Non-governmental organisations, or NGOs, supporting public causes via recognised means of protest and dissent cannot be deprived of funds from foreign contributors and sources, the Supreme Court said today in a potentially key verdict. The top court said organisations that did not have a political goal could not be penalised by declaring them "an organisation of political nature".
The court said NGOs with non-political goals that supported public causes by resorting to legitimate means of dissent - such as bandhs and strikes - could not have access to funds cut because, under the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, 2010, or FCRA, 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 support 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.
The Supreme Court verdict, delivered by a two-judge bench consisting of Justices L Nageswara Rao and Deepak Gupta, comes against a petition by the Indian Social Action Forum (INSAF) that challenged certain provisions of the FCRA, claiming it violated certain fundamental rights as guaranteed by the Constitution.
The court upheld the provision but, simultaneously. also read it down, or diluted it.
"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, writing the judgement for the bench, said.
The court pointed out that the legislative intent behind the law had been to prohibit political organisations from receiving foreign contributions. It added that a balance had to be drawn between that objective and the rights of voluntary organisations to have access to foreign funds.
The INSAF petition had earlier been dismissed by the Delhi High Court.
The petitioner, senior advocate Sanjay Parekh, contended that vague expressions had been given to certain activities, and "instead of defining those activities, the canvas of vagueness has been expanded thereby resulting in arbitrariness and violation of constitutional parameters".
Last month, while reserving its order in the case, the court said dissent could not be throttled and people should be encouraged to question the government as this was an important facet of democracy.
Under the provisions of the FCRA that were challenged, the centre had unchecked powers to categorise virtually any organisation as "organisation of political nature, not being a political party", and thereby deny foreign contribution.
The court's verdict have been seen by many as crucial given cases registered against NGOs like human rights group Amnesty India, over violation of alleged provisions of the FCRA.
Amnesty India offices in Bengaluru and Delhi were raided by the Central Bureau of Investigation, or CBI, in November last year. The group had said it was being targeted for speaking out against human rights abuses in the country.
In 2018, the premises of another international NGO, environmental watchdog Greenpeace, were also raided by the Enforcement Directorate, weeks before its move against Amnesty.