Tighten the tap quietly when a gentle flow becomes a torrent. That has always been the forte of authoritarian governments the world over. But democracies were meant to be different. And the world’s largest democracy, India, is meant to be different: free speech is not a freebie here, it’s a right. But can we be sure, anymore? Facing large-scale protests on several issues from the environment to the handling of the economy, the Indian government seems to be keener to bare its fangs than listen to the very people in whom real power resides. In an extremely shortsighted policy, which does not befit a democracy, the government is enforcing changes in the law governing foreign contributions to non-governmental organisations so that it can be easier for it to put advocacy groups ‘on a tight leash’. In simple words: you criticise and we will choke you by stopping funds. The rules cover NGOs that comment on ‘political activities’ and ‘habitually’ employ common methods of political action.
It is a strange move considering that in democracies in general and in India in particular, there has been a thrust towards working with civil society members even though many are critical of governments. Criticism, as former British prime minister Winston Churchill said, may not be agreeable but it’s is necessary as pain in the human body. “It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things”. And, it is only in India that we have something like the National Advisory Council that has many NGO members who are critical of the government. While it is also true that there are fraudulent NGOs that must be weeded out without delay, there is a clear conflict of interest in the government trying to control the activities of the groups it sees in an adversarial role. Isn’t it undemocratic to give powers to non-transparent and unaccountable bureaucrats to control the activities of people critical of the policies and programmes they make? Though it may be argued that the judiciary provides checks and balances against any such misuse by the government, we all know how difficult it is to exercise judicial reviews in such cases.
Even if we keep moral issues aside, is it really possible to stop the ‘powerless’ from agitating against the government? The fact that the NGOs get a ready pool of people to join the causes they espouse only shows that there are a whole lot of issues out there that need to be tackled and solved. It would be best to recognise the small acts of resistance and reach out to them rather than try to throttle them. Their loss is the government’s loss too.