Is Civil Society Losing Freedom In India?
|By Amit Singh|
When Narendra Modi came to power in India in 2014, civil society member sensed an imminent danger of losing their freedom. Their fear was true. From the start, government were intolerant to those who criticized their actions and policies- particularly towards those working on social justice and human rights issues. To discourage, dismantle and destroy opposing voices, government adopted two broad steps. First, use of FCRA Act (the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act, 2010) to stop foreign funding to human rights NGOs, second, painted those NGOs as anti-national and foreign agents.
In addition, a nationalist narrative of Hindutva and nationalism is crafted and fabricated to silence those who dare to critique government action. Whether fake Bhopal encounter, surgical strike on Pakistan or arbitrary ban of 500 and 1000 notes took place-anyone who has questioned the credibility and authenticity of the government action-being termed as ‘anti-national’ and unpatriotic. Until, 20th Nov. 2016, sixty people were died in serpentine queue while waiting to withdraw their money from ATM, some of them died to exhaustion and tiredness, were old people. However, government were unable to ease the pain and problems of people who spend long hours in ATM queue. Most of the mainstream media (belongs to Modi’s business friends) seem standing with government ignoring common people’s misery in their coverage-only highlighting benefits of ban on 500 and 1000 notes.
Those who go against Modi’s supported national and religious narratives is on risk being framed as ‘traitor’ in new discourse of national hatred. Themes (fit into national-political narratives) recently pushed in the current political discourse, such as Ganga, Cow, Cultural nationalism, Hindutva, Love jihad are carrier of those ideas dividing the country on religious and Caste lines. Thus, civil society has become natural target of such nationalist religious forces since free thinkers and NGOs quite often opposes those divisive ideas meant to serve political purpose of the current government.
Along with human rights NGOs, free thinking intellectuals were also targeted as ‘enemy of the state’. However, it is human rights NGOs who has suffered most. The anti-human rights attitude of Modi government is reflected in the cancellation of thousands of NGO licenses and increased restrictions on NGOs, receiving foreign fund.
Recent denial of renewing FCRA licence for 25 NGOs is in line with this government ideology-not to tolerate critique and dissent. An NGO run by lawyer Indira Jaising who had sought a reprieve for 1993 Mumbai blast convict Yakub Memon, one suspected of "funding proselytisation" and yet another that opposed the Koodankulam nuclear project are among 25 NGOs whose FCRA licence was not renewed for "anti-national" activities.
There may be some NGOs misusing foreign funding and they deserve appropriate punishment. However, many genuine NGOs and human rights activist were targeted merely to do their job or not toeing the government line of thought. People's Watch, the NGO founded by Henri Tiphagne who has been associated with the Koodankulam protests in Tamil Nadu, was refused renewal of registration for "inciting and sponsoring agitations against development projects in India at the cost of its economic well-being".
People’s Watch, known for its human rights advocacy for tribal’s, poor and downtrodden suddenly became anti-development because it protested a project which may deeply impact the lives of people living in the project area. Human rights law does not appreciate, a government action taken without people’s consensus specifically, if it has potential to negatively affect their lives. In many cases, including development (mining projects) projects in Chhattisgarh (Baster area) and in Orrisa, were implemented in an arbitrary manner (without people’ consent). And those dissenting voices, whether academic or human rights activist or NGOs, were referred as anti-national or enemy of the development of the nation.
NGOs working for the rights of the tribal and advasi may be risked being ‘naxalite sympathiser’ and having “interaction with Left-wing extremist elements” as in the case of Delhi-based Santhal Foundation unit, could attract government penalty. Also, NGOs and activist employing language of international human rights and using discourse of human rights to frame their cases against human rights violations- are being abhorred and disliked by nationalist government and its agents and supporter.
Ironically, majority of the current politicians are inward looking and lack the vision required for a society where human rights can flourish. Sadly enough, some politicians are thriving on cheap communal political theatrics pushing human rights agenda away. In addition, majority of public intellectuals succumb to self-censorship and have been less vocal on human rights issues thus critical debate on human rights issues are limited in public spheres. Threats, intimidations and the possibility of violence by fringe religious-nationalist groups are a significant factor discouraging civil society and free thinker in Indian society. Even, idea of nationalism and Hindutva have became so hegemonic, redefining or challenging or disagreeing with the prevalent national narrative could attract one being slapped with sedition charges as happened with actor-turned-politician Ramya, a Congress politician for not sharing an opinion that ‘Pakistan is not hell’, an opinion shared after a visit to the country and retort to Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar’s recent proclamation that “going to Pakistan is like going to hell”.
Today national concern of establishing democratic functioning, social justice, poverty alleviation, and ensuring human rights is being replaced with questions of religious identity and nationalism. Social change and promotion of human rights was never an agenda of the Modi government. Forces that bring nationalist government in power seem direct in conflict with human rights because it make people question their actions- thus restricting the freedom of civil society by the government is a natural outcome of this political situation.
The Oslo Times International News Network