Choking Dissent :: Editorial (Dr Suresh Mathew – Indian Currents)

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Judicial, legislative and executive branches of the government check and balance one another. There are also non-state institutions which do this important task in a democratic set up. Non-Governmental Organisations are one such powerful organ. They not only play the role of a watch-dog but also complement government’s works by chipping in to help implement many schemes and programmes. One cannot find fault with the government’s measures to keep tabs on them. But keeping them on a leash is undemocratic. The recent decision of the Central Government to cancel licences of as many as 8,975 NGOs in one go will be seen as an affront to this sector. This is in addition to the 1,142 licences cancelled earlier, taking the total number to 10,117.        

The development is not a sudden one. One saw it coming from the days of the UPA government which had frozen bank accounts of several organisations in the wake of Koodamkulam protest in Tamil Nadu. The arrival of Modi Government speeded up the process of reining in the NGO sector. The temporary suspension of Greenpeace India’s foreign contribution licence and lodging Ford Foundation on a watch list were prelude to the axe now fallen on a large number of NGOs. To put the record straight, both the organisations have impeccable records in their respective areas of work.

What makes the government’s action suspicious is the wholehearted support it renders to the corporate sector and its efforts to silence organisations that speak against the corporate designs of exploiting the poor and the marginalised. The message one gets from the Union Home Ministry’s strong arm tactics is that the government is turning pro-corporate and sacrificing pro-people non-governmental organisations. The regressive and repressive action against NGOs is to make them toe the government line. Suppressing the voice of dissent will show Modi government in poor light. Some of the NGOs at the receiving end are engaged in helping out forest dwellers; some are rallying people against corporate houses which want to take away the livelihood of tribal people; some others are fighting for people’s rights to enjoy clean and safe environment; there are also organisations which oppose projects involving massive displacement of people, especially indigenous tribal communities, in various parts of India. Their voices of dissent have not gone down well with the powers-that-be. The government’s action is seen as selectively punishing those organisations that are apparently thorns in their side.     

It is no one’s contention that the black sheep among the NGOs should go unpunished. The number of defaulters could be staggering as there are about 20 lakh non-governmental organisations as per official records. There are several organisations which exist only on paper. There are many which amass money, including foreign contributions, without rendering any work on the ground. There could also be a few which indulge in activities that go against national interest. The government has to separate wheat from chaff. The defaulters should be punished, but genuine ones spared and encouraged. Painting them all with same brush will be a great injustice to them.

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