people and for the people.
American founding father Patrick Henry expressed this when he exclaimed 'give me liberty or give me death!'

"Over 100 years later, Lokmanya Tilak's declaration that 'Swaraj is my birth right and I shall have it' was a siren call for all in India who sought to end British rule. And as India's freedom came at midnight in 1947, Nehru reflected that her 'soul, long suppressed' had found 'its utterance'," Verma said. 

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