Civil Society, which is the hallmark of a stable democracy, is being made redundant under the new government. By DIVYA TRIVEDI
WHEN the Greenpeace activist Priya Pillai was offloaded from a flight bound for London earlier this year, it marked the culmination of the government’s pursuit of her. It had begun much earlier, in Singrauli in Madhya Pradesh, when plainclothesmen on motorcycles followed her and her colleagues and when their phones were tapped intermittently. The non-governmental organisation (NGO) worked among Adivasis in the region who did not want mines where their homes and sources of livelihood were situated.
The pursuit became blatant at railway stations in Delhi when every time Priya took the train, she would get a call on her mobile from Singrauli. “Madam, when are you reaching here?” the caller asked. The regular interaction with the police and special cell personnel led to so much familiarity that some of them told Priya that there was a file being maintained on her. “We used to laugh it off because we did not realise that something big was coming. But now when I look back, I think we should have seen a pattern,” she told Frontline.
The matter took a serious turn when letters were planted in her name instigating members of the Mahan Sangharsh Samiti, which was fighting against mining in the region, to use violence against officials. Greenpeace filed a police complaint about it, but no action was taken. Priya was also named in an Intelligence Bureau (I.B.) report, leaked to the press last year, along with a host of organisations such as Amnesty, ActionAid, Cordaid and Survival International. Most people and organisations named in the report have spoken about protecting the human rights of indigenous people affected by nuclear power plants, uranium mines, coal-fired power plants, genetically modified organisms, mega industrial projects, hydel projects and extractive industries in the north-eastern region of the country.
Spying, intelligence gathering and planting stories against individuals that disagree with the state’s notion of development were prevalent when the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was in government. G.N. Saibaba’s is a case in point. The Delhi University professor, who is 90 per cent disabled, was booked under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act for conspiracy or attempt to commit a terrorist act and support for a terrorist organisation and imprisoned in Nagpur Central jail’s infamous anda cell a year ago. Civil society organisations feel that the aggressiveness displayed by the current government in targeting people who challenge the state’s development model is far more chilling.
They say under Congress president Sonia Gandhi, there was some semblance of a pro-poor agenda through the National Advisory Council, but the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance, having won a massive mandate and centralised all decision-making, has no need to hum and haw like the Congress in keeping its pro-corporate ties a secret. In an address to top judges in the country, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was at his caustic best while referring to civil society volunteers as “five-star activists”. Activists feel that the majoritarian government led by Modi at the Centre aims to stifle any voice from civil society and render it irrelevant in the long run.
Some 16 foreign donors have been put on the list of foreign funding agencies that require prior approval from the Ministry of Home Affairs for each transaction. Though Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju called this correspondent for an interview to his office in North Block, he wanted a written questionnaire via mail. The questionnaire went unanswered. Some of the organisations on the list are reportedly the Bertha Foundation of the Netherlands, the Climate Works Foundation, the Mercy Corps (which operated in Kashmir), the Bank Information Centre, the Sierra Club Foundation, Avaaz.org, ICCO Strategische Samenwerking, HIVOS, the Catholic Organisation for Relief and Development Aid, the Inter-Church Peace Council, the Danish Institute of Human Rights, the Danish International Development Agency, and 350.Org. Reportedly, 69 NGOs have been blacklisted by the Centre and the registration of hundreds of NGOs has been cancelled. NGOs perceive this as an attempt to muzzle opposition to any pro-corporate activity undertaken by the government.
Members of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which rose to power in Delhi State on the back of social activism, released a statement saying that they hoped the Prime Minister would desist from openly siding with businesses and interest groups and maintain the dignity of the high office he held. “We also believe that, as in the past, the judiciary will always stand by the Constitution and law while discharging their duties and will not heed to the loaded suggestions from any quarter. It may be noted that most of the anti-corruption breakthroughs in the 10-year rule of the Manmohan Singh-led UPA government have been made possible due to vigilance and activism of civil right activists. Now, in spite of the efforts of the BJP-led government to shut their voice, the efforts of the civil society shall continue unabated and with much more vigour,” the statement said.
Anil Chaudhary of INSAF, one of the organisations named in the I.B. report, says: “Intelligence gathering is a part of statecraft. Local I.B. officers often come to our office and I give them a seat, chat with them. They then file their reports to a district-level officer daily or on a weekly basis.” No covert action has been taken against the organisation after the court quashed the freezing of its account by the government, but Chaudhary is prepared for the worst. The process for the renewal of its Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) registration is coming up, and he feels that the government can avoid special action in the case by simply denying it.
INSAF does not directly work at the grass roots but has 700 affiliates which do. The membership-driven organisation is a forum to express concerns about globalisation, communalism and threats to democracy, and it also conducts campaigns against genetically modified crops, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. Chaudhary finds no major difference in the underlying policies of the UPA and the NDA but points to a stark difference in the style of functioning.
