Prime Minister Nadrendra Modi at the United Nations Photograph: (Getty)
More than 10,000 civil society groups in India cannot work due to cancellation of their licences to receive overseas donations
United Nations experts on Thursday called on India to repeal a law on foreign donations to charities, accusing Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government of using it to block funds to organisations considered critical of the state.
Since Modi swept to power more than two years ago, his right-wing nationalist government has tightened surveillance on foreign-funded charities regulated under the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA).
More than 10,000 civil society groups in India have had their licences to receive overseas donations cancelled or suspended since 2014, impairing their ability to work in areas from health to the environment.
The government says the groups violate the FCRA by not disclosing details of their donations or have used foreign funds to engage in "anti-national" activities.
But U.N. experts said they were stunned by the way India was applying the law to stymie its critics.
"We are alarmed that FCRA provisions are being used more and more to silence organisations involved in advocating civil, political, economic, social, environmental or cultural priorities, which may differ from those backed by the government," said a statement by U.N. Special Rapporteurs Michel Forst, David Kaye and Maina Kiai, who focus on human rights defenders and freedoms of expression and association.
Groups such as Greenpeace India, Lawyers Collective and the Sabrang Trust have had their licenses suspended, said the statement from the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Greenpeace campaigns against nuclear power and coal mining, Lawyers Collective works on sexual minorities rights and Sabrang Trust is run by Teesta Setalvad, a prominent human rights activist and Modi critic.
A home ministry official contacted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation said he was not in a position to respond immediately to the comments by the U.N. experts.
There is no official number of charities operating in India, but the government estimates at least two million non-profits work in such areas as the environment, climate change and protecting minority rights.
A 2013 report by the home ministry said some 43,500 groups were registered as charities that received foreign funds but slightly less than half provided details of their donations.
Home ministry officials have said they are enforcing the FCRA to make the non-profit sector compliant and transparent and ensure charities are not engaging in illegal political or anti-national activities.
The U.N. experts said use of the FCRA was "overly broad" and activities deemed political or against the economic interest of the state were vague.
They singled out the treatment of the Lawyers Collective, which works on improving the rights of sexual minorities and those living with HIV/AIDS as an attempt to intimidate, delegitimise and silence the group.
"Human rights defenders and civil society must have the ability to do their important job without being subjected to increased limitations on their access to foreign funding," the U.N. experts said.