Despite court rulings, govt on overdrive against NGOs

The Foreigners Division in Union Home Ministry seems to be burning midnight oil these days to take on NGOs. Since the leakage of an Intelligence Bureau report on NGOs in June last year, the efforts to “teach a lesson” to those civil society organisations for “putting the clock back” had gathered steam.

It is now reaching a crescendo with news spilling out every other day about an NGO coming under the scanner. For the authorities, the NGOs have suddenly become an “agent of disruption” who should be “contained” even at the cost of facing allegations of muzzling dissent.

On its own, the government apparatus has declared it to be the sole custodian and guardian of “national interest” while those voices of dissent, whether it is an individual or an organisation, are branded anti-development and anti-national. No doubt, one has to follow the law of the land. They have to be accountable and transparent. Erring NGOs will have to face music.

At the same time, question arises whether the recent overdrive against NGOs stand the test of reason. Does government’s high moral ground on safeguarding country’s interest act as a buffer to stifle rights based protests?

The last two months have witnessed a variety of activities against NGOs despite the Home Ministry having egg on its face after Delhi High Court, on at least three occasions, ruling against the government. The ministry was asked to defreeze accounts of Greenpeace at least twice, while it also ruled as illegal the offloading of London-bound Greenpeace activist Priya Pillai. Despite the reverses, Greenpeace India still faces closure with the government squeezing it with a show cause notice. Ford Foundation has been put on prior permission list, while Greenpeace International activist Aaron Gray-Block was denied entry, permission to 8,975 NGOs to collect foreign funds were cancelled and draft amendments to have a real time monitoring of receipt and use of foreign funds. The Home Ministry has been busy throughout the summer.

The latest in this string of actions is the CBI probe into the “misuse” of foreign funds by Teesta Setalvad’s NGO Sabrang Trust and Citizens for Justice and Peace and Sabrang Communication and Publishing Pvt Ltd. If one may find this action curious, he cannot be blamed as Setalvad was in the forefront of a relentless fight against Narendra Modi, then Gujarat chief minister.

Strong-arm tactics

One may have a view about the whole NGO concept like CPI(M)’s Prakash Karat who wrote one of the finest critiques in 1984 on such outfits. He emphasised the need for a “sustained ideological campaign” against the “pseudo-radical postures” of such action groups. Their role and the question of what interests they serve should be debated. That exactly is not happening.

Over a period of time, governments are using strong-arm tactics to deal with them. Government and political leadership have reasons to fear NGOs and it lies in their failure to connect to people and take up their cause. That is why they fear NGOs which uses their networking and other skills to reach out to the affected masses. The NGOs reach out to people who are otherwise not attended by mainstream parties.

If a mainstream politician does not find time and energy to address the concerns of affected parties in a far-off Mahan or Niyamgiri or Narmada or Kudankulam on the pretext of developmental concerns, the victims will flock to those who provide succor. If a government forcess development down the throat of common man, then there would be dissent. It is this dissent that government fears as it can turn into a hurricane that can question its very existence.

The problem with the government is that it perceives civil society as an extension of governance structure where it is just meant to help officials with reports and suggestions. The government always wants pliable NGOs. They want to create a pool of NGOs which would be sympathetic to them. They have to understand that civil society is not an extension but an independent arm of any democratic set up. In such a scenario, there will be dissent and the government will have to listen.

During the UPA regime, the consultation with NGOs was institutionalised through the National Advisory Council (NAC) but the relationship with the civil society hit a rock bottom as they took on corruption in the government. The NDA government as a whole shares the distrust Prime Minister Narendra Modi has for NGOs. The Modi government has heightened the decibel levels, repeating UPA argument that many NGOs are acting against the economic interests of the country.

The question remains whether the political leadership is listening to grievances of the common man. Instead of addressing the grievances, the government is, sadly, trying to muzzle dissent in the name of development in which a majority has little stake and only loss of livelihood.

NGOs under pressure

States    NGOs whose FCRA registration was cancelled since 2012*

  Andhra Pradesh    2,068
  Maharashtra    1,296
  West Bengal    1,111
  Karnataka    1,071
  Kerala    964
  Total (For whole of India)    12,633

This figure could rise marginally as  Home Ministry is yet to make public names of all NGOs against whom action was taken in April, 2015

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