Stifling dissent and debate

Print edition : October 23, 1999

Under attack from NGOs for its communal orientation, the BJP seeks to browbeat them and also impose indirect forms of censorship.

EVERY political party has a distinct, characteristic, style which is as important as the substance of what it stands for. Any reasonable description of the Bharatiya Janata Party's style must prominently mention crudeness, brazenness and a certain kind o f daring to do what many would think is unthinkable: the Babri Masjid demolition, the nuclear tests, the wanton attacks on Christians, the telecom scam, the Kargil fiasco, the gutter-level electioneering.... This pattern has been on display in two action s of the BJP-led "caretaker" government. The first is its attempt to restrict and censor scholarly and activist debate. The second is the BJP's vicious attack on a number of civil society organisations (CSOs), which joined or endorsed the Communalism Com bat campaign exposing Hindutva (Frontline, October 8, 1999).

Rather than counter the allegations that were levelled as part of the campaign with facts, the BJP first maligned the signatories, accusing them of (what else?) having taken "foreign money", and then stooped even lower by activating the state machinery a nd getting it to issue notices under the Foreign Contributions (Regulation) Act (FCRA) to the CSOs concerned. Both the actions display a paranoid, venal, mindset, a mortal fear of criticism, and contempt for elementary norms of democratic functioning.

TO take the second issue first, BJP spokesperson M. Venkaiah Naidu and general secretary Narendra Modi on September 25 launched a vitriolic attack on Communalism Combat and associated CSOs, accusing them of being "anti-national and anti-BJP". Venkaiah Na idu alleged that they were campaigning for the Congress(I) and the Left. Asked how this could make them anti-national, he said they had also criticised the Pokhran-II tests "and this is anti-Indian".... "Naidu clarified that [his] objection was to forei gn funds being used for political propaganda. If they were using their own money they had every right to do whatever they saw fit, but the FCRA prohibited use of foreign funds for political activity''(The Hindu, September 26). Among the organisati ons were some of our best known and most respected women's groups, such as Forum against Oppression of Women, Ankur, Women's Centre, National Alliance of Women's Organisations, Awaaz-e-Niswan, Asmita, Kali for Women, Nirantar, and Shakti Shalini.

Meanwhile, Narendra Modi in Lucknow urged the government to inquire into the matter of the funds received by 13 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) from foreign sources and prosecute them for violating FCRA. He claimed that the NGOs had used the funds for propaganda "which amounted to interference in the country's electoral process by foreign money power and constituted a serious threat to its sovereignty". He cited sections of the FCRA which prohibit political donations.

Exactly two days later, with exceptional alacrity, the Foreigners Division of the Home Ministry issued identical notices to the 13 organisations, to Communalism Combat (CC), the Indian Social Institute (ISI), and Voluntary Action Network India (VANI). Th e notices cited Section 5(1) of the FCRA which stipulates that no organisation of a political nature, not being a political party, shall accept any foreign contribution except with the prior permission of the Central Government. The letter said: "It has come to the notice of the Central Government that, in the run up to the ongoing general elections, your association has been associated with the release of certain advertisements in the press and with certain documents the contents of which are in the na ture of comments of a political nature", and then demanded that the CSO concerned show cause why it should not be required "to obtain prior permission of the Central Government before accepting any foreign contribution; and notified as an organisation of a political nature.... under Section 5(1) of the Act."

There could be no clearer circumstantial evidence of collusion between the BJP and the Home Ministry, or rather its misuse by the former. The official letter parrots the BJP functionaries' precise argument and illogic. It too wrongly characterises as "po litics" and "comments of a political nature" the factual charges made in the Communsalism Combat-led advertisements about the BJP's callous, discriminatory, attitudes towards women, its endorsement of sati and dowry and its assault on the minorit ies. The charges were primarily based on quotes from BJP leaders' own past statements.

It can be convincingly argued that the Communalism Combat campaign was a strong defence of the constitutional values of democracy, secularism, pluralism and equality. The right to life and to non-discrimination is a fundamental right of all citizens. The campaign was fully consistent with the fundamental duties of the citizen under Article 51(a), including the duty to promote social and religious harmony and renounce practices derogatory to women.

