#India – Stifling Dissent in the name of Public Interest #WTF


Date: 1 June 2013
Subject: Whose public interest? | Jayati Ghosh in Frontline

Preoccupations
Whose public interest?

The government of India has taken the stifling of dissent in the name of public interest to great lengths without encountering any resistance.
IN the United States, the Barack Obama administration is facing a lot of heat in a scandal that his Republican opponents say is “as big as Watergate”. This is not so, but clearly the issue has been taken seriously enough by the U.S. government to cause some heads to roll almost immediately.

So what exactly happened? In 2010, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling lifted government limits on independent political donations by corporations and labour unions in federal elections. This enabled a surge of political spending, which, as it happened, went mostly to conservative groups as they tended to be better supported by big business.

The task of one department of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS, the tax administration agency of the U.S. government) was to determine whether applicants observed the political activity limits and deserved tax-exempt status. It is alleged that between 2010 and 2012, this agency subjected conservative groups to special scrutiny, especially those associated with the right-wing “Tea Party” movement that wants lower taxes, smaller government and generally opposes Obama.

There is no evidence that tax-free status was actually denied to any of the organisations in question. Nor was there any question of otherwise inhibiting their functioning by placing restrictions on their activities. What this adverse targeting essentially did was prolong the period of time involved in reviewing the application for tax-free status and therefore delay the eventual recognition. (Incidentally, since such recognition gets granted with retrospective effect, the financial implications are also not so severe.)

Even in this relatively minor negative light on those with differing political opinions, the resulting public outcry has been loud and vociferous, and the response of Democrats and the administration has been immediate penitence. The IRS expressed regret, the criteria for scrutinising applications were immediately changed to make them more “neutral”, Obama announced how angry he was and promptly fired the head of the IRS, Steven Miller, while the person in charge of the offending department announced his early retirement.

These measures have failed to quell the anger and outrage. A Tea Party group based in California has sued the IRS, in the first of what may be several lawsuits against the agency’s supposed targeting of opposition elements. Some argue that by targeting it the IRS has brought the Tea Party back from the dead—the “intimidation” by the state has become a rallying cry for several public protests led by conservatives. The Obama administration continues to be on the back foot on this despite its relatively quick measures to undo the damage.

Indian situation Contrast this with what is happening in India at the moment. The Central government has blatantly used the recently amended Foreign Contributions (Regulation) Act and other instruments available to it not only to target political opponents but, more worryingly, to target and suppress any forms of democratic dissent, especially those trying to bring out the voices of the people against the excesses of corporate power. And it is doing so with little opposition and almost no public outrage.

The most recent and egregious example of this relates to the INSAF Trust, a coalition of more than 700 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) across India mostly engaged in grass-roots activities and people’s struggles. According to its website, INSAF was formed soon after the demolition of the Babri Masjid primarily to promote and defend the interests of the people, and is devoted to resisting corporate-centred globalisation, combating communalism and defending democracy.

The organisations that are part of INSAF generally see themselves as facilitators of struggles oriented towards ensuring the human rights of citizens in India, not instigators of such actions.

On April 30, the Home Ministry issued an order summarily freezing the bank accounts of INSAF and suspending its official clearance to receive foreign funds. The terse order simply states that “acceptance of the foreign contribution by the said association is likely to prejudicially affect the public interest”.

That such a charge can be levelled arbitrarily against an association of organisations devoted to defending the democratic rights of deprived groups in particular, and strengthening the secular fabric of the polity and society, is really of grave concern. But the more appalling thing may be that such a draconian measure on the basis of this laconic and unsubstantiated charge is now completely legal under the revised Act that regulates foreign contributions in India.

The rules of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, 2010, came into force on May 1, 2011 (ironically, on May Day, the day that is supposed to celebrate workers’ struggles). Rule 3 states that the Central government “may specify any organisation as organisation of political nature on one or more of the following grounds:

(i) organisation having avowed political objectives in its Memorandum of Association or bylaws;

(ii) any trade union whose objectives include activities for promoting political goals;

(iii) any voluntary action group with objectives of a political nature or which participates in political activities;

(iv) front or mass organisations like students’ unions, workers’ unions, youth forums and women’s wing of a political party;

(v) organisation of farmers, workers, students, youth based on caste, community, religion, language or otherwise, which is not directly aligned to any political party, but whose objectives, as stated in the Memorandum of Association or activities gathered through other material evidence, include steps towards advancement of political interests of such groups;

(vi) any organisation, by whatever name called, which habitually engages itself in or employs common methods of political action like ‘bandh’ or ‘hartal’, ‘rasta roko’, ‘rail roko’ or jail bharo’ in support of public causes.”