Of the 16 donors on the government’s watch list, the Ford Foundation has been the most talked about. It is believed that its name cropped up as it funded the Sabrang Trust, the organisation headed by Teesta Setalvad, who is currently under scrutiny by the Gujarat government for alleged embezzlement of the trust’s funds. Many believe that Teesta is being hounded for her proactive role post-Gujarat 2002 riots as the secretary of the Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP), which is a co-petitioner in seeking a criminal trial of Modi for his complicity in the riots. Her activism resulted in the conviction of Maya Kodnani, a former Minister in the Modi government in Gujarat, and Babu Bajrangi, a leader of the Bajrang Dal, a Sangh Parivar outfit.
“The trustees and office-bearers of the Sabrang Trust and the CJP do not see themselves as above the law. They believe in the law of the land and expect others to do so as well. We believe that neither the Sabrang Trust nor the CJP has violated the provisions of the FCRA or, for that matter, any law of the land,” is Sabrang’s response.
Apart from Sabrang, with which it reportedly no longer has any ties, the Ford Foundation also funds government-backed educational and research institutes such as IIT Bombay; the Tata Institute of Social Sciences; Jamia Milia Islamia; the National Academy of Legal Studies and Research (NALSAR) University, Hyderabad; and the Sree Chitra Tirunal Institute of Health Sciences and Technology, Thiruvananthapuram. In response to a query by Frontline, the Ford Foundation sent a statement saying: “We are grateful for the opportunity to work in India and are extraordinarily proud of the contributions our grantees have made since our office opened. We wish to affirm that the foundation does not fund political parties. The foundation does, however, work with a range of other entities, including non-governmental organisations, government and quasi-government entities, universities, and for-profit entities, depending on the needs of the particular work involved. This includes engaging for-profit entities to provide services to the foundation and its grantee communities.”
Close to 200 civil society organisations have written a letter to the Prime Minister and the Home Minister on the larger issue of a crackdown tantamount to sacrificing people’s interests over corporate interests. It states that the I.B. report is a calculated character assassination attempt on a large number of credible activists, including Admiral Ramdas, Justice P.K. Mishra, Medha Patkar, S.P. Udayakumar, Achin Vanaik, Praful Bidwai, Prashant Paikray, K.P. Sasi, Surendra Gadekhar, Babloo Loitongbam, Lalita Ramdas, the late Banwarilal Sharma, the late Fr Tom Kochery, Aarti Chokshi, M.G. Devasahayam, Aruna Rodrigues, Kavita Kuruganti and others. “We understand that Narendra Modi is planning to execute a major corporate agenda of destroying India’s land, water and forests and since thousands of crores of rupees have been used from the corporate sector for his election campaign, there is an urgency to sell off India to the corporate interests. Therefore, this slander campaign is only to clear the ground to benefit the Indian and foreign multinational interests,” it states.
Wada no todo Abhiyan (“don’t break the promise campaign”) is a campaign of organisations that work towards strengthening democracy. “We are all credible, reliable and compliant organisations and not fly-by-night operators controlled by some foreign hand as is being made out. Whatever funds that come from outside are with the full knowledge of the government, and not illegally. We subsist from grant to grant, and to get the work done, we apply everywhere, to the government also. This is made legal by the government itself, so where is the foreign hand? Or is it wrong to talk about communal harmony and Dalit rights?” asks Paul Divakar, convener of the Abhiyan.
All such grants are approved by the Department of Economic Affairs under the Finance Ministry and have to be FCRA compliant. According to activists, the conclusion that can be drawn by the government’s action of moving the approval of some foreign funding agencies from the Finance Ministry to the Home Ministry is that the government does not trust the former to do it properly.
“There now seems to be a public agenda to completely silence any opposition and a blatant disregard of civil society,” said Divya Raghunandan, programmes director of Greenpeace India, which may face imminent closure. “If you don’t praise the government, you are termed anti-national.”
As much as 70 per cent of Greenpeace India’s funds are from domestic sources, which include 77,000 donors who transfer Rs.300 to Rs.700 a month through ECS debit and the rest from its parent organisation under the FCRA. Both are maintained as separate accounts, said Divya Raghunandan. Along with its foreign account, seven of the organisation’s domestic accounts have been frozen, an action that the NGO has challenged in a writ petition. This may affect the operations of the NGO beyond May, when it exhausts all of its existing funds and may no longer be able to pay salaries to its 350 employees or pay rent. “The government is welcome to review our books and we have been very cooperative throughout, but this seems like an intent to shut us down rather than about technicalities,” said Divya Raghunandan.
However, every time the NGO has been targeted, its donations have only gone up, and it may still survive the episode. Its employees have written that they are willing to go without pay for a while if necessary.
Greenpeace’s activism was bad PR for the government. It was raising uncomfortable questions about whom the development was for. Said Priya Pillai: “Nationalism is becoming the monopoly of a few people.”