Against secular NGOs

Published : Oct 23, 1999 00:00 IST

I am writing in response to an item which has appeared in several newspapers, including The Asian Age (Rezaul H. Laskar), regarding a series of "show cause" notices which have apparently been issued to several prominent non-governmental organisat ions (NGOs). The Asian Age report, titled "Home Ministry singles out anti-BJP NGOs", lists some of the best known and most active groups - groups that have been working for over three decades in fields covering the most critical areas of social de velopment, including education, health, gender issues, rural development, tribal development, and Dalit and human rights issues across the country.

I as a founder-director of Ankur, one of the several groups that have chosen to associate themselves with the advertisement campaign initiated by Communalism Combat, and we as citizens who have always appreciated the democratic space provided by our Cons titution and our polity, view with alarm and concern the present actions, which point to increasingly unhealthy trends to harass, choke and silence all dissent and the right to freedom of expression. The dark days of the Emergency apart, there are few pr ecedents to this kind of action to stifle the voice of civil society. Whether it was in the post-1984 riots period or the post-Babri Masjid demolition period, the right of citizens' groups and NGOs to exercise their "watchdog" role was never in question or under assault as it is today.

It is important to analyse and open up to public debate the notion of what constitutes "political activities" and who has the right to decide and determine these definitions in an allegedly open and democratic society. Here again, the role of the organs of the state in defining and determining the parameters of "patriotism", of "nationalism", and now of "political activity", must be subject to scrutiny and widespread critique.

It is not only the prerogative but the duty of civil society organisations - the globally accepted terminology for a range of organisations and groups, including NGOs - to provide information and facts and to create awareness among and educate the publ ic. Most of us joined social movements precisely to be better able to reach out to the unreached, oppressed and exploited masses through education and other programmes, and with a clear, overtly stated objective of empowering people who had been denied a ll access to human rights through oppressive, systemic, social, economic and political structures.

The role of NGOs and CSOs in bringing about a universal recognition for the language of people's empowerment is well accepted today by groups and institutions across a wide spectrum.

In a country which pioneered and spearheaded structural and constitutional changes by way of the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution in order to enable the practice of grassroots democracy, and in a land which takes pride in calling itself the " largest democracy in the world", it is appalling to see the highhanded use of power and authority to curb and limit precisely these voices and institutions of democratic participation and opinion. This is the sure path to fascism - and it is up to every right-thinking Indian to speak out against the actions of the Home Ministry (if these are true) and to stand up for the freedom and the right to form and propagate opinions. Quoting Foreign Currency Regulation Act (FCRA) provisions and other interpretati ons of the laws governing social institutions as grounds for such action is nothing short of harassment

Lalita Ramdas, Alibag, Maharashtra, Sagari Ramdas, Madhusudhan, Usha, Asha, Pandu Dorai, Secunderabad

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