October 1999

‘NGOs must fight it out’ 

Like the mullahs in Pakistan, the Hindutva-vaadis are trying to stifle all dissent. So, like a freedom–loving group in Pakistan, NGOs in India, too, must launch a non–violent civil disobedience movement

After a systematic vilification campaign led by the mullahs against NGOs in Pakistan for a number of
years, the government of Pakistan, specially the West Punjab government, has now come down heavily on NGOs. The West Punjab government wants to have absolute power in matters relating to granting registration to NGOs; and the government is to decode what NGOs can and cannot do. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), a well–known NGO, the government "wants to be in a position to judge their performance, to know how they get and spend their funds, and to impose a variety of punishments on them including dissolution of their governing bodies. And they want to strip them of their role of diffusing political awareness among the people".

The present BJP government in India, in the midst of the general election in the country, has acquired "profound wisdom" from Pakistan; it has done something much more obnoxious. It has issued a show cause notice (dated September 27, 1999) to a large number of well–known NGOs, including a large number of women’s organisations and research institutes devoted to the work of eradication of communalism and caste. It states, inter alia: "It has come to the notice of the Central Government that, in the run up to the ongoing general election, your association has been associated with the release of certain advertisements in the press and with certain documents the contents of which are in the nature of comments of a political nature." This is reminiscent of what Mrs. Indira Gandhi, specially her sycophants, did during the infamous emergency in 1975–76.

A couple of points. The letter, to put mildly, is vague, indecent, and insulting. The universal understanding with regard to people’s movement is that NGOs must be free of government interference and that they must be left free to decide how best they can serve the cause of the people and their welfare.

Second, can there be any social issue related to social justice, democratic aspirations, and human rights which is not of a "political nature"? For example, when four nuns in Madhya Pradesh were raped, a section of Hindutvavaadi leaders maintained that Christian missionaries represent "anti–national forces working against Hindu interest in the country", and that the gang–rape was "a reaction to these anti–national activities". Which means, plain and simple, that those who are not "patriotic" according to Hindutvavaadis can be raped. Can a civilised nation permit criminal acts in the name of "patriotism"?

Many NGOs expected the de facto ruler of the country and the most important Hindutvavaadi ideologue, L. K. Advani (whose ministry has issued the show cause notice referred to above) to condemn this justification in a forthright manner. Instead, he tried to wriggle out of this justification by saying that the BJP sections of the Hindutvavaadis are not involved in this.

This is quibbling, to put it mildly. As is well known, the VHP, Bajrang Dal, RSS, Shiv Sainiks are all integral parts of the family, the sangh parivar, and Advani presides over its political wing. Advani did the same with regard to the Shiv Sena–BJP government’s rejection of the Srikrishna Commission Report on the 1992–93 communal riots in Bombay. All these reflect the fact that a dominant section of our people is intolerant of minorities and supporters of political reaction, and social and religious barbarism.

If NGOs and people’s movements are not outraged by such a culture of intolerance and practices of tyranny and oppression – it does not matter which party/formation promotes such a culture – will they be worth their salt? This outrage is against a particular political culture. Does this entitle the government to notify such NGOs "as an organisation of political nature"?

The BJP government might note what the HRCP in Pakistan affirms in this regard: "The civil society cannot be made to abdicate concern for the civil and political rights of the people".

How "thoughtful" politicians can think so thoughtlessly comes out clearly from a statement made by one of the NGOs: It totally denies the charges. It has not issued any advertisement or document of partisan political nature. But some of our concerns as citizens have been protection of civil and political rights as enshrined in the Constitution. What has happened in the last couple of years of governance is an attack on India’s secular polity and the Constitution from all kinds of assault.

It is obvious that the show cause letter is to scare activists in the people’s movements, to tell freedom–loving people to keep their lips sealed against any erosion of freedom of thought and expression.

It is an insult to our secular and pluralist society that we follow the mullah culture of Pakistan. If NGOs allow this drift to continue, our national life will face total degeneration. It is important therefore that the NGOs wage a total war on this horrendous act of the government. This is an appropriate case in which all thoughtful and freedom–loving people must resort to non–violent civil disobedience and ask the government to withdraw this obnoxious letter.

In this context, civil liberties groups and NGOs should take note of what the HRCP did in more or less a similar situation in Pakistan. A few months ago, the West Punjab government banned the publication of HRCP’s quarterly magazine on some flimsy and totally unlawful ground. The HRCP asked the government to withdraw its notification. It did not receive any reply from the government. It continued to publish the magazine.

— R. M. Pal

(The writer is a senior civil libertarian and edits the People’s Union for Civil Liberties Bulletin).



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