There are several aspects of this rule that should be of great concern to every citizen. First, it is up to the government to decide which organisations fit this bill. Second, it contains an extraordinarily and even dangerously wide-ranging definition of undesirable political activity by an NGO. According to this new FCRA, any organisation that seeks to defend the interests of workers and peasants in any situation can be proscribed for being “political” even if it is not aligned with any political party. Third, even non-violent means of protest such as strikes and jail bharo (which were the lifeblood of the national movement, for example) are not to be tolerated.

Sweeping coverage This sweeping coverage effectively prevents most forms of democratic dissent and opposition from being expressed. It allows the government of the day to pick on any group it dislikes for whatever reason and just stop it from functioning. It stifles dissent generally, of course, but can also muzzle in particular those who attempt to raise their voices on behalf of the marginalised in society and those who are adversely affected by economic policies and processes that do not recognise their basic rights as citizens. This is especially the case because such people typically do not have access to the increasingly corporatised media or any other ways of working through the system.

In classic Orwellian doublespeak, therefore, such an order can really serve as a means of destroying those who are genuinely working in the public interest. It is worrying that this law was passed with so little discussion and open debate and so little apparent concern about how it could be misused by a government. Maybe one of the reasons that INSAF is unpopular with the government of the day is that it actually brought a case against this law on the grounds that it denies the rights of Indian citizens—a matter that is pending in the Supreme Court.

In any case, this issue is far too important to be ignored, as INSAF is just the current victim and there may be others next in the firing line. It portends a really disastrous and undemocratic trend towards authoritarianism, which is in any case a system that large capital is generally far more comfortable with. There have already been some straws in the wind in this direction. The current government’s intolerance towards anyone who openly disagrees with its own policies and narrow interpretation of national interest (particularly when such arguments conflict with the interests of national and international—indeed, “foreign”—capital) was evident in its handling of the protesters against the Kudankulam nuclear plant and the blatant citing of “the foreign hand” even when the protests were dominantly of the locally affected population. But now the net is being cast even wider, and apparently even without any particular need to cite either evidence or acceptable reasons for such aggressive state action.

So this treatment of INSAF may even be a test case—if the government in India gets away with this blatant abuse of power and undemocratic use of legislation to stifle dissenting voices, it may get further emboldened to adopt even more openly dictatorial methods. It is in our collective interest to assert the true significance of “the public interest” and show that it cannot be appropriated for its own purposes by whatever government is in power.

 

Indian Gov’t on Collision Course With Civil Society


Police accost women protesting against the Kudankulam nuclear plant in India. Credit: K. S. Harikrishnan/IPS.Police accost women protesting against the Kudankulam nuclear plant in India. Credit: K. S. Harikrishnan/IPS.

NEW DELHI, May 23 2013 (IPS) – For years India’s pro-liberalisation, Congress party-led coalition government chafed at civil society groups getting in the way of grand plans to boost growth through the setting up of mega nuclear power parks, opening up the vast mineral-rich tribal lands to foreign investment and selling off public assets.

Now, at the end of its tether, the Interior Ministry has cracked the whip on hundreds of non-governmental organisations engaged in activities that “prejudicially affect the public interest.”

 

“…The government is trying to promote globalisation while cracking down on the globalisation of dissent.” — Achin Vanaik

On Apr. 30 several NGOs were informed that the bank accounts through which they receive foreign funding had been frozen. 

“It is shocking what the government has done – but not surprising given the increasingly authoritarian, undemocratic and repressive measures being directed…against anyone who is seen to challenge or disagree with their positions and decisions,” Lalita Ramdas, anti-nuclear campaigner and board chair of Greenpeace International, told IPS.

Ramdas said NGOs concerned with nuclear power, human rights, environment and ecology – areas where corporate and industrial interests were likely to be questioned – appeared to be particular targets of the government order.

Among the worst affected is the Indian Social Action Forum (INSAF), a network of more than 700 NGOs that is currently challenging, in the Supreme Court, the government’s restrictions on foreign funding reaching groups that engage in activities that can be described as “political” in nature.

In its court petition INSAF described itself as an organisation that believes that “the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution of India need to be safeguarded against blatant and rampant violations by the State and private corporations.”

INSAF said it has “actively campaigned against land grabs by corporations, ecological disaster by mining companies, water privatisation, genetically modified foods, hazardous nuclear power (and) anti-people policies of international financial institutions like the World Bank and Asian Development Bank.”

INSAF declared in court that it “firmly believes in a secular and peaceful social order and opposes communalism and the targeted attacks on the lives and rights of people including religious minorities, and regularly organises campaigns, workshops, conventions, fact-findings, people’s tribunals, solidarity actions for people’s movements and educational publications.”

“With that kind of a profile we were expecting this crackdown,” Anil Chaudhary, coordinator of INSAF, told IPS. “Still, the government could have waited for the Supreme Court verdict.”

