Crushing dissent

Print edition : October 02, 2015

A Greenpeace banner in Bengaluru after its India office accounts were frozen by the NDA government. Photo: Shailendra Bhojak /PTI

Exhibits at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library at Teen Murti in New Delhi. Photo: Meeta Ahlawat

The Modi government seems hell-bent on enforcing its writ on all: it has clamped down on Greenpeace India, a proactive NGO, and plans to revamp several institutions, including the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library.

THE Union Home Ministry’s move cancelling Greenpeace India’s registration under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) is seen as yet another attack on civil liberties and free speech by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre. While the previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government was intolerant of dissent, the present ruling dispensation has gone beyond that and tends to crush all difference of opinion.

Greenpeace, a non-governmental environmental group, and the Centre have been locked in a legal battle for several months. The NGO was placed under a special “watch list”. Every transaction from abroad is scrutinised and cleared by not only the Finance Ministry but also the Home Ministry. Earlier, several bank accounts of Greenpeace India were frozen on the grounds of under-reporting and violations of FCRA norms.

The organisation could no longer receive funds from its international arm. The Delhi High Court subsequently unfroze two of its domestic accounts and allowed it to liquidate its fixed deposits for day-to-day operations. In January, Greenpeace activist Priya Pillai’s passport was stamped with the term “offload” at the immigration counter of the Indira Gandhi Airport in New Delhi and she was barred from boarding a London-bound flight. But in March, the High Court ruled in favour of Priya Pillai and directed the government to revoke the ban on her travel and expunge the term “offload” from her passport.

Greenpeace said the government’s latest move to silence dissent would neither affect the core activities of its India chapter nor deter it from carrying on its campaigns.

Vinuta Gopal, interim co-executive director of Greenpeace India, said clean air, solar street lights and a solar policy for Delhi were some of the new campaigns for renewable energy started by the NGO. Greenpeace is not planning to stop its campaign against coal mining in the forests of Odisha, where it faced numerous onslaughts, including harassment by various state agencies ( Frontline, June 12, 2015). In order to counter the “smear campaign” by the NDA, Greenpeace has launched a “Bollywood” poster campaign. Greenpeace staff and volunteers have recreated posters of popular Bollywood films and developed alternative story lines for them.

“In the last year and a half, Greenpeace India has seen it all. Numerous court scenes, dramatic offloading incidents at the airport, corporate and government villains and ‘anti-national’ heroes saving the day. Our continued existence has been no less dramatic than the best of Bollywood, with twists and turns every day. So we have decided to take our love for Indian cinema and use it to highlight the clampdown on free speech and the shrinking space for dissent,” it said in a statement.

Greenpeace has been working without funds since April, and has reduced its staff strength after its FCRA was brought under the scanner on charges of misuse and mixing of foreign and domestic accounts, but it is confident that funds are not going to be a problem. Greenpeace has more than 75,000 Indian donors who are ensuring that it is business as usual for the NGO.

At the hearing in the High Court in the first week of September, the Home Ministry submitted an affidavit stating that it had cancelled Greenpeace’s FCRA registration.

The NGO is examining its legal options while retaining faith in the judiciary. Vinuta Gopal said: “The court gave us a favourable verdict thrice.” In its verdict pronounced on the Priya Pillai case in March, the court chastised the government by saying “it is not legal to muzzle dissent”, she observed.

Dismissing the story on the investigative journalist Greg Muttit in mainstream papers as false, Vinuta Gopal said Greenpeace had already told the court that there was a secondment agreement with Greg where his salary, approximately 56,000 euros per annum, was paid for by Greenpeace International and not Greenpeace India.

She said: “It is a smear campaign and the details are always leaked first to the media.” For instance, the government’s order listing the violations by Greenpeace mentions that it did not disclose its foreign accounts opening balance, which was Rs.6.6 crore for 2008-09. “We admitted that it was a typographical error. If we wanted to hide it, we wouldn’t have reported it in our online submissions or as part of the closing balance. There is an intentional misstatement of facts happening here.”

