Thursday, 19 May, 2022
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Taking government out of NGOs

Kailash Satyarthi's Nobel Prize is a reminder of what India's civil society lost years ago — its essential, compulsive anti-establishmentarianism.

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India’s democratic depth was evident this past week as the entire establishment, left and right, came together to congratulate Kailash Satyarthi for his Nobel. All of them, from Narendra Modi on, did so without any qualification. But why should this be unusual? Shouldn’t our nation celebrate a rare Nobel?

It was remarkable because while Satyarthi, like Mother Teresa before him, exposed the darkest warts on India’s underbelly, he won acclaim not so much by working here as for his activism globally. He joined hands with US lawmakers, notably Senator Tom Harkin, and European bleeding hearts to attack his sole target in a most unusual way: by bringing near-global sanctions on Indian exports involving child labour. This united the establishment against him. He was working at cross-purposes with the official Indian line at global trade negotiations, raising costs for Indian exporters and generally “conspiring” with the evil West. That is why he never received any sarkari honour here and many became sceptical about him, particularly his original friend and guide Swami Agnivesh (they split, sort of bitterly, in 1994, and in a story elsewhere in this issue Agnivesh tells Amulya Gopalakrishnan his reasons).

A disclosure is in place here: while a lot of the intellectual class and liberal media supported him, I was among the suspicious ones. Having been a fellow traveller in his first innings, when in partnership with Agnivesh their focus was bonded labour and they raided stone quarries close to Delhi and alerted reporters beforehand, I also followed them on a motorcycle and celebrated their successes. By the way, Satyarthi’s cross-country motor-cycling skills are formidable. But I was concerned by the post-1994 phase as his focus shifted to child labour, foreign alliances, conferences, adulation, awards and what I saw as never-ending junkets, peddling poverty porn for self-aggrandisement. Mother Teresa was acceptable because she directly did something for the poor. But Satyarthi? He wanted to invite sanctions on his own country. Was he unmindful of India’s livelihood realities, so cynically fixated on his fame?

These arguments were still assailing me when I went to his office in New Delhi’s congested Kalkaji to see him this Monday before he left to attend a conference “with Angela Merkel” in Berlin. At first look, his office would confirm some stereotypes on loaded activist NGOs: swipe-card entry, CCTV cameras, air conditioning and so on. But talking to him, and researching him overnight, also changed that perspective.

Certainly, Satyarthi’s work has embarrassed India globally, the reason successive prime ministers have lectured him to switch to something “constructive” instead. Equally, now his Nobel is also a matter of great national pride. It underlines the success of a three-decade Indian dissident who has been at odds with the establishment and elites. He has achieved all this living in India, without having to be exiled like his co-winner Malala Yousafzai. Whatever his tactics, his success has been achieved in India, and it is bigger than the 80,000 children he claims to have freed. He has continued reminding us about one of our saddest realities: rampant child labour. At a time when there is so much focus on cleanliness and building toilets, child labour is no less reprehensible than manual scavenging of excreta.

Satyarthi has been firm in his cause, and the Nobel will strengthen him.

Also read: Ban foreign donations to Indian NGOs: Ex-CBI acting chief writes in RSS mouthpiece


While it will be a long time before Pakistan will have the spine to invite Malala to return and be an education activist at home, Satyarthi now has to be feted even by the Modi Government and Indian Right, whatever their reservations. To that extent, he has struck a blow for Indian activism precisely at a juncture when it was most needed. As we well know, NGOs, particularly activist NGOs, are now in bad odour in India. At both government and popular levels they are seen as arrogant, rigid, self-centred busybodies, if not a downright foreign-funded fifth column. This was highlighted by the recent revelation of an Intelligence Bureau report on NGOs receiving foreign contributions, notices being served to nearly 10, 000 voluntary organisations and the general lack of popular disapproval against this.

