Wake up: Civil society space in India under threat


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It is almost axiomatic that free civil society (NGOs are part of civil society) discourse and free media are essential to ensure healthy discourse and checks and balances in a democracy.  One has seen how civil society and media in India have helped sustain the largest democracy in the world.

In the recent past though, I increasingly get a feeling that the principle of healthy discourse is under threat as media gets increasingly controlled (and narrowly too) and civil society & individual voices are muffled.  We saw it in the recent general elections where armies of social media warriors (mercenaries?) were deployed to drown out any opposing voices.  In general, intolerance, seems to be the new mantra.

One of the front-page controversies has been a leaked Intelligence Bureau report that accuses  “foreign-funded NGOs such as Greenpeace, Cordaid, Amnesty and ActionAid of “serving as tools for foreign policy interests of western governments” by sponsoring agitations against nuclear and coal-fired power plants across the country.” The report further alleges that these protests have cost India a loss to the extent of 2-3% of the GDP!

This is not all. Government of India is making further moves to make it more difficult for NGOs to work. The provisions of the Income Tax Act are being tightened.  The process of ensuring governmental control over civil society organisations that Queen Victoria started in 1860 (Societies Registration Act) and then Indira Gandhi took way ahead in 1976 (the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act), is now nearing completion. Every government of whatever hue has systematically tried to shrink civil society space. Even the mildest of Prime Ministers, Dr. Manmohan Singh, was not in favour of too much freedom for civil society. This is not purely an Indian phenomenon, it is happening around the world as I wrote here.

The reactions to these events have been interesting.

There is a lot more chatter from citizens on social media. Most of this chatter exhibits glee at the discomfiture of NGOs. This from people who  neither know about nor care about what NGOs are doing.  Few people realise that the definition of ‘NGO’ in India is terribly loose. Anything from a group playing carrom under a tree to a Ganesh Chaturthi Mandal to the RSS to Amnesty International India  are all classified as NGOs. No wonder their numbers run in millions. Further, not all NGOs are under threat. Nope. Those who (1) deliver services that should actually be delivered by government, (2) work as contractors on government programs or (3) do nothing at all are under no threat.  They can continue in their merry ways.

NGOs themselves are reacting to this in many ways.

Some are either blissfully unaware of anything like this happening or ignoring this because they are neither named nor are likely to be named.

Most of those under scrutiny, are a more than a bit worried. Who are these? These are NGOs that are dependent on foreign financial contributions for most of their work which involves

Raising unpleasant questions regarding the poor who are displaced by large projects. I have nothing against infrastructure projects. It is the total lack of good rehabilitation and compensation that is appalling.

Bringing attention to the fact that the poor (and sometimes the exchequer) are being cheated by corporations who intend to rapaciously loot natural resources for profits without thinking of sharing these with those who are affected.

Asking embarrassing questions on government decision making processes.

Organising the poor to demand accountability of the bureaucrats and politicians

Some of those that are named but who raise funds locally in India are not worried. They have little to fear. There may be harassment but nothing more can really happen. In fact unconfirmed reports say that some of them have actually managed to raise even more funds following the controversy. This may be a pointer to how NGOs engaged in raising uncomfortable issues should raise funds. I have argued this earlier here.

All of this is worrying. The image of India in my mind is where free speech and freedom of thought flourishes (compared to many other parts of the world). However, I am increasingly reminded of similar clampdown on NGOs elsewhere

  • In 2011 – Al Shabab expelled 17 NGOs from south central Somalia for engaging in famine relief; they (AS) probably felt that the people would survive and then would speak about the vicious rule. Millions suffered then, some are still suffering. The lucky ones died!
  • In 2008 the Government of Sudan expelled 10 international NGOs for ‘anti-State’ activities. The NGOs had consistently campaigned to get Omar al-Bashir, the President, indicted in the International Criminal Court for his role in the genocide in Darfur.

I had never thought that this would happen in India. Not so blatantly anyway. How naïve of me.  What upsets me further is the fact that there does not seem to be any concerted effort from civil society to fight against the shrinking of space. A lot of NGOs seem to be just biding time and waiting rather than being proactive.

It is no one’s case that there should be no governance framework for NGOs. Indeed not. However, muzzling of free speech is hardly something I want to see in India.  This is not only because I work in this space. If you are an Indian citizen reading this, you should be worried too. Remember what Pastor Martin Niemoller had said

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.