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NGOs and civil society organizations, particularly those not well-disposed towards policies and programmes favoured by the government, have often found themselves a target of attack. And if recipients of foreign donor assistance, condemning them becomes far easier, more so in an environment in which the ‘evil machinations’ of the foreign hand constitute a familiar, manipulable trope in political discourse. Little surprise that the manner in which a ‘confidential’ Intelligence Bureau (IB) report enquiring into the role and functioning of foreign funded NGOs has been leaked to the media, and the ensuring debate, though on predictable lines, has generated serious concern.

It should be pointed out that the IB report in question was requested for by the UPA-II government, which was worried by the protests around and the consequent delays in many crucial development projects – dams, power plants, steel mills and so on. The government specifically wanted to know whether the protests were being deliberately fuelled by local groups acting with support from and in conjunction with foreign actors. While none of this is new or unusual, what has surprised and worried many observers is the urgency shown by the newly anointed Modi government in demanding a status report from the IB. Even more that (reportedly) the prime minister’s office has issued direction to all ministries and departments to enquire into the antecedents and activities of NGOs involved with their programmes. Should this be read as an indication of how this government will deal with dissident groups? Are we in for a replay of the Gujarat model, hardly an exemplar of a liberal and tolerant regime?

In more propitious times, the IB report, though yet to be officially acknowledged, would have been summarily dismissed, so shoddy is its quality. A hasty cut and paste job drawing on earlier reports, newspaper stories, and laced with remarks attributed to Narendra Modi (a crude attempt to curry favour), the report is replete with sweeping and unsubstantiated allegations. What, for instance, is one to make of its assertion that the activities of select ‘not for profits’ may have resulted in a staggering two to three per cent loss in GDP? One only hopes that the authors of the report read Surjit Bhalla’s (incidentally no fan of NGOs and an admirer of Narendra Modi) refutation of such questionable assertions.

Unfortunately, we live in ‘interesting’ times. Reports like the one under discussion only feed into and exacerbate a long standing suspicion of civil society organizations as not merely mistaken or misguided but anti-national, acting at the behest of inimical foreign forces out to thwart the country’s progress. Indira Gandhi had instituted the ‘infamous’ Kudal Commission to enquire into the working of Gandhian organizations in the early 1980s, all because they had opposed her imposition of the Emergency. Prakash Karat of the CPI(M) had decried foreign funded NGOs as ‘agents of imperialism’. In fact, every state government, cutting across party divides, has in the past blacklisted, cut the funding of, or proscribed groups that it saw as difficult. Thus the fear whether the Modi regime too is setting the stage for a crackdown on all those it sees as coming in the way of its version of speedy development.

It is hardly surprising that once the terms of public debate are set in simplistic, binary terms of national and anti-national, pro- and anti-development, and so on, it is forgotten that NGOs are legal entities subject to multiple regimes of reporting and compliance. If at all, as Maja Daruwala and Venkatesh Nayak of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative point out (The Indian Express, 16 June 2014), ‘NGOs are unfairly over-regulated. Every rule singles them out for extra restriction and scrutiny.’ Just compare the growing demand for a more liberal set of rules and regulations regarding foreign participation (funding, technology, personnel) for corporates with that of further restrictions on NGOs. It almost appears that NGOs are being ‘set up’ as soft and convenient targets to be offered as sacrifice in the event of governmental non-performance.

Beyond the familiar discourse about the differential attitude to and treatment of ‘friends and enemies’ are serious questions about the challenges of operating in an open, transparent and global environment involving multiple players. No regime/entity which has to meet targets of delivery and performance is likely to be well-disposed towards those it sees as creating hurdles by raising issues of human rights or environment, to list the common ones. To nevertheless treat all different and dissenting imaginations as motivated, anti-national and worse is only falling prey to a paranoia that will not only stifle democracy and creativity but fuel further dissension. It is time that our political class learns to operate in a more demanding environment, and with grace.

Harsh Sethi