by Amit Chandra

This article originally appeared in the Hindi daily ‘Rajasthan Patrika’ and can be accessed here.

The government’s recent clampdown on Civil Society organizations (Greenpeace, Ford and thousands of other NGOs) in the last few weeks threatens to do real damage and is a grave cause for concern; and needs to be criticized in the strongest possible terms. Indeed, the state’s reservations against civil society organizations and its argument for monitoring their affairs are without substance and merit.

It is not the state’s business to regulate voluntary associations. Here are my reasons–

1. Freedom of Association and Expression

Our constitution guarantees a very fundamental freedom to each citizen—the freedom to associate, or not, with any individual, group or organization. In today’s globalized world, the citizens’ right to association needs to be protected and expanded instead of being curtailed.

Along with this our constitution guarantees the freedom of expression. Any citizen, with reasons and cause to be discontented has the freedom to express that discontent. The ideas, research and money may well come from abroad, so long as the people raising the concerns and expressing their discontent are citizens of the nation.

A democratic society needs to accommodate all points of views. The government has accused these organizations of being manipulative and misrepresentative of its affairs and of propagating false information; whereas such an accusation sheds light on the state’s own corruption and inabilities. The state has its own elaborate machinery to spread and propagate its views–why should it then try to silence any voice of dissent that challenges it? Should the state not instead focus to take its message to the masses and connecting with them to be a part of the growth story

2. Are Civil Society Organizations ‘Anti-Development?’’

To lend credence to its actions, the state has started branding the actions of civil society organizations as ‘anti-development’. Now, it is pertinent for citizens to ask what the government means by development; and who is benefiting from this ‘development’—especially at a time when the state brands the acquisition of farmers’ land as development, and any protests seeking fair compensation as ‘anti-development.

3. Foreign Contribution

Are we still living in an era where we are to suspect any foreign contribution as part of a ‘hidden agenda’ of foreign players? If so, we should look at all foreign contributions, businesses and entities with the same suspicion!  This at a time when our government itself is promoting foreign investment—with our Prime Minister travelling abroad everywhere building a campaign and trying to sell his ‘Make in India’ vision.

4. Lobby for Policy Making

If a civil society organization can resort to unfair means to influence state laws and policy (as is feared), so can corporates and big businesses. Employing that line of reasoning, even assistance from World Bank, IMF, UNDP and other such ‘big sharks’ in international politics should be stopped immediately, lest they have a bearing on our laws and policies.

The nation needs to move from intention-based policy making to evidence-based policy making, and individuals and civil society organizations are a vital part of this process. If indeed an individual or organization is found guilty of unfair practices, they must be punished. But the grounds for this must be laid out in advance and be fair, and not be based on the whims and fancies of the people in power. It would however, be wrong to clampdown on all foreign assistance and NGOs.