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