In Chennai, she said, Greenpeace moved the Madras High Court challenging a show-cause notice issued by the District Registrar of Chennai Central to Greenpeace India alleging certain irregularities said to have been committed by the NGO. She said in August the court directed the District Registrar to permit Greenpeace to inspect the records kept by the Registrar of Societies and respond to the show-cause notice after that.


Greenpeace maintains that its story is far from unique. “Similar clampdowns have been seen all across the country. Greenpeace, along with many other organisations, has been at the receiving end of the Home Ministry’s ire. Our accounts have been frozen, our reputation smeared and staff banned from travelling both into and out of the country. Government agencies have done everything they can to shut down Greenpeace offices and harass our staff. However, we remain stronger than ever!” it said in a statement.

The government recently cancelled the licences of 9,000 NGOs. By coming down heavily upon these organisations, some of which work in critical and diverse areas of nuclear energy, freedom of speech and genetically modified crops, the space for dialogue, discussion and dissent is shrinking.

Already, the Narendra Modi government is seeking to enforce its writ on educational institutions. Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani has often feigned shock when it is pointed out that education was getting saffronised, but the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh’s (RSS) declarations on moulding educational institutions to suit a certain notion of India’s history and ideology show who sets the agenda.

The government’s continuous interference in educational institutions is seen as a way to change intellectual opinion in its favour. From professional institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology and the Indian Institutes of Management to the Indian Council of Historical Research, Nalanda University (here the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen criticised its governance and made no attempt to hide his differences with the Modi government), and the Film and Television Institute of India, the Modi government has been meddling with almost every major educational institution.

Nehru Museum revamp

Union Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma recently said that there was a plan to revamp 39 institutions, including the Gandhi Smriti, the Lalit Kala Akademi and the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML), in order to make them more purposeful. This raised concerns about the nature of changes planned. Teen Murti Bhavan, which houses the NMML, among other institutions, is set for a Rs.10-crore revamp under the conservation architect Abha Narain Lambah.

The Congress party has objected to the plan. Randeep Surjewala, chief party spokesperson, said: “Devoid of any legacy that comprises the building of our nation, the RSS and the BJP are playing a diabolical game of rewriting and misappropriating our rich and proud heritage of struggle for Independence.”

Former West Bengal Governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi, the playwright Girish Karnad, the historian Romila Thapar, and the academic Ananya Vajpeyi issued a joint statement explaining why this move would be disastrous. They explained that although the NMML was set up in Nehru’s memory (Teen Murti Bhavan was the residence of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru for 16 years) and in his name, it was not limited to one man’s role or legacy.

They expressed concern over reports that the museum would be transformed into a “Museum of Governance” and repurposed to broadcast the activities of the present government. “While the government has every resource at its disposal should it want to build a Museum of Governance and use such an institution to display its own achievements, the Nehru Museum was never meant to be anything other than a museum dedicated to India’s first Prime Minister, his life and his times,” the statement said.

The library is undoubtedly one of the best in the country and houses “an eclectic collection of institutional papers. Its holdings are non-partisan and reflect the broad swathe of political ideologies and schools of thought that have existed and flourished in nationalist-era and independent India. The Library, unlike the Museum, is in no way limited to Nehru’s papers, Nehru’s writings or scholarship that might be described as ‘Nehruvian’.”

The statement said:

“Why are ministers, spokespersons and special appointees of the current administration making statements to the press suggesting that the Nehru Library is focused on Nehru alone? This is patently false. Students, researchers and scholars working on a spectrum of topics in the history of modern history, from anti-colonial movements to communism to the world wars to Hindu nationalism to state and regional politics to Gandhian studies to non-alignment, all need to consult the books, papers, microfilms, newspapers, archival materials and journals that are housed in the Nehru Library. This has been the case from the very inception of the library….

“…These are autonomous institutions and public resources, open to all Indian citizens (as well as to academic researchers from other countries who work on India), and not the property or fief of any political party, government in power, ideological cabal, or department of this or that ministry.”

NMML Director Mahesh Rangarajan is reported to have said that the modernisation plan would keep in mind the “basic objective” of spreading Nehru’s ideas, the freedom struggle and the history of modern India. There would be special focus on the governance of India under Nehru, something “which has been largely left out in the present exhibition”.