Narendra Modi government has shown a tendency to be dictatorial by stifling dissent

NEW DELHI: By preventing a Greenpeace activist from travelling to the UK, the Modi government has revealed a worrying dictatorial tendency to steamroller dissident opinion.

If the idea was to prevent Greenpeace activist Priya Pillai from telling British Parliamentarians about her organisation’s work with the local community in Mahan, then the Narendra Modi government has been denied that satisfaction. Offloaded from a London bound flight on Sunday, Pillai addressed British Parliament through Skype three days later. In her 90-minute address Pillai talked about the resistance put up by Mahan’s forest community to stall a proposed coal mining project by the London-based Essar company, that threatens to uproot the local people.

“… I urge you to exercise your influence over the London-based company Essar Energy to help stop the environmental and human rights violation going on in Mahan…,” said Pillai. Some among the British Parliamentarians who had invited Pillai to deliver the talk, found the offloading episode “worrisome.”

But seemingly impassive, the government at home, has maintained a studied silence on the matter. The Intelligence Bureau has informed the home ministry that it has issued a look-out notice against the Greenpeace activist. “There were national security considerations,” the IB said, further informing that Pillai has been on IB’s radar after being named in a report submitted to the government last year. In other words, the IB was monitoring Pillai’s work in Mahan.

Strangely, the government has chosen not to clarify its position on the matter. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokespersons, though, have been vociferously defending the IB’s decision in the media. Some have even accused organisations like the Greenpeace of being “anti-national foreign agents” who are working against the Modi government’s development agenda.

Such an authoritarian attitude is indeed worrisome, to put it mildly. The premise that questioning the Modi model of development is tantamount to anti-national activity bodes ill for our democracy. Those who believe in homogenising and straitjacketing the nation into linear thinking may do well to remember that such dictatorial tendencies are being challenged — and increasingly so — across the world. The model of economic globalisation itself is under scrutiny. Even in an autocratic country like China, demonstrations routinely take place to protest the government’s policies of land acquisition.

The BJP-led government must learn to exist with and tolerate dissent. And the principle of dissent applies to every aspect of the nation’s life — economic, political, social and cultural. Gagging dissidents can only deepen the existing fault lines. In a democracy, governments need to engage with dissent, very often routed through civil society groups and non-governmental organisations. Unfortunately, even the previous government of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) had a chequered track record in dealing with dissidence. It’s worthwhile to recall here how the Congress’s moves to arrest the anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare backfired on the party and its government.

Like Greenpeace, many grass roots organisations believe in an alternative economic model/s. Preventing Priya Pillai from sharing her experiences with people and forums inside and outside India will not erase these beliefs. The IB’s explanation that Greenpeace International’s funding of Pillai’s ticket violates the government ban on foreign funding of Indian Greenpeace, cuts little ice. Jurists have underlined the distinction between foreign funding and foreign hospitality under the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA). However, there are some people who are ineligible to accept foreign hospitality. But this would require the government to stop other people as well — which has not been the case.

What is hurting the government most is the alternative development paradigm propagated by Greenpeace: the primary reason for the government zeroing in on the organisation and stemming its foreign fund flow. If the government wants to dispel the notion that it is targeting dissidents, it must come clear on Priya Pillai.