#India- National Commission for Scheduled Tribes puts Governors in the docks


Governors in the dock

 

Author(s): Jitendra, downtoearth

Issue Date: Apr 15, 2013

image

Tribals in Jharkhand protest for land rights. Conflicts are growing in tribal areas ( photo credit: ARVIND YADAV / CSE)

They turn a blind eye to laws overriding tribal rights, complains national commission

 

GOVERNORS of states with sizeable tribal population have come in for indictment over not performing their special administrative roles. To ensure partial autonomy in tribal areas, the Constitution entrusts governors with immense powers to supervise the administration and governance in such areas. They can allow or disallow any law or development programme in tribal areas to protect self governance and development needs. They can also make regulations for harmony and effective governance. But governors are hardly doing so, finds the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes.

 

In a confidential report sent to the President, the Commission has recommended that governors be made more accountable in dispensing their special duties in tribal areas notified under Schedule Five of the Constitution, which protects tribal interests. This comes at a time when the government is allocating large development funds for these areas, many of which are reeling from Maoist insurgency.

 

“There is a need to evolve a mechanism for the governor … in scheduled areas to monitor and ensure implementation (of constitutional provisions) in letter and spirit. So that governors may play an oversight role in the matter,” states the report sent in June last yearand seen by Down To Earth.

 

The Commission, a constitutional body, sends an annual report to the President on the state of affairs in tribal areas notified under Schedule Five.

 

According to sources, the President, who also enjoys special powers in Schedule Five areas, has sent the report to the tribal affairs ministry. It should have been placed in Parliament after a review by the ministry. But the ministry, due to reasons known to it best, did not do so. “We did not table it in Parliament due to complex procedures and nonavailability of a Hindi version of the report,” A K Dubey, joint secretary of the ministry, says. He does not elaborate“complex procedures”.

 

Since its inception in 2004, the Commission has sent five annual reports to the President. Except for the first one, no report has yet been tabled in Parliament.

 

Review all laws

The latest report indicates constant failure of governors in overseeing developments in Schedule Five areas.

 

The most important responsibility of the governor is to ensure that the special panchayati raj law for tribal areas, known as PESA—Panchayat (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act—is implemented effectively and any law that contradicts it is put aside. Through a notification, a governor can annul, restrict or modify state and Centre’s regulations without seeking the opinion of the Council of Ministers headed by the chief minister.

 

Governors’ reports rarely mention poor governance, insurgency or displacement

However, according to B D Sharma, the last commissioner for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, “All the laws are automatically applicable until the governor does not want to implement or amend as per the need of the Fifth Schedule areas.” As governors fail to perform this duty, general laws have automatically been applicable to tribal areas, often leading to conflicts.

 

 

The confidential report has recommended a review of all laws for their adaptation in Scheduled Areas. Every year the governor is supposed to send a TACs conducted meetings till December 2012. Senior journalist B G Verghese, who has written extensively on the issue, says sarcastically that it is mutely accepted by the Government of India that the governor in the Fifth Schedule, meant to be a “governor-in-council”, is acting on the aid and advice of his council.

The confidential report has recommended a review of all laws for their adaptation in Scheduled Areas. Every year the governor is supposed to send a report to the President on the state of affairs and his/her interventions.

 

The commission has suggested that the ministry of tribal affairs should issue a uniform format for preparation and submission of governor’s report. The format should have a provision for review of Union and state laws and their compatibility with the constitutional provisions safeguarding tribal interests. It should also have a specification for listing steps taken to protect the constitutional rights of tribals.

 

In reviewing laws, governors can consult the Tribes Advisory Councils (TACs) constituted by the states with tribal areas. In the current financial year, four states out of the 11 that have TACs conducted meetings till December 2012. Senior journalist B G Verghese, who has written extensively on the issue, says sarcastically that it is mutely accepted by the Government of India that the governor in the Fifth Schedule, meant to be a “governor-in-council”, is acting on
the aid and advice of his council.

 

The confidential report has recommended making TACs more accountable. The advisory councils should be reconstituted regularly and meet at least twice a year, says the report.

