I am writing in response to an item which has appeared in several newspapers, including The Hindu and The Asian Age, regarding a series of ‘show cause’ notices which have apparently been issued to several prominent NGOs. The Asian Age report entitled ‘Home Ministry singles out anti-BJP NGOs’, lists some of the best-known and the most active groups – groups that have been working for over three decades in fields covering the most critical areas in social development, education, health, gender, rural development, tribal, Dalit and human rights issues across the country and the region.
As founder-director of Ankur, one of the several groups which have chosen to associate themselves with the advertisement campaign initiated by Communalism Combat and as citizens who have always appreciated the democratic space provided by our Constitution and our polity, it is with alarm and concern that we view the present actions which point to increasingly unhealthy trends to harass, choke, and silence dissent and the right to freedom of expression. The dark days of the Emergency apart, there are few precedents to this kind of action to stifle the voices of civil society. Whether it was in the post-1984 riots period, or the post-Babri Masjid period, the right of citizens’ groups and NGOs to exercise their ‘watchdog’ role was never in question or under assault as it is today.
It is also important to analyse and open up to public debate the notion of what constitutes ‘political activities’, and who has the right to decide and determine these definitions in our ‘allegedly’ open and democratic society. Here again, the role of state organs in defining and determining the parameters of ‘patriotism’, ‘nationalism’, and now of ‘political activity’, must be subject to scrutiny and widespread public interrogation. Especially, during the run-up to elections, it is not only the prerogative but the duty of civil society organisations – the globally accepted terminology for a range of organisations and groups, including NGOs – to provide information, facts, create awareness among and educate the public so that they are in a position to exercise their franchise in an informed manner.
Most of us joined social movements precisely in order to be better able to reach out to the unreached and oppressed and exploited masses through education and other programmes, and with a clear, overtly stated objective of empowering people who had been denied access to human rights through oppressive systemic social, economic and political structures. The role of NGOs and CSOS in bringing about a universal recognition for the language of peoples’ empowerment is well accepted today by groups and institutions across a wide spectrum.
In a country which pioneered and spearheaded structural and constitutional changes by way of the 73rd and 74th Amendments to enable the spread of grassroots democracy, and in a land which takes pride in calling itself the ‘largest democracy in the world’, it is appalling to witness the highhanded use of power and authority to curb and limit precisely these voices and institutions of democratic participation and opinion. This is a sure path to fascism – and it is up to every right thinking Indian to speak out against the actions of the Home Ministry (if these are true), and to stand up for the freedom and the right to form and propagate opinions. Quoting FCRA provisions and other interpretations of the laws governing social institutions as grounds for such action, is nothing short of a mischievous witch-hunt and harassment and should be condemned without hesitation.
Lalita Ramdas, with Admiral L. Ramdas (retired), Alibag; Rukmini Banerji, Mumbai; Vimala Ramachandran, Jaipur; Sagari Ramdas, N. Madhusudan, Usha, Asha and Pandu Dorai, Secunderabad