NGOs supporting public cause cannot be penalised under FCRA: SC

INSAF’s plea claimed that it violated certain fundamental rights as guaranteed by the Constitution, which was upheld by the court

Supreme Court
File Photo: PTI

The Supreme Court on Friday (March 6) said that non-governmental organisations (NGOs) which are supporting a public cause via recognised means of protest and do not have a political goal cannot be penalised or deprived of funds from foreign contributors and sources.

In a landmark judgement, the top court said NGOs cannot be declared “an organisation of political nature” and if they support a cause by restoring to legitimate means of dissent such as bandhs and strikes, under the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, 2010  (FCRA), they cannot be penalised as these are common expressions of political action.

“It is clear from the provision itself that bandhs, hartals, rasta rokos, etc. are treated as common methods of political action. Any organisation that supports the cause of a group of citizens agitating for their rights without a political goal or objective cannot be penalised by being declared an organisation of political nature,” the court said.

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A two-judge bench comprising of Justices L Nageswara Rao and Deepak Gupta gave the verdict while listening to a petition by the Indian Social Action Forum (INSAF) challenging the provisions of the FCRA.

INSAF’s plea claimed that it violated certain fundamental rights as guaranteed by the Constitution, which was upheld by the court.

“To save this provision from being declared unconstitutional, we hold it is only those organisations that have connection with active politics, or take part in politics, that are covered,” Justice L Nageswara Rao said while writing the judgement for the bench.

The petition, which was earlier dismissed by the Delhi High Court, was taken up by the apex court that pointed the legislative intent behind the law.

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It added that the law had been made to prohibit political organisations from receiving foreign contributions and a balance had to be drawn between that objective and the rights of voluntary organisations to have access to foreign funds.

Senior advocate Sanjay Parekh, who is also the petitioner, noted that certain unclear expressions were attacked to specific activities and “instead of defining those activities, the canvas of vagueness has been expanded thereby resulting in arbitrariness and violation of constitutional parameters”.

The judgement comes in the backdrop of its last month’s order, where the court said protest or dissent could not be controlled and the voice of people should be heard when they question the government as this was a crucial feature of a democracy.

The FCRA provisions which were challenged consisted of the government unchecking the powers given to include virtually any organisation as “organisation of political nature, not being a political party”, which thereby denies foreign contribution.

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The verdict is being viewed as a landmark one since several cases were registered against NGOs such as the human rights group Amnesty India, over the alleged violations of the FCRA’s provisions.

In case of Amnesty India, its offices in Bengaluru and Delhi were, in November 2019, raided by the Central Bureau of Investigation. To which, the group said that it was targeted for being vocal against human rights abuses in the country.

In 2018, the workplace of environmental watchdog Greenpeace, an international NGO, was raided by the Enforcement Directorate, which came just a few weeks ahead of its raid on Amnesty.