Such rights cannot be abridged, leave alone violated, by recourse to technical provision of some enactment like the FCRA. There is nothing improper at all about CSOs or NGOs issuing advertisements on broad social issues on which certain political parties have taken a retrograde stand. That is perfectly in order. It is either presumptuous of the Ministry to hold, as does the BJP, that the CSOs concerned were in breach of the FCRA insofar as the advertisements were funded with foreign money, or else, that their content was "political".

Yet, this charge cannot possibly apply to CSOs such as the Indian Social Institute, VANI and the Centre for Women's Development Studies, which were not even signatories to the advertisements released by Communalism Combat, but some of which endorsed the "People's Agenda for the General Elections 1999". Now the People's Agenda too is a critique of the governance under the BJP-led coalition and an appeal to defend cultural plurality and progressive values on the basis of a broad secular-democratic agenda.

Although the show-cause notice only speaks of "certain documents", it does not specify which. Nor does Sanjay Datta, director in the Foreigners' Branch, who has signed all the show-cause notices which are identical to the point of faithfully mis-spelling "contrinbution" and "poilitical". If it is the People's Agenda that the Ministry has in mind, it will be hard put to defend its description as "political" without distorting the meaning of the word and obliterating the distinction between the political and the social.

The CSOs and institutes concerned, including the ISI and P3 women's groups, and Communalism Combat itself, have refuted the Government's tendentious charge-sheet fairly convincingly, denying that foreign funding had a role in the campaign, and showing wh y their defence of women's and minority rights does not constitute "political" activity.

The more fundamental point is this. The BJP and, at its behest, the government, are trying to use the FCRA to browbeat progressive CSOs. They are not only making a false connection between the secular commitment of these organisations and the fact that t hey have clearances under the FCRA to receive contributions. Worse, there is a suggestion that secularism in this country is intimately linked to foreign sources!

The FCRA's rationale could never have been to create an instrument with which to harass social activists. It is the Home Ministry's responsibility to issue FCRA clearances in each individual case. It usually takes a couple of years to scrutinise the appl ication and applicant, inquire into its antecedents and so on. It has no business to turn around suddenly and hound the CSOs just because they have done something the ruling party does not like. However, according to Combat editor Teesta Setalvad, it has recently cancelled FCRA clearances of more than a dozen CSOs.

BEHIND this harassment of CSOs is the deep-seated prejudice that "foreign money" is evil, and that it is causing political and social havoc through religious conversion, especially to Christianity, through the spread of "subversive" ideas. This is danger ously wrong. Foreign contributions to Church-based organisations in India only account for a small fraction of the total. For instance, according to John Dayal, of the United Christian Forum, Church-based groups accounted for a mere 4 per cent of Europea n Union contributions received last year. It is reasonable to assume that a lot more money goes to non-Christian, especially Hindutva-oriented, organisations.

This money is poorly, inadequately, audited. According to scholar Amrita Basu of Amherst College, Amherst, Massachusetts, the VHP-USA, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad in the United States, remitted about $1.25 billion between 1977 and 1993 to India. That is wh at its records show in the U.S. However, much of this money - which works out to a huge Rs. 5,300 crores - was probably transferred clandestinely. At best only a tiny proportion surfaces in the accounts of the VHP, the BJP and affiliated organisations in India. Their books would be an auditor's delight - or nightmare - as taxman Vishwa Bandhu Gupta has repeatedly discovered. The VHP in India cannot account for a huge proportion of its income. Its books are one vast mess. But there is an attempt to dress them up and remove officials who ask awkward questions.

By contrast, genuine CSOs/NGOs are subjected to relatively rigorous audit on the basis of institutionalised transfers. The funds they receive are not easily-divertible donations, but typically earmarked for specific projects. They have to be accountable to the government, to donors, and to their own members on how they spend their money.

