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NGO bashing has long been a popular sport in our part of the globe. Ever since the international donor community shifted focus from elected governments to NGOs as preferred partners in development cooperation (charging official entities with corruption and non-transparency), the growing financial flow to the private entities and their increasing role in ‘delivering’ social goods and services as also ‘designing, monitoring and evaluating’ official social sector programmes has only added to the unease. NGOs and social activists have been ‘accused’ of not just becoming ‘too big for their boots’ but contributing to a process of delegitimising official, indigenous efforts. Often, though sotto voce, there is a strong sense of xenophobia and foreigner bashing that accompanies such critiques.

Lending credence to such fears has been the growing inclination of social activist organizations of transcending their original mandate of charity and development and getting involved with mobilization and organizations of disaffected peoples in struggles for social justice and equity, as also questioning accepted programmes and policy – in short, entering the domain of politics. Often, the concerned actors work not just with ‘local’ resources and allies but actively seek out, network and collaborate with non-national actors, both official and private. This, many fear, only contributes to an undermining of national sovereignty.

Way back in the mid eighties, Prakash Karat, now General Secretary of the CPI(M), launched a trenchant attack on action groups/voluntary agencies, calling them a ‘new factor in imperialist strategy’. ‘There is a sophisticated and comprehensive strategy worked out 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’ (The Marxist, April-June, 1984).

True, those were troubled days and many analysts sensed the ubiquitous ‘foreign hand’ behind many of our troubles. But even today, despite much greater acceptance of globalization and the active wooing of foreign capital and expertise by governments across the ideological spectrum, unease with foreign interventionism operating via local allies remains sharp.

It is not just the Left which is keen to ‘highlight’ this danger. More recently, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, while releasing a new book, NGOs, Activists and Foreign Funds, launched a vicious attack on all ‘meddlesome’ actors – secularists, human rights groups, even respected organizations like SEWA – who have questioned his and his government’s role in the ‘infamous’ anti-Muslim carnage of 2002. Notably, the focus is not merely on all those who oppose his policies, but their ‘foreign connection’.

Political activists and parties are rarely known for temperate analysis and reasoned views. The Left’s obsession with western imperialism and CIA and the BJP/RSS’s fixation with Islamists, the Church and ‘pseudo-secularists’ hardly needs reiteration. But even to those inured to these episodic political outbursts, the recent book by Sri Lankan scholar, Susantha Goonatilake, Recolonisation: Foreign Funded NGOs in Sri Lanka (Sage, 2006), is breathtaking in its viciousness. And to think that this is an offering from a highly regarded publishing house.

There is not a single liberal Sri Lankan academic and activist, Sinhala or Tamil, from Kumari Jayawardane and Jayadeva Uyangoda to the late Neelan Thiruchelvam who has escaped Goonatilake’s diatribe. Differing, even strongly, with the views and analysis advanced by these scholars, most of all on the vexed questions arising out of the civil strife marking the island state is only to be expected, even welcomed. But to question the personal integrity of all those with whom one disagrees, and trace the ‘distortion’ in their thinking and action to a single factor – foreign connection – can only mire us in a theatre of the absurd.

As someone who has both known, read and learnt a great deal from Susantha Goonatilake’s work, in particular the book, Crippled Minds, which questioned the universalist claims of modern western science and epistemology, this steady decline into nativist paranoia remains a matter of great sorrow. To seek to recover local classical texts and intellectual traditions and not uncritically accept the ‘wisdom’ emanating from the high academe of the West is both needed and desirable. To, however, set aside all acceptable canons of academic research and debate, damn by innuendo and explain away all our shortcomings to a continuing academic colonialism by the West is surely a tad extreme.

At a time in global history when revanchist movements suffused with a false sense of past glory are wreaking as much havoc as western interventionism, the need to recover the middle ground of reasoned debate could not be greater. Targeting social critics can only deepen our malaise.

Harsh Sethi