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NGOs supporting public causes can’t be barred from receiving foreign funds: SC

NEW DELHI, MAR 6 (IANS) | Publish Date: 3/6/2020 11:57:55 AM IST

In a significant development, the Supreme Court on Friday held that if an organisation is not involved in active politics or party politics, but support public causes by resorting to legitimate means of dissent like ‘bandh’, ‘hartals’ etc., then it cannot be deprived of its legitimate right of receiving foreign contributions.

The court said the words “political interests” are vague and are susceptible to misuse.
The ruling by a bench of Justices L. Nageswara Rao and Deepak Gupta came on a plea by NGO India Social Action Forum (INSAF), challenging the constitutional validity of Section 5 (1) and 5 (4) of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA), 2010 and other rules, which gave Centre unchecked and unbridled powers to categorise virtually any organisation as “organisation of political nature, not being a political party”, and thereby denying it from receiving foreign contributions.
The top court observed that organisations which are not involved in active politics or party politics do not fall under the rules of FCRA. Establishing clarity on words “political interest”, the top court said: “We are of the opinion that the expression ‘political interests’ in Rule 3 (v) (rules of FCRA) has to be construed to be in connection with active politics or party politics.” “It is clear from the provision itself that bandh, hartal, rasta roko etc., are treated as common methods of political action. Any organisation which supports the cause of a group of citizens agitating for their rights without a political goal or objective cannot be penalised by being declared as an organization of a political nature.”
The top court noted that prohibition from receiving foreign aid, either directly or indirectly, by those who are involved in active politics is to ensure that the values of a sovereign democratic republic are protected. “On the other hand, such of those voluntary organisations which have absolutely no connection with either party politics or active politics cannot be denied access to foreign contributions,” it said.
Therefore, organisations working for the social and economic welfare of the society cannot be brought within the purview of the Act or the Rules by enlarging the scope of the term “political interests”, the top court said, observed words “political interests” are vague and are susceptible to misuse.
The top court asked the Centre to follow the procedure prescribed in the FCRA Act and Rules strictly before depriving such organisation the right to receive foreign contribution
During the hearing the bench had observed: “You cannot throttle dissent. People should be encouraged to question, as dissent is an important facet of democracy.”
The petitioner, represented by senior advocate Sanjay Parekh, contended the provisions in the FCRA violated fundamental rights in Articles 14, 19 (1) (a), 19 (1) (c) and 21a of the Constitution. The NGO moved the top court challenging the Delhi High Court, which dismissed its plea in 2011.
Parekh contended before the apex court that in the main provision under FCRA, vague expressions have 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. The court had noted: “Nobody stops organisation from getting foreign funds except (when) it is of political nature.”
Centre’s counsel Additional Solicitor General K M Natraj and advocate Devashish Bharuka contested this argument stating rules cannot be declared as ultra vires the Act. The Centre contested the petitioner’s apprehension that there would be an abuse of power and some organisations may be unnecessarily harassed, arguing the procedure of declaring any association or organisation receiving foreign funds “political”, has been prescribed in the FCRA.
The court observed that the political parties are not allowed to get foreign funds, and queried the Centre on the nature of political rights in connection with an organisation. “Rights are so interwoven that it may become political rights. We want to understand political rights. We are concerned with organisations of political nature,” the court had queried the Centre’s counsel.
 

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