Updated: May 4, 2015 12:00:29 am
In quick succession, the government has painted itself into two embarrassing corners. By putting the Ford Foundation on a prior permission watchlist in the interest of national security, it is inviting international ridicule. Earlier, it had amused the international community by imposing travel restrictions on a Greenpeace activist, an approach to managing dissent that fell from grace with the close of the Middle Ages, and which must reliably fail in the age of pervasive communications.
In pursuit of its stated aim of building capacities and institutions, the Ford Foundation provides financial support for research programmes in at least 10 institutes of national importance, including an IIT, an IIM, the Jawaharlal Nehru University and the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. In addition, its earliest interventions in India included the development of physical infrastructure like Kennedy Hall at the Aligarh Muslim University. To suggest that the foundation’s interests are spurious or disreputable brings all these institutions — and senior staffers handling funds — into similar disrepute. And since the Indian government has frequently contributed to these projects or founded the organisations in which they run, the interests of government officials who okayed the Ford Foundation’s financial support begins to look suspect, too. This is a tricky corner for a government to be in.
If a government which seeks to engage with the world and prepare India for a global role conducts itself in a seemingly xenophobic manner, the dissonance can be striking indeed. A government whose first instinct is to stifle dissent instead of persuading the dissenter is sadly anachronistic, and a handicap for a nation in search of a larger international role. Equally out of time is the convention barring non-profit organisations from indulging in or promoting “political” activities. The idea of what constitutes politics has been expanded sharply by 20th century reform movements like feminism. Today, the personal is the political. A political dimension may be read into almost every act, and these acts are performed in a world that is essentially borderless. In this globalised milieu, to insist that non-profits must be unwaveringly non-political is unrealistic, and anxieties about the “foreign hand” are symptomatic of medieval paranoias that last reared their head prominently in Indira Gandhi’s regime. But it is not just the Modi government. Its predecessor too was deeply disconcerted by non-governmental activity. This trend is dangerous and can end up isolating India in an increasingly open world.
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