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Govt vs activists: A conflict that must be allowed

columns Updated: Apr 12, 2015 22:13 IST

To eliminate dengue, some scientists suggest, release a lot of mosquitoes in the air. They would be the males of the genetically modified Aedes aegypti, the species that causes the disease. The feral females that mate with the modified males would produce offspring that will die before they can fly. In time the species will be exterminated.

As humans know, in a situation where the existence of a foe is inevitable, it may be wise to promote weak enemies who can thwart the rise of the more deadly.

It is inevitable that the State will have enemies within.

Activists are among them, but they are the softest. And they perform the useful function of absorbing social disenchantments into righteous causes and reducing the chances of local unrests becoming potent political or criminal movements.

Should the Indian government be engaged in a nasty unequal battle with activists?

The State’s suspicion of NGOs, especially those that receive foreign funding, predates the Narendra Modi government.

But the present government has a special disgust for such outfits even though Modi still belongs to an NGO that receives a lot of foreign funding.

His government has framed the battle against NGOs, especially Greenpeace, in this way: They stir social unrest against India’s economic and energy policies and they finance such unrest through the funds they receive from abroad, possibly from dubious sources who do not wish India well.

This is a dramatic but not an entirely baseless argument.

Unlike the funds that the RSS receives, the foreign funds that organisations like the Indian Greenpeace get are not from patriots professing long-distance affection. It is possible that the Greenpeace funds are from the fronts of some governments, or corporations that want to harm the interests of other corporations.

The small contributions of foreign individuals need not be any more sacred. A Scandinavian liberal who is donating in some form to Greenpeace India is indulging in an exercise of facile moral fulfilment without having to face the consequences of adversely affecting a coal mining project in India.

But Indian citizens, who have a high stake in India’s capacity to generate electricity or in protecting its environment, would evaluate Greenpeace with greater scrutiny and severity.

The Indian government does have a moral argument to make, but should it use its enormous powers to come down so heavily against foreign funding of Indian activism? Is it so inept at handling, through less draconian ways, the social unrest that a Greenpeace can foment? Also, is the battle against Greenpeace worth squandering global goodwill?

The world’s perception of a government is influenced by a cluster of simultaneous developments. And when isolated, though brutal, attacks on Christians are being framed in the international press as ‘minorities under attack’, the Modi government has reasons to worry about its image.

Perception is not always truth, but it is always reputation.

In the past few months, the government has intimidated NGOs, attempted to put an activist in jail for misappropriation of funds and prevented a citizen from boarding a plane to Britain because she was on her way to tell a parliamentary committee about a mining project in Madhya Pradesh.

Recently, Modi used the term “five-star activists” to describe some people he despises though it is not clear who he was referring to — there are many, to be honest, who fit that definition. And, last week, his government suspended the licence of Greenpeace India to receive foreign funds.

Even among those conscientious people who share a mystical uniformity of values concerning global warming, mining, fuel, dams, capitalism, and many other things, the reputation of Greenpeace is ambiguous. It certainly is the most entertaining NGO in the world.

Its activists chase and confront oil tankers and whaling trawlers. Some people find it dubious, opaque and anarchic. In the film Armageddon, the character played by Bruce Willis, who works on an offshore oil rig, hits golf balls at Greenpeace activists who are protesting against something, probably the very existence of fossil fuel.

Hitting golf balls at Greenpeace activists somehow does not diminish a protagonist in a mainstream film. It is not like shooting golf balls at nuns.

In any case, the Indian government has managed to make Greenpeace look good. After it prevented the activist, Priya Pillai, from boarding an aircraft, the home ministry filed an affidavit stating that her testimony in Britain would have embarrassed India at a time when it was luring foreign investments.

The affidavit said, “…all reports from various commissions and countries feed on each other and quote each other, thereby creating circular documentation.” That would in turn have a “cascading effect”.

The Delhi High Court rubbished the government’s logic and held that Pillai’s right to travel “cannot be impeded only because it is not in sync with policy perspective of the executive”.

It is possible that a court would embarrass the government once again by ordering it to free Greenpeace’s bank accounts and let it receive foreign funds.

In the core of activism is moral indignation, the fundamental property of both good and evil. The reason why both the good and the evil find a special place at the very top of activism — the truly selfless, the genius empathisers, the dangerously deluded and the sadists who want to be in the proximity of human misery.

Those afflicted with balance and neutrality usually don’t fare well in this sphere.

Only the extreme can last, and only they have the capacity to spend whole lifetimes fighting corporations and governments. It is a conflict that has to be permitted in a mature democracy.

Manu Joseph is a journalist and the author of the novel, The Illicit Happiness of Other People
The views expressed by the author are personal