India’s move to block the flow of foreign funds to the Missionaries of Charity comes amid a pushback by right-wing Hindu nationalists who accuse Christian missionaries of converting Hindus against their will or by offering bribes.
The group is among the most prominent of thousands of nonprofits, religious charities and rights groups facing a funding ban under rules passed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration as part of tighter scrutiny of these groups under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act.
The effective freeze on the charity’s foreign donations is being seen by critics as part of the targeting of religious minorities by Hindu hardliners since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party came to power.
“If you want to create an impact, you pick icons. When you target visible and revered icons, its shock value is far greater and there is nothing in India more prominent, more trusted and respected than the Missionaries of Charity,” said Valson Thampu, former principal of one of India’s top colleges, St. Stephen’s.
In the seven decades since it was first started by Mother Teresa in the eastern Indian city of Kolkata, the Missionaries of Charity has won global recognition for humanitarian work among the poorest people. In India, it runs homes for abandoned children and clinics and hospices in many states.
The Home Ministry has said it is not renewing Missionaries of Charities’ license to receive foreign funds because of “adverse inputs.” It did not say what these inputs were. The overseas donations of millions of dollars are a key funding source for the charity’s programs.
The funding ban came days after police filed a complaint against the director of a children’s home run by the Missionaries of Charity in the western Gujarat state for allegedly attempting to convert young girls to Christianity. Nuns from the home have denied the charges.
The organizations whose licenses to access foreign funds have not been renewed include Christian and Muslim nonprofits, groups working with tribal communities or on human rights issues, particularly those that have been critical of the government, political analysts say. Greenpeace and Amnesty International are among those whose accounts have been frozen.
The ban on the foreign funding of the Missionaries of Charity has taken many aback.
“It is shocking that the charity with their long record of service among the destitute and poor has not been spared. By targeting it they are sending a clear message to others that anybody can be touched.” Niranjan Sahoo, a political analyst at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, said.
“This is completely choking the space in a country that is still secular and allows people to propagate their religion. Cutting off sources of funding ensures that those rights cannot be exercised,” he said.
Critics point to growing religious polarization in India since the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in 2014. However, while attention has often focused on attacks on Muslims by Hindu vigilante groups, Christian groups say attacks targeting their community, who make up about 2.4% of India’s population, have also been rising.
The targeting of Christians is linked to the ire among the Hindu right against religious conversions, an issue that has become politically charged since the BJP came to power, according to analysts.
According to a report by the United Christian Forum, a Christian rights protection body, the number of alleged violent attacks against Christians in India rose to 486 in 2021 from 279 in 2020.
Most of them were reported from states ruled by the BJP and have included disruptions of Christmas celebrations, alleged attacks on pastors and vandalizing a statue of Jesus. Such attacks are part of a broad shift that is making religious minorities apprehensive, some Christians say.
“When the BJP is in power, the empowerment of fringe elements is massive and there is complicity of state agencies like the police. Though some say these are only fringe elements, I say that their numbers are still huge in a country of 1.3 billion,” John Dayal, a Christian activist in New Delhi, said.
“And when you block funding of an organization founded by someone of the stature of Mother Teresa, should we not be afraid?” he added.
The ruling BJP has repeatedly said that it protects the rights of all citizens and minorities.
However, in recent years several states have passed or proposed laws to restrict religious conversion through marriage.
While several states already have anti-conversion laws in place, the lower house in the legislature in the southern state of Karnataka, which is ruled by the BJP, became the latest such body to pass a tough bill that proposes prison terms for up to 10 years for unlawful conversions.
“The electoral appeal of the BJP is directed on the idea of cultural nationalism and to create this fear that these two minority communities, Christians and Muslims, if allowed free rein, will eliminate Hinduism and therefore it is necessary to hold them on a leash and the BJP is the only party that can do it,” Thampu said.
It is unclear how much the drying up of foreign donations will affect the work of the Missionaries of Charity, who also receive domestic donations. But at least one state run by a regional party has directed that the group’s work should not suffer.
In the eastern Orissa state, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik asked officials to use state government funds to mitigate problems faced by the charitable organization and ensure that residents of homes and orphanages it runs do not suffer from lack of food or health issues.