A witchhunt of NGOs is on now, and too few Indians sympathise with them. It isn’t healthy. Civil society has vital place as an institutional bulwark against majoritarianism. While Indian politics, intelligentsia and particularly the increasingly Right-leaning middle classes have to reflect on this, it is more important that captains of civil society introspect as well. They should have the courage to admit that they are also to blame for this shift in the generally liberal Indian mindset. Activist NGOs have prospered in India even in years of brute majorities. They struck an effective alliance with the judiciary and the media and used these force multipliers to bring about significant reform in regulations, from treatment of undertrials to the RTI Act, and from air quality in our cities to the health of our rivers. You list any success of civil society in the past, and you will find this virtuous “conspiracy” of these three institutions. Activist leaders have been widely respected and lionised for their commitment, honesty, selflessness and courage, from Vinoba Bhave to Baba Amte to Sundarlal Bahuguna, Anil Agarwal, Medha Patkar and Anna Hazare. So what has gone wrong now?

One key reason NGO activists were so loved was they were seen essentially as anti-establishment, willing to take on vested interests, living frugal, incorruptible, often dangerous lives. In a democracy everyone loves a rebel. And then, some time soon after the UPA came to power in 2004, our activists started to look no longer like rebels. In a startling way, instead of being anti-establishment, they became a part of it, as fellow-travellers, then drum-beaters and finally, pretenders to conventional, “dirty” political power.

You can decide who was more self-destructive here, Sonia Gandhi’s Congress or the NGOs. She co-opted them on her National Advisory Council (NAC), and they, feeling more powerful than cabinet ministers, started filling up the Lutyens radar screen. They wrote her favourite legislations and the cabinet had to then, down on its knees, beg them even for minor changes. I will never suggest that any member of the NAC did this for personal gain, but there was hubris, as if they had a god-given right to hijack policy, which the people of India had not mandated. They made fun of Sonia’s government and prime minister, undermined all its achievements, even ridiculing figures of dramatic reduction on poverty and malnourishment. Several substantive reports over the past few weeks have confirmed this trend, but UPA’s durbari activists never allowed any of this to sustain. What a party does to itself is its own problem, we shouldn’t shed a tear if it self-destructs? But this opened up space for other activists, led by Anna and Arvind Kejriwal, who thought they too could draft laws, and then, even contest elections and bid for real political power.

With half its members riding the ruling party’s bandwagon and the rest fighting elections, India’s civil society lost its most valuable brand attribute: its essential, compulsive anti-establishmentarianism. It first lost the media, then the judiciary grew sceptical and finally, most devastatingly, its social contract with public opinion was broken. The rise of the political Right in power, fuelled by an impatient middle class, now threatens to complete that rout.

Also read: Bihar NGOs running shelter homes allege harassment by govt after ‘mass rape’ case


Having argued with “jholawalas” all these years, mine may sound an unlikely and unconvincing voice on this, but this sweeping repudiation of civil society is dangerous. A liberal society needs balance and civil society is essential for that. Satyarthi’s Nobel, therefore, will make a much greater contribution if it persuades his fellow activists to reflect and course-correct.

Postscript: Among the many responses to last week’s National Interest on Haider, there is some criticism that, like the filmmaker, I overlooked the plight of Kashmiri Pandits. There is no question that their persecution and exodus is India’s greatest post Partition tragedy and shame. There were the usual comments about governments in the past playing pro Muslim vote bank politics, etc.

Some clarity on political time references would be in order. The Pandits left in 1990 when Jagmohan, the toughest governor, was in charge of the state. In fact, in the history of Kashmir trouble, only he banned entry to foreign media. You would call Jagmohan anything but soft, or pro-Muslim. In Delhi, his prime minister, V.P. Singh, led a shaky government that survived on the BJP’s outside support. Get the picture?

The 1995-96 period in which the film is set saw India at its most brutal in the Valley, with not a thought for civil rights, constitutional niceties. Vigilantes like Kukka Parray’s Ikhwan, dirty tricks, torture were all par for the course. These were also the years when the same Indian state equally ruthlessly crushed the terror in Punjab. Do remember who was in power then. Not the BJP or any party of the Right, but a weak, minority Congress government under P.V. Narasimha Rao.

These facts underline an old point: that the Indian state is among the most brutal and unforgiving when it sees a threat to itself. Victims, direct and collateral, can belong to all sides, but there is no need for any of us to harbour bitterness or self-pity.

Also read: Subsidised to suffer


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