“At this rate,” he said, “organisations working against discrimination of women and (advocating) for their empowerment through participation in local bodies could be termed “political”, as (well as) organisations working for farmers’ rights.

“The same arbitrariness can be applied to green NGOs trying to protect the environment against mindless industrialisation.”

Chaudhary thinks it unfair that NGOs critical of government policies are being singled out. “Instead of selectively freezing the funding of groups under INSAF, the government should order a blanket ban on all foreign funding.”

Among INSAF’s many campaigns is an intiative to bring international financial institutions like the World Bank under legislative scrutiny for their activities in India.

It cannot have escaped the government’s attention that INSAF’s campaigns have run parallel to powerful movements for transparency and clean governance led by social activist-turned-politician Arvind Kejriwal, founder of the Aam Admi Party (Common Man’s Party) that plans to contest general elections due in 2014.

 

Kejriwal, whose social activity led to the passage of the 2005 Right to Information Act, has also been closely associated with transparency campaigns led by Anna Hazare, who mounted a Gandhian-style fast against corruption in April 2011 that rallied over 100,000 ordinary people.

Street protests demanding good governance have since been a thorn in the side of the government.  When they peaked in December 2012, following the gang rape of a young woman in a bus in the national capital, police took to beating protestors.

The government, starting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, has also been frustrated by NGOs’ efforts to stall work on a string of mega nuclear parks along peninsular India’s long coastline, especially at Jaitapur in Maharashtra, Mithi Virdi in Gujarat and Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu.

In February, the government froze the accounts of two leading Tamil Nadu-based NGOs allegedly associated with the protests at the site of the Kudankulam plant, signalling a new and tough stance against civil society groups fighting the displacement of farmers and fishermen by mega development projects.

The two NGOs, the Tuticorin Diocesan Association and the Tamil Nadu Social Service Society, received four million and eight million dollars respectively over a five-year period that ended in 2011, according to declarations they made to the government.

With strong backing from the Church, the groups continue to operate despite the freeze on their assets.

During the same five-year period a total of about 22,000 NGOs across India received roughly two billion dollars in foreign contributions, going by government records.

Unexpected protests have surfaced from among the Congress party’s partners in the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA). Devi Prasad Tripathi, general secretary of the Nationalist Congress Party and member of parliament, reminded Interior Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde that the UPA is “committed to protecting and promoting secular, democratic and progressive forces in the country.”

“Effectively, the government is trying to promote globalisation while cracking down on the globalisation of dissent,” commented Achin Vanaik, professor of political science at the Delhi University.

The government’s move stands in stark contrast to promises made not two years ago at the Fourth High Level Forum on Aid and Development Effectiveness in Busan, South Korea, where 159 governments and member organisations honoured the vital role played by the non-profit sector by pledging to foster an “empowering” climate for civil society.

In his most recent report to the United Nations General Assembly, Maina Kiai, special rapporteur on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, noted with grave concern that India has repressed “peaceful protestors advocating economic, social and cultural rights, such as…local residents denouncing the health impact of nuclear power plants.

 

