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U.S. voices concern over India action against Ford Foundation, Greenpeace

NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The United States has expressed concern that India’s crackdown on the activities of the Ford Foundation and Greenpeace India could limit “necessary and critical debate” in the world’s largest democracy and is seeking “clarification”.

A U.S. State Department official said Washington was aware New Delhi had suspended the registration of Greenpeace India and put the Ford Foundation on a security watch list, ordering government approval of any of its activities in India.

The Ford Foundation, one of the world’s largest charitable funds, was put on a watch list on Thursday after the Indian home ministry said it was investigating funding to a group run by a prominent activist and critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Civil society groups say New Delhi’s move to restrict the movement of foreign funding to local charities is an attempt to stifle voices which oppose Modi’s model of economic development.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Washington was “concerned about the difficulties caused to civil society organizations” by the way the Foreign Contributions Regulations Act had been applied.

“We are concerned that this recent ruling limits a necessary and critical debate within Indian society, and we are seeking a clarification on this issue with the appropriate Indian authorities,” she told a press briefing late on Friday.

In a crackdown on foreign funding to non-governmental organisations, India’s home ministry has instructed the central bank to check with the government before passing any money from the New York-based Ford Foundation to local organisations.

All funds distributed by the foundation should be “utilized for bonafide welfare activities without compromising on concerns for national interest and security”, the ministry said.

The Ford Foundation, which has worked in India since 1952, said the action related to an investigation into local group Sabrang Communications but added the foundation “has been and continues to be deeply respectful of the laws of the land”.

Sabrang, which is run by activist Teesta Setalvad and has a mission to “strengthen conflict resolution and peace building” in the states of Gujarat and Maharashtra, was given $250,000 by the Ford Foundation in 2009, the foundation’s website said.

Last week Sabrang was accused by a state minister from Gujarat of misusing funds to create “communal disharmony”.

Setalvad is a long-time critic of Modi, a Hindu leader, who was chief minister of Gujarat state in western India in 2002 when almost 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in riots.

Setalvad and her husband are currently fighting accusations covered in the India media of embezzling funds meant for a museum to honour victims of the 2002 riots in Gujarat.

This is not the first time the Indian government has blocked foreign money to a non-government organisation citing concerns over the country’s national security.

In June last year, India’s intelligence service said Greenpeace and other lobby groups were damaging the country’s economy by campaigning against power projects, mining and genetically modified food.

While Greenpeace denied the allegations, India has barred the organisation from receiving foreign funds by suspending its license for six months and frozen all its accounts.