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India: Targeting NGOs

The timing and contents of the I.B. report naming select NGOs and individuals as working against the national interest exposes the Narendra Modi government’s pro-corporate plan to target organisations championing people’s causes that have not been taken up adequately by the political class.

Courtesy: Front Line India

( June 29, 2014, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardian) BOTH the contents of the Intelligence Bureau (I.B.) report on certain non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the manner in which the report was leaked in June underscored one important point: that this exercise was clearly part of a game plan devised by the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government. To start with, the report was leaked from the office of a chartered accountant-politician who is perceived to be rising fast in the new dispensation at the Centre. The politician’s office reportedly leaked the report on the premise that it was a first step towards unfolding some development thrusts of the new government. The 21-page document titled “Concerted efforts by select foreign-funded NGOs to ‘take down’ Indian development projects”, as the title suggests, seeks to selectively target certain NGOs and makes no secret of its intent.

The Narmada Bachao Andolan's "Jal-Satyagraha" at Bichoula village in Harda district of Madhya Pradesh, in September 2013. Photo:A.M. Faruqui
The very first paragraph of the report states as follows: “A significant number of Indian NGOs (funded by some donors based in the U.S., the U.K., Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavian countries) have been noticed to be using people-centric issues to create an environment which lends itself to stalling development projects.” It goes on to specify the projects thus: “These include agitations against nuclear power plants, uranium mines, coal-fired power plants (CFPPs), genetically modified organisms (GMOs), mega industrial projects (Posco and Vedanta), hydel projects (at Narmada Sagar and in Arunachal Pradesh) and extractive industries (oil, limestone) in the north-east.” Thus making clear what and whose concerns were being addressed, the report concludes the paragraph with the estimation that “the negative impact on GDP [gross domestic product] growth is assessed to be 2-3 per cent per annum”.

The rest of the report details the activities of the alleged anti-national NGOs and some individuals who are apparently involved in their activities or are assisting them. The NGOs mentioned include Greenpeace, ActionAid, and The Alliance of Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (ASHA), and among the individuals are Suman Sahai, Vandana Shiva, Kavitha Kuruganti, S.P. Udayakumar, Aruna Rodrigues and Swami Agnivesh. Each NGO and the activities of each named individual are dealt with at some length and there is an evident effort to build a case against them.

The orchestration behind the report has also been unravelled by the manner in which it has plagiarised a speech made by Modi in New Delhi on September 9, 2006. Modi, who was then Gujarat Chief Minister, had pointed to a “vicious cycle” operating among NGOs. The speech has been recorded thus: “Another conspiracy—a vicious cycle is set up. Funds are obtained from abroad; an NGO is set up; a few articles are commissioned; a PR [public relations] firm is recruited and, slowly, with the help of the media, an image is created. And then awards are procured from foreign countries to enhance this image. Such a vicious cycle, a network of finance-activity-award is set up and, once they have secured an award, no one in Hindustan dares raise a finger, no matter how many the failings of the awardee.”

The I.B. report paraphrases this as follows: “A small group of activists and NGOs at times have succeeded in shaping policy debates in India. Apart from that, in some cases it is observed that in a cyclical process, an NGO is set up, funds are obtained from abroad, a few articles are commissioned, a PR firm is recruited and, slowly, with the help of the media an image is created. And then awards are procured from foreign countries to enhance the image, after which government machinery finds it more difficult to act against the awardee.”

Calculated moves

Commenting on the form and content of the report as well as the manner in which it has been propagated, the Patna-based political analyst Surendra Kishore told Frontline that this seemed like a unique political exercise that harked back to the style of functioning seen during the prime ministership of Indira Gandhi.

He said: “The craft one sees in the report is non pareil. It seeks to strike many birds with one stone. It has struck a blow for the so-called development projects mentioned. It has raised questions about foreign funding to NGOs but done that selectively, leaving out the ones that favour and help the BJP as well as the larger Sangh Parivar. I am of the view that this will now lead to two pursuits. First, a resolute move to implement these projects, some of which have been questioned and put on hold by the higher judiciary itself. This will essentially involve moves to advance the neoliberal development agenda while questioning the agit-prop positions and the championing of those causes taken up by these NGOs. The second aspect will also lead to calculated moves to initiate legal and punitive measures against some of these NGOs. The fact that the funding that many of them receive is questionable will certainly provide ammunition for the interested sections of the Modi government. In any case, one will not see the end of this debate anytime soon.”