The Sangh Parivar, with all its shady but strong foreign connections, is accountable to no one. The Vajpayee government has turned a blind eye to the Sangh organisations' foreign funding. In the process, it has immensely strengthened the super-hawkish f orces within the Hindutva camp, which feel encouraged to continue to attack the religious minorities and human rights and secular activists.

It is significant that some of India's most radical and committed CSOs have been victimised in the second wave of notices sent out by the Home Ministry. Many of them, like the ISI, the CWDS, Kali, FAOW, Women's Centre, and Communalism Combat, are the gre atest allies of progressive forces fighting for justice and human dignity. They have a superb record of supporting worthy causes. Earlier, many Christian organisations were targeted. According to Dayal, this was a signal to Parivar fanatics that Church-b ased groups are fair game.

FCRA notices are only one method of harassment. Others include police interrogation and virtual stalking of some CSOs in order to dig out information about their contacts and links with other groups. For instance, in recent weeks, Women's Centre and Aksh ara in Mumbai have had numerous instances of queries about and interference in their work by all kinds of unidentified agencies and individuals. At least two women's CSOs in Delhi too have been similarly harassed. Similarly, a Dutch private aid organisat ion has also had persistent inquiries about the "Christian groups" it might fund, as if this were illegal, shady or improper.

This Hindutva campaign against "foreign" funds would have sounded a little less biased and outrageous had the BJP, its cohorts, and its government, had consistent standards. As it happens, they do not. The Vajpayee government could not even countenance n ot being dependent of World Bank and IMF subventions. In the 1990s, the bulk of India's economic policies tended to be written by forces and agencies that represent foreign, indeed big, multinational capital. Attracting foreign capital - the most concent rated expansion of "foreign" funds - is part of the core agenda of India's policy-makers. Indeed, many of India's social programmes have become heavily dependent on foreign aid - for example, those relating to primary education, literacy, drinking water supply and reafforestation.

It is thus thoroughly duplicitous and hypocritical for those who have willingly surrendered economic sovereignty to foreign capital and become dependent on international finance, to be ranting about minuscule amounts of audited, largely project-specific, institutionalised and non-profit oriented fund flows to CSOs. This shows more than a paranoid fear of things foreign. It is a cynical device to try to isolate progressive CSOs in a vindictive manner.

THE same logic has been at work in imposing and tightening totally unreasonable restrictions on who can be invited by institutions, including universities and CSOs, to conferences and seminars. This is essentially a form of censorship and physical curfew on independent scholars. Since the middle of this year, the Home Ministry has been issuing instructions that any voluntary organisation/NGO planning to hold an international meeting/seminar must first get clearance from the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), from the nodal Ministry dealing with the issue, and finally itself. Only then will the names of the participants be forwarded to the Indian embassies in the countries concerned. It is only after following this process that the participants can get their visas.

Strangely, the MEA has no basis on which to screen any application for such clearance. Nor are there written guidelines. When VANI took up the issue with the MEA, it was told by Under Secretary Manmohan Singh that "the instructions regarding foreigners a ttending seminars etc. are formulated by the Ministry of Home Affairs" and that the MEA "merely complies" with them.

Demanding prior approval is a method typical of the crafty, devious, bureaucrat: delay clearances until they become infructuous and thus victimise the CSO whose face you do not like or who is independent-minded. This is exactly what happened to a number of prospective participants in at least three recent civil society conferences. Indian embassies refused to grant them visas and they were told that "all conferences to do with the voluntary sector and which appear to be government/politically sensitive have to get clearance for participants from abroad."

Similar restrictive conditions are increasingly being applied to universities organising seminars, and to teachers who might be invited to conferences abroad. This is dangerous. Such restrictions are an assault on academic freedom, on genuine debate and critical inquiry. They must be stoutly resisted.

What the BJP regime is doing is turning India into an even more authoritarian replica of Pakistan, where too university professors must get a no-objection certificate from various authorities before they can go abroad. Indeed, they cannot board an aircra ft without the NOC. This shameful form of high-handedness and anti-democratic regulation is calculated to stifle dissent and intimidate secular scholars and activists in an Emergency-type operation. The government must be forced to retrace its steps.

A letter from the Editor


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