 

Out of focus

Governors’ role in Schedule Five areas has been under scrutiny ever since the enactment of PESA. It gained urgency in the recent past with large-scale industrialisation triggering conflicts in several tribal areas.

 

Governors are not only irregular in sending annual reports to the President (see map), but also evasive on the subjects these reports are meant to address. R R Prasad, director of the National Institute of Rural Development, has analysed such reports. According to him, none of these reports talks about burning issues like displacement, poor governance and insurgency.

 

“The reports are hardly objective assessments as required by the law. Largely, they read like a laundry list of physical targets and financial allocations under various schemes as reported by the state government’s department,” says Prasad. “It is time a more stringent system is put in place so that the annual report truly reflects the condition of tribes in these areas.”

 

There is no proper record of the annual reports submitted to the President. Non-profit Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative sought records on governors’ reports between 1990 and 2008 through the right-to-information route. But the tribal affairs ministry furnished reports dating from only 2001, citing the reason that the ministry was created in October 1999.

 

This is not the first time government’s own wing underscored governors’ negligence in tribal areas. In 2008 and 2011, during governors’ meetings in Delhi, the then president requested them to look into their roles in tribal areas more seriously. In April 2012, the Central government for the first time issued a directive to a governor in respect to his constitutional duty in Scheduled Areas. V Kishore Chandra Deo, Union Minister for Tribal Affairs and Panchayati Raj, asked the governor of Andhra Pradesh to cancel the memorandum of understanding signed for bauxite mining in the state’s Scheduled areas. The governor, however, ignored the directive.

 

The Commission’s report has officially raised an issue that has been simmering for some time now.

 

 

 

Information that cannot be denied to Parliament cannot be denied to you and me… but does it happen? #RTI


 

VINITA DESHMUKH | 31/01/2013 12:15 PM |  , Moneylife.com

Does this provision in Section 8 wherein, despite exemptions you have the right to information if it is of larger public interest being correctly interpreted by Courts? A study thinks otherwise

Notwithstanding Section 8 of the Right to Information (RTI) Act under which you are denied the right to certain information, there is a provision which states that, every citizen has the right to get that information which our elected representatives, have access to. It reads thus, “Provided that the information which cannot be denied to the Parliament or a State Legislature shall not be denied to any person.”

 

However, it has been observed in an expert study, conducted by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) that the judiciary has been inconsistent in application of this provision and therefore “does not provide clarity of interpretation of this crucial provision of the RTI Act.’’

 

Sometimes, the judiciary applies it to the entire Section 8 (1) which should be the case according to the CHRI’s analysis but many a time in its judgment, the judiciary restricts this provision only to Section 8 (1)(j) which relates to protection of personal information. Such varied interpretation which is diluting the power of this provision says the study, would have adverse repercussions for citizens, if this trend continues in the court of law.

 

Interestingly, even the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT), Government of India in its guidelines to public authorities, Public Information Officers (PIOs) and First Appellate Authorities (FAAs) at the Central and State level for implementing the RTI Act, directed them to follow this provision by stating that:  “The Act gives the citizens a right to information at par with the Members of Parliament (MPs) and the Members of the State Legislatures (MLAs). According to the Act, information which cannot be denied to Parliament or a State Legislature shall not be denied to any person.’’

 

However, many PIOs and FAAs continue to decline information and the matter goes to information commissioners who often order disclosure of information. However, petitioners seek legal intervention and it is here that the provision is not used in its true spirit, as per the study.

 

Venkatesh Nayak, Programme Coordinator, Access to Information programme, Commonwealth Human Rights Imitative (CHRI) conducted the study to highlight how the provision is being narrowly used. States Nayak, “In 18 judgments interpreting the provision, this is far from convincing. We have chosen one such issue for analysis where despite the existence of more than 15 judgments, the jurisprudence does not provide clarity of interpretation of this crucial provision of the RTI Act.  Settlement of access disputes in the High Courts has not always conformed to the doctrine of precedent.”

