By Uzma Shamim:
We love to proclaim that we are an independent nation symbolising absolutely democratic ideals. Every Independence Day serves as a reminder to the fact that the Great Indian Democracy provides us with freedom over our actions. From pictures to pledges, commercials to posters- we take pride in the autonomy we get as citizens. There is however another very disquieting side to this picture. On 22 May, the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras was banned following an anonymous complaint to the Ministry of Human Resources for its critical approach towards the policies of the Modi government. After an arduous round of discussion and protests from all over the country, the study circle was reinstated. The question that comes into play is that why the group was unilaterally derecognised after an anonymous complaint and that too directly to the Human Resources Ministry. Is the formation of a study circle by a group of students, a threat to the functioning of a democracy? In June, students and staff from a college in Kunnamkulam in Kerala were arrested for publishing an article that included Narendra Modi among a list of negative faces in the college magazine. The trend of silencing and stifling dissent, has become very pronounced in current times with incidents such as the ones mentioned above happening frequently across the length and breadth of the country.
However, the muzzling of dissent is not limited to educational institutions alone; it carries on into the domain of NGOs as well. Activist Teesta Setalvad and husband Javed Anand have been accused of violating the Foreign Control Regulations Act with regard to receiving $2,90,000 from the Ford Foundation between 2004 and 2008 without prior permission from the Centre. CBI has accused Setalvad’s company Sabrang of trying to provoke religious tension in the country by keeping the memory of the 2002 Gujarat riots alive in the minds of the people with the help of the Ford Foundation. This accusation was hurled at Setalvad when she was fighting a legal battle against Modi’s inability to stop the Gujarat riots. The CBI termed their activities as a threat to national security, however, in opposition, the High Court emphasised on the importance of tolerating dissent in a democracy. The fact that the accusation was hurled at Setalvad when she was working on the Gujarat Riots brings a lot of questions into sight such as why are only citizens or organisations, who are working on something not favoured by the government, being targeted?
Running parallel to this is the Greenpeace conflict. Greenpeace India has all its bank accounts frozen and travel restrictions imposed on some of its workers. The restrictions were enforced after it campaigned against the ill effects of coal mining and nuclear power projects on the environment, areas which feature foremost on Modi’s keys to economic growth. To freeze accounts of an organisation working for sustainable growth for furthering developmental goals is akin to portraying a reckless approach towards the environment for the sake of GDP. It is acknowledged that the development projects are an essential feature of the growth process but is neglecting the environment and putting restrictions on apolitical institutions the only way to achieve it?
Restrictions like these by the government on Non-profit organisations go beyond the formation of a negative public opinion and dissenting voices. It has severe repercussions on the lives of the marginal communities and neglected causes that the NGO works for. For instance, freezing the Ford Foundation’s accounts has negatively hit the functioning of the Joint Women’s Programme, which campaigns for the empowerment of women and children, which might have to shut down. Greenpeace India, a champion of environmental protection and conservation, may have to rethink many of its proposed projects.
The government is an institution formed to set into motion the policies for good governance. If the policies include unduly curtailing individual and collective freedom then the government just becomes a pawn for the fulfilment of certain political ideologies. The government should not be allowed to unilaterally decide how to use the tenets of the law for silencing dissent or clamping down independent organisations. There has to be a mechanism in place which looks into whether funding is being utilised properly, without any influence from the government. What is happening right now is a vicious process of stifling the most basic premise of democracy i.e. freedom.