Short on arguments, the BJP tries the ‘foreign funds’ bogey to frighten Combat, other NGOs
On the eve of the recently concluded Lok Sabha polls,
Sabrang Communications & Publishing Pvt. Ltd. ap-
It proposed to undertake three specific activities:
b) A daily media monitor of the current election campaign with suggestions on what secular parties could do; and,
c) Conceptualising and releasing public–interest advertisements in the mainline newspapers across the country (in different languages) to educate voters on the dangers of the ideology of the sangh parivar and the resultant politics of its political wing, the BJP.
The offer was well–received by more than one political party.
We produced 18 factsheets/backgrounders. Apart from making these available to political parties, these were also e–mailed to secular groups and individuals all over the country and also to NRIs committed to communal amity. (See box for some of the responses to these alerts).
We also produced a daily report based on our media monitoring of nearly 30 prominent newspapers published from different parts of the country in English, Hindi, Urdu and Marathi.
But what proved to be the most visible part of our campaign and triggered the Union Home Ministry’s vendetta against civil society organisations on behalf of the BJP were the 18 advertisements released by Combat through mass circulation newspapers. Across the country in a dozen languages – English, Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Gujarati, Mara-thi, Telugu, Kannada, Tamil, Malayalam, Oriya, Bengali.
Relying entirely on the words and deeds of many of the leading lights of the saffron brigade, these advertisements unmas-ked the real character of the sangh parivar and its constituents. (Reproduced in the following pages is a selection from the 18 advertisements that were released).
What impact did these messages as ads have? None! That may well be the skeptic’s reply, considering that the BJP–led National Democratic Alliance is back in power at the Centre. But it is obvious from the responses of the RSS and the BJP that our messages have ‘stung the Parivar hard’.
The responses, in stages, have ranged from appeals to the media not to publish the mischievous and defamatory ads, to complaints to the Chief Election Commission by the BJP and the RSS, to bogus charges of misuse of foreign funds, to intimidatory show cause notices by the Union Home Ministry on behalf of the BJP, to abusive phone calls and letters to the editors of Combat and which are too filthy to be reproduced here.
The first Combat ad appeared in newspapers on August 27, 1999. The swift reaction from the sangh parivar came in the form of a press statement from none less than H.V. Seshadri, RSS general secretary on August 31, the very day our ad was published which read:
“Vajpayee says, ‘The Sangh is my soul’. His soul speaks: ‘Godse was motivated by the idea of Akhand Bharat. His intention was good.’ (Rajendra Singh, RSS sarsanghchalak)”.
Seshadri’s statement said the RSS chief’s quote in the Combat ad was “totally misleading and mischievous”. The statement also claimed the RSS had never supported the act of Godse and was the first to condemn the assassination through a written statement within hours of the ghastly incident. The statement also said the RSS is seeking “legal advice to take action against such scurrilous writings” and appealed to the media not to publish such ads because, “in the name of Communalism Combat (they) only spread hatred and communalism in the society”.
The same day (August 31, 1999), K. Jana Krishnamurthi, BJP vice-president, released to the press copies of his letter to the Chief Election Commissioner, M.S. Gill, complaining against Combat ads. Among other things the letter asked: “Is it not incumbent on CEC to take suo motto notice of such violation of Code of Conduct and flouting of election law and also take suo motto action against persons concerned?” The RSS, too, complained separately to the CEC. But the CEC, obviously, thought otherwise.
The September 12, 1999 issue of the RSS mouthpiece, Organiser reported: “RSS has called upon Election Commission to take action against the Communalism Combat for causing disharmony and feeling of enmity and hatred by publishing false and defamatory statements against the RSS and its allies… The RSS has told the Commission that Communalism Combat has committed ‘Corrupt Practices’ under the Representation of People’s Act, 1951.
“In a statement, the Sangh stated: The persons responsible for the publication of an advertisement have also committed the offence of causing disharmony and feeling of enmity, punishable under section 153-B IPC, 1860 along with election offences of committing the offence of ‘undue influence’ at an election punishable under section 171–C of Indian Penal Code, 1860; and offence of giving false statement in relation to the personal character and conduct of the candidate punishable under section 171–G of IPC”.
“The RSS further called upon Election Commission to prohibit the Communalism Combat from publishing the false and defamatory statements”.