 

Nayak observes that, “Eight High Courts have interpreted the scope and application of the proviso under Section 8(1) varyingly. Starting with the Bombay High Court, in 2007, five High Courts (Bombay, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Madras and Patna) have interpreted this proviso in six cases as being applicable only to clause (j) of Section 8(1), namely, the exemption protecting personal information of an individual from disclosure. Three High Courts (Calcutta, Kerala and Punjab and Haryana) have in ten cases interpreted this proviso as applying to all exemption clauses listed in Section 8(1). In at least two High Courts (Bombay and Delhi) single‐judge and Division Benches have held contrary views indicating the lack of crystallisation of judicial precedent, regarding the interpretation of the scope and application of this proviso.’’

 

Section 8 (of the RTI Act) deals with exemptions to the right to information.  Nayak points out that:

•  Sub‐Section (1) lists out the specific exemptions to disclosure –namely, information that an applicant may not claim as a matter of right

•  Sub‐Section (2) provides for the disclosure of even exempt information when public interest in disclosure outweighs the harm to the protected interests.

• Sub‐Section (3) limits the operation of seven out of the ten exemptions up to 20 years for a given set of records. The exemptions relating to national security, foreign relations with foreign Governments, Parliamentary and Legislative privilege and Cabinet documents apply for an indefinite period of time.

•  A proviso is inscribed at the bottom of Section 8(1) which states that… Provided that the information which cannot be denied to the Parliament or a State Legislature shall not be denied to any person.”

 

The study highlights several judgments which have interpreted Section 8 (1) in different modes. In most of these cases, the High Courts have upheld the orders of information commissioners but the judgment is not based on a comprehensive look at this provision.  This study aims to provide insight into this discrepancy. Concludes Nayak, “We hope that in an appropriate case the true meaning of the proviso underlying Section 8(1) is interpreted by the courts with due regard to legislative intent and the drafting history of the RTI Act.’’

 

Following are a few examples:

 

Case 1: A member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) was sentenced to a month’s imprisonment for committing contempt of Supreme Court’s orders during his tenure as Minister in the Government of Maharashtra. He spent 21 days of his jail term in a hospital in Mumbai under the pretext of being treated for various illnesses.

 

A citizen sought medical reports of his treatment, under RTI, in order to ascertain why the MLA had spent most of the duration of his sentence in an air‐conditioned hospital. The Petitioner objected to the disclosure of his medical records claiming that such action would cause invasion of his right to privacy. The matter escalated to the State Information Commission which ordered disclosure in the larger public interest.

 

The Petitioner (the MLA) challenged the order of disclosure on various grounds includingthe right to privacy and the requirement of confidentiality of patient‐related information under the Indian Medical Council (Professional Conduct, Etiquette and Ethics) Regulations 2002.

 

A two‐judge Bench of the Bombay High Court upheld the order of disclosure of the Petitioner’s medical records in the larger public interest. (Mr Surupsingh Hrya Naik v/s State of Maharashtra Through Additional Secretary, General Administration Deptt. And Others, Bombay High Court [Writ Petition No. 1750 of 2007] decision date: 23/03/2007)

 

CHRI’s analysis: “The Court relied upon the judgement of a single‐judge Bench in an earlier dispute relating to access to information under the Goa Right to Information Act, 1997 (Goa RTI Act) to hold that the proviso underlying Section 8(1) applied only to clause (j)… The main cause in the Surupsingh Naik case was about an individual’s right to privacy in relation to his medical records. In our opinion inquiring into Parliament’s intent behind placing the proviso under Section 8(1) in the light of the Court’s earlier pronouncement was necessary before determining its scope and application. Instead the ratio of the Court in the Panaji Municipal Council case was applied mechanically without regard to the reasoning that informed it. In view of this glaring contradiction the Court’s reading of the import and application of the proviso underlying Section 8(1)(j) of the RTI Act, deserves to be reviewed.’’

