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Govt is weakening democratic foundations by targeting human rights groups

NEW DELHI,NEERA CHANDHOKE: Acting on complaints filed by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the Bengalaru police on August 15, 2016, filed a case of sedition against Amnesty International India. The charge may be laughable but the message is clear. The student wing of the BJP is certain that whenever it hollers sedition, the police will take accusations with utmost seriousness. It appears that any vigilante group that vociferously and violently objects to civil society activism is assured that its complaints, howsoever unwarranted they may be, will command instant action by agents of the State. More significantly the group will be not be penalised even if it has transgressed the rule of law, and the fundamental right to association and freedom of expression.

But the transgression of these two rights by the State or by vigilantes seriously compromises democracy. There is much more to democracy than elections that bring a party and its ideological cohorts to power. Universal adult franchise validates the belief that ordinary people possess the political competence to vote governments in and out of power. People are not expected to go to sleep after having cast their vote, and wake up only at the time of the next election. They have the right to keep watch over acts of omission and commission by governments. This is the meaning of ‘we the people’ and this is the meaning of ‘popular sovereignty’. Crucial to the task of monitoring the government is civil society as the domain of associational life. History bears witness to the fact that democracy has been deepened through collective action launched by civil liberties organisations, women and Dalit groups, environmental associations, social audit organisations, and workers and peasant struggles. Left to themselves, elected governments tend to lapse into authoritarianism, unless they are reminded of their obligations to citizens by civil society. In this sense, civil society, which enables citizens to come together in a series of political projects, is the moral conscience of the political community. Conversely, the belief that success in elections grant complete power to a party and, therefore, no one else matters, diminishes the political competence of the public, which stands at the centre of the idea of democracy.

In India since the late 1970s, civil society activism has sharply foregrounded the responsibility of the State to its citizens. The irony is that the precondition of a vibrant civil society is a democratic State. In sharp contrast to the UPA I and II, the NDA government has shown nothing but intolerance for civil society organisations. At the 27th session of the Human Rights Council in September 2014, India opposed the resolution on ‘Civil Society Space’.

The resolution urged States to acknowledge publicly the important and legitimate role of civil society, and to enable it to participate in and contribute to public debates on decisions that promote and protect human rights.

Whereas 66 States supported the resolution, the Indian representative introduced two amendments to the resolution: that funding of civil society organisations was susceptible to misuse, and that the need for transparency and accountability of these organisations was not recognised in the draft resolution. Though the Council rejected all amendments, the implication is more than evident. India is on the side of countries that are notorious for denying democracy, and for jailing human rights defenders.

In the last two years, the space for civil society activism has dramatically shrunk, and toleration of dissent articulated by civil society organisations such as Amnesty has withered. The Indian government has questioned the standing of civil society organisations to raise human rights concerns in public forums, and denied them the right to participate in discussions on policy. When it attacks student activists in universities and organisations such as Amnesty, the ABVP does not act independently but as the carrier of the belief that citizens vide civil society associations simply do not possess the power to challenge the government.

This conviction had to be reiterated because Amnesty International in its 2015-2016 report stated that authorities in India not only failed to prevent instances of religious violence, at times they contributed to tensions through polarising speeches. The report condemned the government for rising intolerance, assault against key freedoms, and clamping down on civil society organisations that are critical of official policies. The criticism is not unfounded. The government has restricted NGO access to funding, licenses of more than ten thousand organisations under the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act have been cancelled, and organisations that have been openly critical of government policies, such as Greenpeace and Lawyers Collective, have been blacklisted.

The consequences of such policies are bleak. The welfare of marginalised communities has been ignored by successive governments in India, and a number of civil society organisations have stepped into the gap to deliver services to the poorest and the disadvantaged. Considering that the spell of social legislation under UPA was in the main part propelled by civil society, the crackdown on precisely these organisations bodes ill for communities who need to be helped the most. The harassment that civil society organisations have been subjected to in the last two years has put an end to hopes that social wellbeing, or human rights, are on the agenda of the government.

On May 2, 2015, a number of prominent civil society activists wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Modi: “We write to you as members and representatives of Indian civil society organisations, and more importantly as Indian citizens to express deep concern at how civil society organisations in general and their support systems including donors, are being labelled and targeted.” In June 2015, the PM in a bid to placate critics invited a few NGOs for ‘closed door’ consultations. He also ordered the creation of a special cell to scrutinize civil society activism, and recommend who he should meet. Reportedly, he prefers to meet only service delivery NGOs, and has little time for, or patience with human rights groups. But without defenders of human rights, rights carry little currency.

The hostility the government exhibits towards civil society is both ill-advised and undemocratic. Citizens have the democratic right to intervene in issues that are crucial to public life and shape them through associational life. To challenge this is to deny the basic right of citizens to participate in the making of a public and a democratic discourse.

Note: The author NEERA CHANDHOKE is a former Professor of Political Science, Delhi University

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