Just days ago, the prime minister used the Vibrant Gujarat event to project India to the world’s investors. On Monday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spoke of the importance of India in the region, for disarming South Asia, stabilising Afghanistan and facing global scourges like terrorism and climate change. Between these stirring events, a Greenpeace activist was offloaded from a Delhi-London flight. Her name was allegedly on a lookout circular, which lists fugitives from justice who evade the police and the courts, and who may try to leave the country. The activist, Priya Pillai, did not fall in this category. She was travelling to London to make a presentation on tribal affairs to British MPs. However, her organisation has agitated against Mahan Coal Ltd, a joint venture between Essar and Hindalco in Singrauli, Madhya Pradesh. It has argued in court that clearances were secured with a forged gram sabha resolution, and has approached the government, too.
Due process and democracy, those magnets of investment, will evaluate this charge. The government only needed to wait. But it chose to curb the freedom of movement of a Greenpeace activist, physically preventing her from spreading the bad news overseas. A nation which wants to project itself as a serious power should have the confidence to tolerate dissent and deal with bad publicity.
The government has dogged Greenpeace, freezing its accounts and even sending back a UK representative when he landed in Delhi last year. However, the treatment meted out to it is part of a larger pattern — from the second term of the UPA, the government has been treating NGOs as suspect until proven innocent. If some NGOs have been playing fast and loose with public funds, and there are many such, the government should crack down on them specifically, instead of tightening its grip on the entire sector. It should remember that if Bangladesh embarrasses India with better development indices, some of the credit goes to its flourishing NGO sector, which complements services delivered by government. The social sector should be seen as a partner in the process of development, not a political adversary paid in dollars to lobby for alien agendas and foment dissatisfaction in the countryside. Lobbying and activism are legitimate acts. The government’s response should be to negotiate. The puerile alternative of offloading inconvenient people mars the image of confident maturity that India is trying to project.