 

Case 2: An Applicant sought information about the appointment, posting, transfer and promotion of clerical staff employed by the Canara Bank (the Bank) in Ernakulam district of Kerala during the period 2002‐2006. The Bank denied access on various grounds. When the matter escalated to the Central Information Commission (CIC), it ordered that the information be disclosed. The Bank challenged this order before the Kerala High Court claiming the protection of Section 8(1)(e)‐ when information is available to a person in his fiduciary relationship‐ and Section 8(1)(j)‐ when disclosure of personal information has no relationship to any public activity or interest or if disclosure would cause unwarranted invasion of the privacy of the individual. A single‐judge Bench of the Court rejected both contentions and upheld the order of the Central Information Commission. (Canara Bank vs the Central Information Commissioner and Another, Kerala High Court [Writ Petition (Civil) 9988 of 2007, decision date: 11/07/2007]7 2.1)

 

CHRI’s analysis: The Court independently held that the proviso applied to the whole of Section 8(1) and not merely to clause (j) of that Section. More importantly, the proviso to the section qualifies the section by stating that information which cannot be denied to the Parliament or a State Legislature shall not be denied to any person.

 

Case 3: A student sought access to his answer sheets in a Bachelor’s Degree examination conducted by the University of Calcutta. The PIO rejected the request without invoking any of the exemptions provided in Section 8 of the RTI Act. He merely stated, in an undated letter, that the University had taken a decision not to permit inspection of evaluated answer scripts under the RTI Act.

 

The matter escalated to the High Court where the University cited a decision of the CIC which had ruled in an earlier case that where Boards and Universities conducting public examinations had evolved a robust system of evaluation and, if, by their own rules, prohibited disclosure of evaluated answer‐sheets or where such disclosure would result in rendering the system unworkable in practice, a citizen could not seek disclosure of the answer‐sheets. The University also contended that answer scripts did not fall within the definition of information under Section 2(f) of the RTI Act and that disclosure of the evaluated answer scripts would endanger the lives of the examiners. The University contended further that the Supreme Court had in earlier decisions refused to order disclosure of such documents, so Section 8(1)(b) of the RTI Act would apply. A single‐judge Bench of the Court rejected these contentions in a well reasoned judgement and ordered the evaluated answer sheets to be disclosed. (Pritam Rooj vs University of Calcutta, Calcutta High Court [Writ Petition No. 22176 of 2007], decision date: 28/03/2008.)

 

CHRI’s Analysis: …The Court also took notice of the need for protecting the privacy of individuals. However the Court held that the proviso underlying Section 8(1) applied to the whole of that Section…The proviso at the foot of Clause (j) appears to cover the entirety of Section 8(1), notwithstanding the view taken by the Division Bench of the Bombay High Court. The manner in which the exceptions to the rule have been carved out in Section 8 and the proviso which appears to govern all the cases covered by Section 8(1) of the said Act, makes the exemption section exhaustive. [emphasis supplied]…That the Court rejected the finding of a larger Bench of another High Court without supplying a reasoned justification is problematic, particularly when both parties had used the ratio to support their contention..

 

 

Police Brutality- Citizen Caned


Citizen caned

Anahita Mukherji | May 19, 2012, Times Crest

 

 

FACING UP: Hospital reports corroborate Soni Sori's allegations of custodial torture (above); Bangalore youth Sampath (left) who was allegedly tortured by city police in March last year seeks justice

Victims of police brutality rarely get justice. The procedures for seeking redressal are complicated and often the panelists on the Police Complaint Authority are men in uniform. The Soni Sori incident is a case in point.

If you are arrested for no fault of yours and severely tortured in jail, will the perpetrators be brought to book? If a policeman hammers you in full public view, will he ever be punished ? If you were to put these questions to Ramesh Rawat, he is likely to shake his head in despair. Two years ago, this rickshaw driver says, he was brutally beaten up by the police on the streets of Dehradun for questioning a policeman who issued him a chalan. “He beat me so badly that I was hospitalised and had to undergo surgery, ” says Rawat in a telephonic interview with TOI-Crest.

