There is very little likelihood that government hostility to civil society activism will end in the near future

By Fr. Cedric Prakash sj*
Civil society activism is under attack in India as never before! A careful analysis of this past year clearly reveals that those who have accompanied the poor and the marginalised, the vulnerable and the victims of society have often to take up cudgels against the powerful and other vested interests; more often than not, it is also against the Government be it State or Central.
Civil society activism in India today involves a whole range of stake-holders which include individuals, academic institutions, writers – scholars, human rights and other non-government organisations and in short anybody and everybody genuinely concerned about what is happening in the country today. There are individuals and institutions who work at the grassroots with Dalits and Adivasis, with women, children and LGBTs, with small farmers, with the displaced and refugees, with slum-dwellers and with the differently-abled and perhaps with every disadvantaged individual or group who have legitimate grievances and who need to be accompanied and empowered in order that they get what is rightfully theirs.
Civil society activism is about the Constitution of India where individuals and collectives become increasingly conscious and also create awareness that justice, liberty, equality and fraternity (solidarity) are not merely ideas and concepts relegated to mere words in the Preamble but need to be made alive and mainstreamed among every section of society particularly among the most vulnerable.
Civil society activism has therefore been all along an indispensable wheel for a healthy and vibrant democracy because such activism not merely acts as a watchdog but also in several ways becomes a voice for the voiceless and a deterrent for those who have no conscience in trampling upon the rights of others.
One needs to look at some of the causes being taken up by these activists: a multi-national company suddenly starts constructing a huge industrial complex in a tribal area; land is taken away from the tribals; uents; the forest is destroyed; the air and the waters around are polluted by effluents; there are no environmental safeguards and of course the bosses of the multi-nationals have the “right” connections both locally and nationally.
No one dares challenge them. Enter an NGO who is genuinely concerned about the plight of these tribals and make them aware of what is happening, the need and importance that their' jal, jungle and jameen' needs to be protected; the tribals see a ray of hope. In a matter of time, the NGO is hounded and harassed, they are branded as 'naxalites' and 'anti-patriotic'; there are frequent visits from the police officials; their sources of funding are squeezed; paid media carries sensations stories and it goes on. and other of sensational stories and it goes on. All this surely sounds like a weird fairy-tale of a totalitarian regime belonging to another age.
The sad truth is that this is exactly what has been happening in India this past year – a country which claims to be a democracy! There are scores of examples all across the country to evidence this. We have classic examples of Teesta Setalvad and Priya Pillai, Prashant Bhushan and Medha Patkar, Govind Pansare and Professor Saibaba. You take on the Government, you try to expose corruption and the anti-people policies and actions of the corporate sector and big business, then you certainly have to pay the price.
False cases are foisted on you; witnesses turn hostile; people you once trusted are made to turn against you; you are arrested and even killed. There is no end...! Civil society organisations like INSAF, People's Watch, Sabrang Trust, Citizens for Justice and Peace, Greenpeace India among others were systematically targeted, maligned and subject to no end of harassment in this past year.
There have been several others who have been subject to subtle and indirect intimidations which include pressure on the top management, innuendoes, threats, innumerable governmental enquiries, rumours etc; such tactics often put those who want to take a stand on the back-foot and several tactfully move into the background; fade into oblivion.
There is another strategy that is often adopted by the Government or the big business. This is through cooption or even buying up those who oppose them. In the recent past, some activists who took on the Government not only became silent but they seem to undergo some 'conversion' like some kind of 'ghar wapsi' when all of a sudden they begin toeing the Government line in a total u-turn from what they have been espousing all along.
In a strongly worded letter addressed to the Prime Minister of India and released on May 6, 2015, a whole range of civil society activists and organizations wrote, “Today, standing in solidarity with India's most marginalized communities, with the NGO sector and donors who support us, affirmed by the guiding principles of our Constitution – justice, equality and liberty - we address you through an open letter.
