Centre vs Priya Pillai is like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut

  • Barkha Dutt
  • Updated: Feb 21, 2015 07:14 IST

Personally, I am not a fan of Greenpeace. I find their disruptive methods of protest — breaching the security of nuclear and power plants, ramming their boats into larger vessels on the high seas, clambering up buildings and towers, trespassing, often vandalising property — beyond the pale of decency. Not just are their ideological positions extreme and radical; they often come across as boorish and above all, attention-grabbing in their articulation. These are not benign tree-huggers; their stridency borders on the militant.

But notwithstanding my absence of affinity with them, I am astonished at the aggression with which government agencies have gone after one individual — Priya Pillai — an activist with Greenpeace, previously stopped by authorities at the Delhi airport from travelling to Britain. The political self-goal is obvious; not just because technology defied sarkari restrictions — she simply Skyped the British parliamentarians she was meant to meet in London — but because the obvious David vs Goliath character of the battle has catapulted her into the role of an underdog instead of an insurgent and made the government look paranoid and insecure even in its all-powerfulness.

The debate is not about the merits of Greenpeace’s agenda — to me that conversation is for another day and beside the point. The controversy tests, yet again, our capacity as the world’s largest democracy to absorb and live with opinions and individuals that we fundamentally disagree with. The debate is about dissent.

It is also about the confidence (or the seeming lack of it) of the Indian State to assert itself forcefully as a mighty emerging power in the global arena. What good is it for diplomats to underscore the presence of (arguably) the world’s most powerful politician at the Republic Day Parade and the first-name informality that ensued if India is going to get so worked up over one solitary person or her organisation?

Yes, Indian intelligence is not alone as seeing groups like Greenpeace as a “security threat.” Just this week Canadian intelligence classified them as a “growing and violent threat” to the country’s energy interests. But to hear the additional solicitor general Sanjay Jain argue in court that allowing Pillai to travel to Britain and testify on the forest rights of tribals in the Mahan area of Madhya Pradesh would result in possible “lobbying by these MPs for sanctions against India” is ludicrous. It’s like saying India’s entire diplomatic prowess and economic lure is less influential in crafting world response than the account of one do-gooder activist.

Admittedly among the more legitimate questions raised by the government is why Pillai has to take her disagreement with Indian policy to a foreign parliament. Why not just protest at home? Greenpeace responds by arguing that Essar Energy, the corporations whose coal mining licence it has been opposing, is listed on the London Stock Exchange, with head offices registered in Mauritius. Hence, Greenpeace says it wanted to address British law-makers. But even if that were not the case, as provocative and annoying as it may be to imagine foreigners holding forth on tribal rights in a coal block in India, it once again tests the boundaries of the freedom we are willing to accord to our citizens.

To take an example from an unrelated area, I may have no patience for Arundhati Roy’s global exposition of the Kashmir conflict and her verbose, if eloquently worded criticism of the Indian State — she called it one of the “most protracted and bloody occupations in the world” while addressing the Asia Society in New York, going on to paint India’s soldiers as marauders. Yet however much her extreme and in my opinion, an over-simplistic perspective of a complex situation in J&K may provoke me into passionate disagreement I would never support misusing the law (many legal provisions are archaic and offer enough opportunity) to contain her. She has every right to her view and it is entirely up to her to decide whether she wants to express it New York, New Delhi or Islamabad.

Similarly, whether we agree or disagree with Pillai’s politics is irrelevant to whether she should be allowed to pursue her individual ideology. In any case, I can’t imagine a Roy ever being halted at an airport because some sleuth decides she gives India a bad name on the world stage. So why pick on Pillai with such ferocity? Is it because she is comparatively a much softer target or is there something else going on here?

I offer no opinion on the funding and accounting of Greenpeace; that is for the government and courts to adjudicate on. If Greenpeace has broken the law, by all means go after them and book them — like I said, I am not even remotely a sympathiser.

Essar Energy and Greenpeace are also locked in a legal battle which will presumably resolve itself over time. But to use conspiracy theories as an excuse for inexplicable insecurity and national interest as a cloak for curbing dissent and disagreement is not acceptable.

In any case in a week when Pillai, Teesta Setalvad and even Amartya Sen found themselves in varied forms of confrontation with either the police or the government one has to ask why the BJP is investing any of its capital in picking these battles.

The accolades are limited and what you are left with are lurking doubts over whether critics, antagonists and dissenters shall be treated differently from others by the system. At a time when the prime minister silenced his detractors with an unequivocal message on religious freedom, wouldn’t the BJP want that to be the dominating headline instead of a battle with an activist now made globally famous by the government’s disproportionate opposition to her? That’s what you call irony.

Barkha Dutt is Consulting Editor, NDTV, and founding member, Ideas Collective

The views expressed by the author are personal

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