He complained about the policeman to the Uttarakhand Police Complaint Authority (PCA), but nothing came of it. “I have submitted medical reports of my injuries and testified several times before the authority, but the case is still pending, ” he says. “The police even put me under lock-up to force me to withdraw the complaint. One of the members of the PCA is a retired IPS officer. He even swore at me and argued that I must have done something wrong. ”

While Uttarakhand has a retired IPS officer on its PCA, Kerala, the only state to have PCAs at the state and district level, has serving police officers on its PCAs.

“I have sat through a session at a Kerala PCA where the complainant, a victim of police torture, was unable to speak or register his complaint because the man in front of him was in uniform, ” says Navaz Kotwal, Police Reforms Coordinator with the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI). Kotwal edited a CHRI report released earlier this year called Police Complaints Authorities: Reforms Resisted. Rawat was one of many victims interviewed for the report.

Accurate statistics on police violations are virtually impossible to come by. The available data paints a bleak picture of police accountability. “Of the total complaints registered against police officers in 2009, departmental, magisterial and judicial inquiries were instituted in only about 46 per cent of the complaints . . . 51. 2 per cent remained un-investigated, ” says the report. Further, of 1, 279 cases against police officers sent for trial in 2009, only142 trials were completed and even in these, 70 per cent of police personnel were acquitted, says the report.

“There are multiple channels through which one can complain against the police. Depressingly most of them don’t work, ” says former IPS officer YP Singh, who cited corruption as the reason for quitting the service.

According to Singh, the nexus between junior police officers and their seniors, as well as the one between the police and politicians whom they have paid for postings, ensures that little action is ever taken against the police.

In 2006, the Supreme Court directed each state to set up a Police Complaints Authority both at the state and district levels. But CHRI’s recent report shows that only 18 of 28 states have set up a PCA. Of the 18, the authority is functional in only eight states: Assam, Chandigarh, Haryana, Goa, Kerala, Puducherry, Tripura and Uttarakhand. None of the PCAs comply with all the Supreme Court guidelines. Those that are functional are often designed to fail.

For starters, states have needlessly complicated procedures for filing a complaint. According to the Assam Police Act, complaints against police officers need to be accompanied by a sworn statement. There is also a fine for frivolous complaints.

In Uttarakhand, complaints must be on stamp paper. Victims need to submit multiple copies of the complaint and the cost of notarising a complaint is Rs 500. Victims are daunted enough to hire lawyers to represent them. Except in Kerala, victims have to travel long distances to register a complaint at the state PCA.

The very composition of the PCA often violates the SC order, according to which the chairman of the state-level PCA must be a retired High Court/ Supreme Court judge chosen by the state government from a panel of names proposed by the chief justice.

The other members are to be chosen by the government from a panel prepared by the state human rights commission. In practice, all members of functional PCAs are appointed directly by state governments.
The Haryana PCA consists of a single member, a retired IAS officer as chair. Kerala has subverted the system by appointing serving police officers and “no independent members who do not wear the government hat. ”

The Tripura Police Act says that not more than one member of the PCA should be a police officer. In violation of its own Act, there are two retired police officers as members.

“Complainants recounted experiences of further threats, and even physical torture and illegal detention in some cases, after they complained to the PCA, or when they tried to file an FIR against the police officers concerned, ” says the report.
“It is very difficult for an ordinary person to register an FIR against anyone. It is virtually impossible to register an FIR against the police. If you try to do so in Chhattisgarh, the police will brutally beat you and then register a case of Naxalism against you, ” alleges Colin Gonsalves, Supreme Court advocate and founder director, Human Rights Law Network.

“The maximum that a PCA would do is to recommend that an FIR be registered against the police officer or that a departmental inquiry be held. This means that after the PCA spends time carrying out its own inquiry the police must carry out a similar one against its own officials, ” says Kotwal. He points to several instances in Chandigarh where a departmental inquiry has given a police officer a clean chit despite the PCA recommending action against him.

“We had gone on a hunger strike in prison to protest the fact that the person in charge of investigating our wrongful arrest and detention was the person who had put us in jail to begin with, ” says social activist Arun Ferriera, wrongfully jailed for four years on the false charge of being a Naxalite.

