VARANASI, India — A crackdown on private activist groups, especially Western and Christian organizations, has many here worried that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is selectively targeting organizations that don’t fit into his nationalist vision of India emphasizing Hinduism.
In the most notable instance, Greenpeace India is fighting for its survival in Indian courts after the government seizure of its accounts and temporary withdrawal of its license last year. The government said the organization was receiving foreign funds illegally.
An appeals court has allowed the Indian chapter of the environmental nongovernmental organization to remain open until a judge hears arguments in the case. In the meantime, Greenpeace India is limping along without funds from its international headquarters.
Vinuta Gopal, who stepped down as Greenpeace India’s interim executive director Jan. 20, said Mr. Modi’s regulators were targeting her group because of its advocacy for sustainable development that countered the prime minister’s relentless push for economic growth and support for business.
“The Home Ministry’s clumsy tactics to suppress free speech and dissenting voices are turning into a major national and international embarrassment for this government,” said Ms. Gopal. “This is an extension of the deep intolerance for differing viewpoints that sections of this government seem to harbor.”
Occupying an uneasy space between the state and individual voters, nongovernmental organizations that deal with hot-button issues including the environment, mining, ethnic rights and democracy-building have found themselves in the crosshairs in countries such as China and Russia.
Even Israel is facing heat from the Obama administration and American Jewish groups over a bill in the Knesset that would require nongovernmental organizations funded by foreign governments to label themselves as such in official meetings and in official reports. Critics of the bill in Israel and the U.S. say it amounts to a backdoor attempt to silence criticism of the government over its treatment of Palestinians and Israel’s Arab minority.
Greenpeace India is one of the five high-profile NGOs — including the United Theological College and the Salve Regina Charitable Trust, both based in Bangalore — whose operations have come under fire during Mr. Modi’s 1-year old tenure in office. Elected on a platform of reforming India’s notoriously backward business sector, the 65-year-old prime minister has also pursued a forceful agenda to promote Hindu values in a massive, diverse country that is around 80 percent Hindu but officially a secular democracy.
It didn’t start with the current government. Mr. Modi’s predecessors stopped foreign funding for almost 8,700 NGOs under a 2010 law that sought to reduce outside influence in the country, especially when it was linked to religious organizations that lawmakers feared could foment interfaith strife.
But Mr. Modi is now targeting popular groups that have long operated legally in India, a shift that NGO representatives say reflects his agenda to curtail non-Hindu groups.
“For sure, Hindu radical forces seek revenge on minorities,” said Lenin Raghuvanshi, founder of the People’s Vigilance Committee on Human Rights.
He acknowledged that foreign NGOs can be badly managed, sometimes deliberately so. “That’s why they disturb those whose agenda goes against their ideology,” he said.
The Indian government recently shut down the Kerala-based Catholic Charismatic Renewal Services — one of the five high-profile groups under fire — because the group reportedly failed to pay its annual income tax. But analysts say its real offense was maintaining popular social welfare programs in the spirit of a Western faith, said John Dayal, general secretary of All India Christian Council and member of National Integration Council, a government advisory board on religious and ethnic tolerance.
Plenty of NGOs in India’s corruption-riddled economy maintain shoddy accounting practices, said Mr. Dayal, but officials in Mr. Modi’s government are selective in which ones they target.
“If a Christian or minority organization is working peacefully, the government tends to disrupt that peace,” said Mr. Dayal. “It is evident that many of the organizations do not pay taxes. But why specifically target those who are working for social welfare?”
The Indian Ministry of Home Affairs did not respond to requests for comment.
Last year, regulators from the ministry sought to close the United Theological College on charges of tax evasion and financial mismanagement, as well as engaging in political activity by encouraging students to protest a steel mill project that was displacing local villagers. College administrators have appealed that move and are awaiting a final decision about their fate.
John Samuel Raj, principal of the college, denied that he or other administrators encouraged students to protest but defended the students’ right to free speech and to demonstrate.
“We provide a free and socially aware platform to our students,” said Mr. Raj. “We never stop them going to protests.”
The government has also targeted Indian NGOs caught up in religious controversies. Indian Finance Ministry officials raided and closed down the high-profile Sabrang Trust for six months in September on charges that the group failed to file taxes and misspent donations. But Teesta Setalvad, the trust’s director who was arrested and nearly jailed before posting bail, said the government’s moves are revenge for her key role in filing petitions in Indian courts that led to investigations into the Gujarat riots of 2002.
More than 1,000 Muslims died during the riots, which erupted while Mr. Modi was chief minister of the state of Gujarat. The episode has long been a stain on his political record.
Ms. Setalvad’s petitions helped reveal that Mr. Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party helped provoke the riots.
Ms. Setalvad declined to be quoted because she didn’t want to harm her chances in her pending court case.
Meanwhile, the government hasn’t investigated or suspended the license of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a controversial Hindu volunteer organization that is widely viewed as the ideological wing of Mr. Modi’s ruling party.
Regarded as the biggest NGO in India, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh receives foreign funds but doesn’t have a bank account in India, according to numerous Indian media outlets whose reports the group has never denied. The government has not audited the organization. The group has performed forced conversions of Muslims to Hinduism and other practices that have garnered intense criticism and stirred religious tensions in India.
“Why has the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh not been monitored for funding?” asked Mr. Raghuvanshi. “Its profile and agenda are more dubious than any other organization. It sure is discriminatory.”
The government also has yet to move against the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a radical Hindu organization responsible for the destruction of the Babri Mosque in northern India in 1992 and other incidents that have led to violence, Mr. Dayal said.
“These organizations have not been registered,” he said. “They are running freely and with the backing of government.”
Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh district leader Sushil Kumar Sharma defended his group by saying his volunteers benefit India whereas the others undermine steps Mr. Modi is taking to improve the country.
“These NGOs take money from foreigners to conduct anti-national activities in India,” he said. “They don’t care of India’s place in the world. Modi is right in taking these steps. No one should have the right to operate in India if it tarnishes Modi’s development agenda in the outside world.”
Anil Chaudhary, an economist and adviser to the Indian Social Action Forum, a human rights organization, said attitudes like Mr. Sharma’s illustrate Mr. Modi’s stance toward NGOs.
“The government has a [hypocritical] policy,” said Mr. Chaudhary. “They have no issues with various foreign contributors investing in India for business purposes, but those who donate to NGOs annoy the government.”