The space for civil society is shrinking in India. For UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the presence of a strong and freely operating civil society is the hallmark of successful and stable democracies. Thomas Paine points out that civil society always acts as a counterweight against the state in a democracy. Larry Diamond, a leading contemporary scholar on democracy, is of the view that a healthy democracy requires a vibrant civil society as it plays a crucial role in monitoring and restraining the exercise of power by the state and in holding it accountable.
A slew of actions against civil society organisations (CSOs) by the government clearly threatens the existence of civil society in India. The latest was the cancellation of the registration of the Sabrang Trust — run by activist Teesta Setalvad — on June 16 for alleged diversion of funds to activities and expenses other than what they were meant for. Setalvad and her NGO, Citizens for Justice and Peace, are running a sustained campaign against atrocities committed during the 2002 Gujarat riots under the watch of the then Chief Minister Narendra Modi. The Ford Foundation was also put on the watch list for funding Setalvad’s NGO, which was accused of promoting “communal disharmony”. Interestingly, restrictions against Ford Foundation were eased ahead of Modi’s Washington visit.
On June 1, the FCRA registration of leading lawyer Indira Jaising’s NGO, Lawyers Collective, was suspended for six months for alleged violation of FCRA norms. The NGO allegedly used the funds for organising rallies with political “hue and colour”. Anand Grover, co-founder of Lawyers Collective, has argued against BJP President Amit Shah in the Sohrabuddin fake encounter case. They have also represented Sanjiv Bhatt, Priya Pillai, and Yakub Memon.
Earlier, on September 3, 2015, the government had cancelled the FCRA registration of Greenpeace India and seven of its bank accounts were frozen for allegedly campaigning against mining and nuclear projects. Their chief campaigner Priya Pillai was offloaded from a flight to London at Delhi airport. The government’s decision to bar her from travelling was declared illegal by the Delhi High Court.
The actions taken by the government against Sabrang Trust, Ford Foundation, Green Peace and Lawyer’s Collective lend credence to the accusations that the government has launched a witch-hunt against activists and CSOs who have been fighting for the rights of victims of the Gujarat riots or questioning inequitable development projects, ruthless corporatisation, and unsustainable exploitation of natural resources.
These developments stunned the UN special rapporteurs Michel Forst, David Kaye and Maina Kiai. In their statement on June 16, they said that FCRA provisions are being (mis)used to silence organisations involved in advocating civil, political, economic, social, environmental or cultural priorities which differ from those of the government.
What is more shocking is that CSOs are demonised as “anti-national” and “anti-development” and accused of serving the interests of foreign forces who want to halt India’s economic development.
Isn’t it hypocritical that the prime minister travels from one international capital to another, zealously pursuing foreign investment, but restricts NGOs from seeking foreign funding for their programmes? The government should realise that the crackdown on dissenting voices will not only tarnish India’s image as a democratic country and hurt efforts to woo foreign investors.
There are some dubious CSOs that indulge in rampant corruption and function in the most undemocratic and non-transparent manner. They must be held accountable. But the government must concede space for democratic dissent, and protect activists who often risk their lives to uphold democratic values and human rights. These organisations are, in fact, key partners in the country’s development. In a democracy, one has every right to question the economic policies and decisions of the government. The government can’t claim to be the only trustee of the national interest.