He says the biggest problem when it comes to registering a complaint of custodial torture is finding witnesses, as the only witnesses are other police officials or prisoners who are anyway in the hands of the police.
The CHRI report cites a case where a person threatened to lodge a complaint against the officer for naming him an accused in false cases. To this the officer said, “If you make a complaint against the police, you’ll have to approach the police;and you know nothing will come of it. ”

This is a sad fact both the public and the police are aware of. Take for instance a case where a 16-year-old boy was assaulted by a builder over a family dispute in 2009. When his parents approached the police, they refused to register a complaint against the builder and registered a case against the boy instead. The family complains of continued police harassment, with no action taken against the errant police office

Sri Lanka on trial, but case against India


, TNN | Mar 25, 2012,

By giving me electric shocks, by stripping me naked, or by brutally assaulting me and inserting stones in my rectum, will the problem of Naxalism end? When I was being stripped, I felt someone should come and save me and it did not happen. In Mahabharata , Draupadi’s honour was saved when she called upon Krishna. Whom should I have called? I was given to them (police) by the court,” writes Soni Sori, a Dantewada school teacher who is in the custody of the Chhattisgarh police for her alleged support to Maoist rebels in the state.

“Not only did she write to the Supreme Court begging that she not be kept in the custody of those who tortured her, but a medical report from a Kolkata hospital showed the presence of stones in her rectum and vagina. And yet, she was sent back to the men who tortured her,” says Sori’s mentor, Himanshu Kumar, a Chhatisgarh social activist.

Sori’s story is not an aberration; a blip on an otherwise clean state. It’s just another case of custodial torture – a routine in the police station of India, which this week voted in favour of a USbacked resolution against the Sri Lankan government for its war crimes at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva.

For a country that does not believe it is at war, India’s track record on human rights is rather pathetic . The government might find itself in a very uncomfortable situation if the UNHRC turned the spotlight on India — on the mini Camp X-rays that exist in police lock-ups and the secret safe houses, where people are kept in illegal detention.

Custodial killings, police abuse and torture, and failure to implement policies protecting vulnerable communities marred India’s record in 2011, says a global report by Human Rights Watch released earlier this year. “And yet, as a country, we behave like ostriches with our head in the mud, choosing to ignore what is going on around us,” says sociologist Nandini Sardesai.

Custodial violence is a norm in police stations, especially for those who are arrested for alleged anti-state activities. Arun Ferreira, a social activist and alumnus of Mumbai‘s St Xavier’s College, was recently released from Nagpur Central Jail after more than four years in prison for his alleged support to Naxalites. Out of prison, Ferriera has now written a paper on how he was tortured. According to him, the interrogations lasted 16-20 hours a day and included threats to torture and rape his family. He describes instruments of torture such as ‘Bajirao’ , a whipping strip made from conveyor belt material attached with a wooden handle on one side that causes permanent pain without any external injury marks.

Often the police don’t stop at torture. In Mumbai, the police staged the disappearance of Khwaja Yunus , a young man being interrogated for a bombblast in 2004. It later emerged that he had died in police custody. The same year, Mumbai witnessed a series of slum demolitions in which the state acknowledged 24 deaths.

The real tragedy is that no effort is being made by the government to check the increasing cases of human rights violation across the country. Despite a Supreme Court order in 2006 that directed every state to set up a police complaints authority (PCA), only 18 of the 29 states have so far set it up, and it is functional in only 10 states, says a report by Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI). “Even where they are functional, they are designed to fail,” says Navaz Kotwal of CHRI.

While India has a poor human rights record, Sardesai points out that no country in the world is free of human rights violations. After all, the US, which moved the UNHRC motion against Sri Lanka , is a well-known perpetrator of war crimes in other countries.