No Justice For Insaf


SABA NAQVI, Outlook Magazine, May 27, 2013
http://www.outlookindia.com
 
Right to protest suffers another setback with this forum stifled
On April 30, 2013, the Union ministry of home froze the bank account of a coalition known as INSAF (Indian Social Action Forum) and suspended its registration under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act or FCRA. INSAF is a network of 700 NGOs, people’s movements against acquisition of lands and forests and other resistances from Koodankulam to Kashmir. It has been a sort of facilitator, a clearing house for donations and support to various struggles. The home ministry believes its actions to “be prejudicial to public interest”.
On May 13, less than two weeks after the attempt to stifle INSAF, news agency Reuters filed this report: “Foreign institutional investors’ (FIIs) ownership of the BSE Sensex stocks touched its highest in eight years as of the January-March quarter, Bank of America Merrill Lynch said in a research report. During the Jan-March quarter, FIIs were net buyers of Indian equities, while domestic mutual fund companies and state-owned insurer lic were sellers, it said. According to regulatory data, FIIs have been net buyers for 15 consecutive sessions, bringing their total investment for the year to $12.70 billion.”
The contrast is quite remarkable. We celeb­rate those who come to set up business, invest in the stock market, mine our natural resources, build nuclear plants and run them. These investors in smart suits and sharp shoes are to be feted and waited upon. They are the good people with the big bucks who fit into the idea of India as an economic powerhouse, the winners in this game of globalisation.
Then there are the wretched of the earth who stand in the way of this wonderful progress. These little people inconvenience the big plans, be it the POSCO project in Orissa, SEZs across the country or the nuclear plant in Tamil Nadu. There seems to be no ambiguity on the issue for those who run the country, frame its laws and implement them: those who resist are a danger to public order.
Given the recent action on INSAF, one can only presume this is the Orwellian standard that will now be applied in a future India. Without getting into the complexity of FCRA, there is something seriously wrong with the spirit of the law. Basically, it can be countered not by legalese but by a very simple argument: if a government can get billions of dollars worth of foreign investment for a specific project that is cleared on paper, why can’t a meagre amount of foreign funds reach activists who wish to help those who actually live on the land where these projects are planned? And we are talking small change here, a few thousands to a few lakhs compared to the billions on the other side.
How did we end up creating a world where those who make the blueprints are celebrated while those who sweat it out with people are seen as dangerous?
The attempt to crack down on INSAF has been made possible because of the amendments to FCRA in 2010. Rule 3 of the law now says that the activity of any organisation that “employs common methods like bandh or hartal, rasta roko or jail bharo” will be deemed political in nature although it is not a political party. The government, of course, has the right to define such organisations.
The point here is not to argue against a scrutiny of funds that come for political activity. The rules, in fact, began to be tightened in 1984 when several Sikh organisations using violent methods were getting funds from abroad. The VHP likewise raises money outside India for activities that are certainly political. But how can legitimate struggles against specific policies, the leitmotif of a healthy democracy, be seen in the same light as advocacy of separatism, violence or communal hatred? The UN Human Rights Cou­ncil resolution adopted on March 21 this year actually called upon states to ensure that “restrictions are not discriminatorily imposed on potential sources of funding aimed at supporting the work of human rights defenders”.
And if we are so suspicious of foreign funds coming for those who influence public opinion, why leave out the media? According to a FICCI report, FDI inflows to the information & broadcasting sector, including the print media, was $2.17 billion in India in Apr 2010-Mar 2011. The same report says that “India has one of the most liberal investment regimes and the media and entertainment industry has significantly benefited from this.” But we see no grand conspiracy about the “foreign hand” if the news channel we watch or the newspaper we read is partly owned by foreign groups when in fact there is evidence that the media now accepts certain agendas unquestioningly.
The INSAF story is at its core an action against the idea of legitimate protest on which this country was built. In an age of corruption at every level, it’s an obvious attempt to intimidate those who challenge certain notions of “progress” and care about things other than profit margins.

 

Press Release – People’s Convention Against Onslaught on #FOE and Association


Need to change the judicial and political system, resolves people’s convention

 

New Delhi, May 18, 2013: A people’s convention on the State’s Onslaught On Right to Freedom of Expression and Association organized here in the backdrop of suspension of INSAF’s FCRA and freezing of its bank account resolved to fight against the demonizing and draconian laws of Indian state in favor of dispossessed people and their basic rights.

 

Speaking on the occasion in the Constitution Club of India, NCP spokesperson Devi Prasad Tripathi informed the packed house that he has recently written a letter to the Home Minister of India Sushil Kumar Shinde to revoke its FCRA orders against INSAF unconditionally as this step may cause embarrassment to the government. The letter states, “…I apprehend that you actions against INSAF may appear to be motivated and may cause embarrassment to the government…INSAF and its allies are engaged in defending democratic rights of deprived communities and in strengthening secular spirit of the nation”. Tripathi said that the judicial and political system of this country needs to be transformed completely.

 

The convention started with paying homage to Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer, the founder President of INSAF who passed away two days back. Delhi University Professor Achin Vinaik elaborated on the life and works of Dr. Engineer. After this, senior journalist Anand Swaroop Verma gave a detailed backgrounder of the corporate-security establishment nexus in India that started with a report of FICCI and ASSOCHAM and including the “wise” suggestion of the Prime Minister to “co-opt” the media in a meeting with home ministers of states way back in 2006. Manisha Sethi of Jamia Teachers Solidarity Association updated the same issue with new facts regarding defence deals and media-corporate nexus where Reliance group has a shareholding in  25 news channels.

 

Forward Block General Secretary Devbrat Biswas emphasized on continuing the struggles and people’s movements with people’s resources and leadership whether FCRA is continued or not. Educationist Anil Chowdhary categorically said that if the government vows not to take any foreign funding for development, then INSAF will be the first to surrender its FCRA and continue struggles without foreign funding. He said that since the government does not have the courage to do so, hence it may categorically state on its website whether which struggles are not applicable for foreign funding. Chowdhary satirically said that the government has a last and very easy resort to add a footnote in the constitution that all the rights apply to just 15 percent population of this country.

 

Other speakers including Kalyani Menon Sen, Ramesh Dixit, Anil Singh, Ashok Chowdhary, Ranjana Padhi and John Dayal expressed solidarity with the struggling pro-people forces and  condemned the state’s onslaught on people’s basic rights. The convention concluded by passing a five point resolution condemning the recent arrests of anti-POSCO leader Abhay Sahoo, social activists Madhuri and PUCL activist Jaya Vindhyala.

 

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