It does not require phenomenal logic to infer as to who will benefit from the so-called development perspective highlighted in the I.B. report and the prospective drive based on it. In India, the plans of multinational corporations such as Vedanta, Posco and Monsanto have faced resistance not only from mass movements but also from the judiciary. Their projects involve massive displacement of people, especially indigenous tribal communities, in various parts of India. ASHA pointed to the corporate tilt in the I.B. report and expressed concern over its consequences for the people. ASHA said the report was silent on American multinationals such as Monsanto which spent vast resources on publicity work. It said an informed public debate on Bt brinjal helped put the introduction of the transgenic brinjal variety on hold. ASHA added that the moratorium on the release of Bt brinjal should be welcomed, especially since the Parliamentary Standing Committee (set up by the previous government) was unanimous in upholding it, and that the insinuation that the committee could be influenced by liaising and facilitation of articles was an insult to the credible body. The I.B. report, ASHA said, was not about foreign-funded NGOs but about quelling dissent and opposition. Anti-genetically modified seeds activists pointed out that the BJP’s election manifestoes in 2009 and 2014 had stated that “no genetically modified seed will be allowed for cultivation without full scientific data on long-term effects on soil, production and biological impact on consumers”.

Kudal Commission

Kishore pointed out that Indira Gandhi had initiated the Kudal Commission of Inquiry against NGOs. “This comparison imparts a kind of historical significance to the present report and the related actions that would emanate from it. In many ways, it necessitates and facilitates a recount of the NGO-civil society involvement in the Indian political and developmental space,” he said.

The Kudal Commission, headed by Purushottam Das Kudal, was set up in 1982 immediately after Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1980. (In 1977, the Janata Party, a party formed by leaders who had opposed the Emergency declared by Indira Gandhi in 1975, received a huge mandate to form the first non-Congress government at the Centre.) The premise for setting up the commission was that a number of NGOs in the country were funded and controlled by the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and that they were trying to destabilise India. Political observers and civil society activists had then maintained that Indira Gandhi was irked by the political role played by NGOs in the anti-Emergency movement between 1975 and 1977. Several NGOs, especially Gandhian institutions such as the Gandhi Peace Foundation, had campaigned against the Emergency and facilitated the political mobilisation which helped end the Emergency in 1977. The Kudal Commission report is still not available comprehensively, but indications are that it did uphold Indira Gandhi’s premise that the CIA was involved with many major opposition forces and leaders during that period. Names mentioned in this connection include a number of Sangh Parivar associates and leaders of the socialist movement.

The context of the Kudal Commission inquiry and some of its perceived findings had raised a number of questions about the functioning of Indian NGOs. Allegations about foreign funding, CIA connection, and bureaucratisation of NGOs increased during this period, leading to a loss of intensity of their social and political involvement. It was perceived that the Indira Gandhi government had stifled the capacity of NGOs to bring together people on social and political issues.

A detailed study undertaken by Prakash Karat, general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), on NGOs advanced this debate considerably. His study “Action Groups/Voluntary Organisations: A Factor in Imperialist Strategy”, argued that a number of NGOs reflected strategies developed in imperialist quarters to harness the forces of voluntary agencies/action groups to their strategic design to penetrate Indian society and influence its course of development. Even as arguments like this were discussed through most of the 1980s, in the early 1990s, several NGOs and civil society organisations started displaying a unique two-dimensional character.

On the one side, some of them became part of the social capital-oriented government processes while others took up social, political and people’s causes left unaddressed by established political players. While the difference between the two groups were noticeable during the Congress- and the BJP-led governments that were in power during the 1990s, the UPA-I government (2004-09) witnessed the involvement of the latter group in governance, through the National Advisory Council led by Congress president Sonia Gandhi.

This turn of events invited an organised reaction from the BJP at that time. It evolved two comprehensive vision documents that sought to emphasise the need to strengthen its own NGOs and harness them politically. This was advanced in a steadfast manner by supporting, building and infiltrating several NGOs and civil society organisations. The high point of this was during the anti-corruption movement led by Anna Hazare. The plan to hijack that movement for the political benefit of the BJP did advance well until Arvind Kejriwal and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) formed by him took the movement in a different direction. By any yardstick, the current report and the prospective and planned political and administrative moves on its basis are a continuation of this tussle. Clearly, the Modi government is targeting those NGOs that have sought to champion people’s causes not taken up adequately by the political class. An important instrument for these NGOs and civil society organisations and leaders to challenge this devious move would be enhancing their transparency and internal democracy quotient.

According to Sangh Parivar insiders, the RSS and its affiliates plan to create a climate where their front organisations and the NGOs controlled by them have hegemony over the social and political spaces now occupied by the NGOs that have taken up people-oriented issues. No wonder, the I.B. report is silent on a number of foreign-funded Sangh Parivar NGOs, whose questionable funding and activities have been cited time and again in the past two decades.

Clearly, the emergent situation and the orchestrations aimed at hegemony in civil society space make the role of NGOs and civil society organisations in the public sphere even more important.