Even small countries like Nepal and Bhutan don’t have clean records. Some 100,000 ethnic Nepalese were forced out of Bhutan in the 1980s and 1990s. Five years after Nepal’s civil war ended , a report by Human Rights Watch and Advocacy International says victims are still waiting for justice while the alleged perpetrators have “been appointed to senior government positions and sent abroad on UN peacekeeping missions…”

Nepal, Bhutan and India may have a deceptively clean image, thanks to the troubled neighbourhood they’re in. But the Sri Lankan case has opened a can of worms that may finally bring attention to its neighbours’ equally bad rights record.

Marching Orders


Marching Orders

Shobhan Saxena, TNN | Mar 4, 2012,

When a backpacker is woken up by the police in the middle of the night, forced to reveal the password of his laptop, and put on a flight toGermany because he is suspected of “financing” an agitation in the area, it looks both silly and paranoid.”In India, I lived on $10 per day. There was no budget for financing organizations or people. I never made any money transfer on behalf of other people or organizations. I am unemployed,” says Rainer Sonnntag Hermann, the German tourist who was deported from Chennai on Wednesday. “I participated in some anti-nuclear demonstrations. As far as I know, this was no illegal activity,” he adds from his home in Essen, Germany.

This week, as the Centre began looking into the funding of some NGOs for their “role” in the agitation against the Kudankulam nuclear plant, a WikiLeaks report revealed that a private US intelligence firm, Stratfor, has been spying on NGOs and activists in Bhopal on behalf of Dow Chemicals, the company they have been fighting with for compensation and justive to victims of the gas tragedy in 1984.

With the government breathing down their neck and private spooks on their tail, activists see a devious design – an attempt to silence protests . “There has been a concerted effort to criminalize the whole Bhopal movement. After 27 years of the tragedy , the people and firms responsible for the death of thousands of people remain unpunished, but there are a number of cases against the activists. If convicted , we could spend up to 15 years in jail,” says Satyu Saranagi, an activist who has been tracked by Stratfor, the Texas-based firm.

Is space for genuine protests shrinking in India? Is the government so fearful of the so-called foreign hand? The government denies there is a witchunt in this case. “Accounts of NGOs are generally being scrutinised by various agencies. It is incorrect to say that 77 NGOs are being investigated. We are looking into the accounts of 12-13 Indian NGOs with regard to allegation of funds diversion,” Union home secretary R K Singh said on Friday.

But activists say bigger issues are stake. “There is a sharp contradiction here. The multinational corporations can come to India, do business and also influence government policies but foreign NGOs and activists have to face all kinds of problems,” says Sarangi.

In the inter-connected world, say activists, this paranoia makes little sense and governments must learn to live with global activists. “I was shocked when people were killed in police firing at Jaitapur, Maharashtra . Indian police killing their own people for the interest of a French nuclear company is unacceptable to us. I have a right to protest in my country as well as in India,” says a French activist who doesn’t want to be named as she fears revocation of her visa.

Visa is one of the sticks the government uses to beat the “trouble-making” foreign activists and NGOs with. The Foreign Currency Regulation Act (FCRA) and Income-Tax laws are other methods to “discipline” people. In states like Chhattisgarh and Orissa, there has been so much harassment by government agencies that NGOs receiving foreign aid have almost stopped organizing protest rallies. “Local intelligence units and the police regularly check our accounts and and scare us with FCRA and I-T laws,” says Indu Netam, a well-known activist who runs Adivasi Samta Manch in Kanker, Chhattisgarh . “By changing the definition of ‘political activity’ in FCRA, the government has made it impossible for us to organize rallies and the entire culture of protests has been silenced.”

What’s a democracy without disagreements and protests? Should a government try to control civil society groups and movements by using laws against them? The government should, say experts , regulate and not control NGOs. “Regulate the sector as you regulate foreign investment or companies . For years, NGOs have been demanding that they should be under FEMA and not FCRA as it’s that act which applies to companies using foreign exchange in India. All foreign companies operating in India may not be good for the country, but the government doesn’t try to control them. The same principle should apply to NGOs,” says Maja Daruwala of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. “I can’t understand this paranoia, this belief of the government that certain sector requires their suspicion, and others not.”

With NGOs and foreign activists under the scanner , there is a big question mark over the future of protests in the world’s biggest democrac

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