“As you are aware, NGOs work both in the welfare sector and in empowering people to be aware of and enforce their rights as enshrined in our Constitution. Such action may include questioning and protesting decisions taken by government in many areas. This work is both our right and our responsibility as civil society actors in a democratic nation. Indeed the Indian government acknowledged this. At the Universal Periodic Review of India at the UN Human Rights Council in 2012, the Government spoke of '…the Government's active association with civil society and the increasing and important role that civil society and human rights defenders are playing in the area of human rights.' Government of India further said that, 'The media, civil society and other activists have helped the Government to be vigilant against transgressions'.
“Many of us receive both Indian and foreign donations in compliance with laws and carry out activities intended to help those marginalized in India's development. Many of us have partnered with Government, both at State and Central levels, towards many goals - achieving universal education, access to health care, women's empowerment, and providing humanitarian relief in times of tragedy such as the recent earthquake. We have also worked in pilot projects - some over the years have been scaled up, and others have richly contributed to the policy framework of the Government of India. It should be a matter of pride for any government and a sign of robust people-centric engagement that NGOs and citizens have impacted State policy.
“On other issues, your government and indeed previous governments may or may not agree with some of our views. These may include the issue of nuclear power plants, acquiring tribal and other lands, upholding Dalit rights, protecting rights of minorities against the scourge of communalism, protecting rights of sexual minorities, or campaigning for the universal right to food. Yet, we expect that Government protect our right to work and express our views. It does not behove the Government to label icting voice on these issues as 'anti-national', 'against national security' or 'donor any and every con es “a crack down on NGOs.” These very words seek shame any society. 'Watch lists” and “crack-downs” belong in another age and have no place in a modern democracy.
“Your government has raised the issue that some NGOs may not have complied with the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), the law governing receipt of foreign donations in India. We state categorically that we stand fully for transparency and accountability in both government and NGO practice, and it is in fact civil society actors who have fought hard for these principles to be enshrined in all areas of public life. So let us constructively ensure transparency and legal compliance across the vast NGO sector, including societies, trusts and a range of public and private institutions. However, such efforts cannot be capricious, selective or based on flimsy grounds. At the moment it seems that ‘compliance’ is serving as a garb to actually target those organizations and individuals whose views disagrees with, and indeed to monitor and stifle disagreement itself.
“There is irrefutable documentary evidence that State action against select organizations has been arbitrary, non-transparent, and without any course of administrative redress. The effect has been to harm important work being done by NGOs at the grassroots and send a signal of threat to civil society. Our concern includes the manner in which many Indian NGOs and international partners have been targeted for different reasons. Thus, civil society organizations in India today find themselves where the only avenue of redress appears to be through the judiciary. Mr Prime Minister, this kind of coercive domestic environment being created under your watch does not augur well for the world's largest democracy that professes aspirations to being a global leader in promoting freedoms and democratic values.
“Further, in an increasingly globalized world, where even business interests freely collaborate across national boundaries, to label any individual or NGO that engages with international forums or any donor who supports such NGOs, as 'anti-national' is illogical. India is signatory to international conventions and treaties and seeks to adhere to the highest international standards of democracy, liberty, justice and human rights. The Government of India regularly reports at these forums. It is accepted practice that NGOs and civil society actors also present their views at these forums, often disagreeing with the views of their respective governments.
“Many of us, signatories to this letter, engage in active advocacy at international forums. This upholds the best traditions of global democratic debate, and the right to seek a more just nation and more just world. It is not anti-national to do so. We do not believe that any government can claim that it alone has the prerogative prerogative to define what is national interest. The citizens, who elect the Government into power, are the ultimate stakeholders, and must be allowed to articulate and work towards their idea of 'national interest' too, whether or not it concurs with the views of the Government.”
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Given the make-up of this particular Government and the fact that it subscribes to an ideology which is not in the best interest of the country, there is very little likelihood that the hostility to civil society activism will end in the near future. However, one thing is sure that come what may, civil society activists who are targeted today will never cow down; they are committed to the future of India; being there and standing up for the high ideals which India embodies and accompanying the millions of people who need their whole-hearted support and cooperation is ultimately what matters!
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*Human Rights Activist

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