But greater honour was bestowed on us by the RSS mouthpiece, Panchjanya (Hindi), which devoted two full of its pages September 12 issue to run down our campaign. Panchjanaya did not even attempt to factually challenge any of the well-substantiated charges made by Communalism Combat through its ads. This is not surprising as neither the BJP nor the sangh parivar had any answer to offer. Instead, the saffron mouthpiece launched a personal attack against the magazine and its editors, claimed the magazine was financed by shady interests. Also targeted in the same article was the former naval chief, Admiral Bhagwat, who was dismissed by the BJP government. Panchjanya claimed Admiral Bhagwat was on the board of directors of Sabrang Communications. While it would be a matter of privilege for us to have him on our board of directors, the fact is that Admiral Bhagwat is not on the board of directors of the company. But, then, who ever said the RSS school of falsification has ever had any respect for facts?
The sangh parivar had no reply they could give to the ads. Nor did their devious methods to stop further ads from appearing produce results. So, it resorted to the tactic of using the Union home ministry – headed by L.K. Advani, the BJP leader most remembered for his bloody Rath Yatra of 1991 – to harass and intimidate several NGOs who chose to endorse an ad released by Communalism Combat that exposed the anti-woman attitudes of many of the sangh parivar’s leadership.
Throughout the election campaign, the BJP and many other
opposition parties had made the Italian origin of Congress president Sonia
Gandhi a big issue. During electioneering, the BJP and the sangh parivar,
both at the macro and micro levels, used derogatory and sexist imagery
to get at their main opponent, Sonia Gandhi.
Mahajan’s statement equating Sonia Gandhi to Monica Lewinsky and other anti-women allusions outraged a lot of women’s organisations. Prominent women from Delhi issued a joint statement condemning the Union minister’s highly objectionable reference.
In this context, Sabrang Communications released a backgrounder
on August 26, detailing numerous anti-women remarks of various leaders
from the Sangh Parivar over the last several years. This was followed,
on September 1, 1999, by an advertisement under the heading, ‘They Don’t
Respect Women’. Over 13 NGOs, most of them well–known women’s organisations
from Delhi, Mumbai and Hyderabad, endorsed the ad carried by Combat.
The statement concluded: “The BJP demands that the government of India inquire into the funding of these organisations and prosecute them for violation of the FCRA (Foreign Contributions Regulation Act), if foreign funds are directly or indirectly used by them and announce the amount received by these organisations and the source of funding”.
Naidu’s statement was issued on the evening of September 25 (Saturday) and published by newspapers on September 26 (Sunday). And in what must surely be a record in terms of the speed with which government acts, the Foreigners’ Division of the Union Home Ministry responded to the BJP’s demand in less than 24 hours – the show cause notice issued to several of the women’s groups who were signatories to the ad is dated September 27, 1999!
Among those who received the show cause notice were Kali for Women (Delhi), Asmita (Hyderabad), Women’s Centre(Mumbai). Incidentally, other Delhi based groups like VANI and the Indian Social Institute, who were not signatories to the advertisement in question were also served show cause notices. Their crime, apparently, lies in having endorsed a pamphlet, People’s Agenda for the General Elections 1999, which was critical of the BJP–led coalition’s record in government and support for a secular democratic agenda. The organisations targeted by the home ministry are well–known for their commendable work, over the last two decades and more, in the field of social action and related research.
Every ad in the newspapers released by Combat had clearly stated that the space had been sponsored. Combat categorically affirmed that not a paise of foreign fund was involved in any of the ads. It also charged that the BJP had resorted to this bogey simply because it was in no position to respond to any of the ads. It challenged the BJP and the sangh parivar to a national debate on the contents of the ad. Not surprisingly, the challenge has gone unanswered.
Meanwhile, the home ministry’s action has prompted a chain of protests not only by groups who have FCRA permission to receive foreign funds but also by many other groups, associations, organisations and individuals who have never received any foreign funds.
The show cause notices are being seen as part of the attempt by the BJP to stifle democratic debate and dissent. Combat is investigating what appears to be a concerted bid to cancel the FCRA registration numbers of secular groups or minority–run organisations and to promote pro–Hindutva bodies instead.
The FCRA (1976), a draconian law introduced by Mrs. Indira Gandhi during her Emergency regime, is one of the weapons being used by the intolerant BJP against non-compliant, independent groups. Interestingly, the just dethroned Pakistani Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, had been using near-identical measures against NGOs in Pakistan. (See accompanying article by R.M. Pal).