Domestic Dissent and Foreign Hand: Unending Saga of Citizen- State Relations in India

196854_172855526096803_100001170696882_369284_557285_nHaving left the teaching career at IIM Calcutta and ventured into the field of social development through a voluntary organisation some years ago, I was surprised to learn that an article had appeared in The Marxist (June 1984) which argued that ‘action groups and voluntary organisations  in India were a part of western imperialist strategy’. Written by a party activist Prakash Karat, it described such efforts, based on foreign funding, to be undermining the ‘leadership of the party and misguiding the revolution in the country’.

I found myself confused about my work, and the role of a nascent voluntary organisation I had set up –PRIA. By championing the cause of participation and empowerment of the excluded and the exploited, especially women, I naively believed that I was ‘supporting social transformation’ by contributing, albeit in a very small measure, to redefining relations of power between the rulers and the ruled in India’s democracy.

Thirty years later, I must admit, I am further confused, and somewhat bewildered. The current refrain in public discourse, from press releases of Ministry of Home Affairs (Government of India) to reportage by ‘investigative journalism’, seems to suggest that my work, and that of PRIA, (and thousands of other activists and civil society groups around this country) is still suspect, as a part of some larger and grander post-modern imperialist strategy.

It was during the height of emergency that the then government of Smt. Indira Gandhi had promulgated  an ordinance in 1976 —Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA). It was aimed at preventing certain then opposition leaders like George Fernandes and Subraminaim Swamy who were believed to be receiving political and financial support from ‘western powers’ to resist the authoritarian regime during the emergency.

When political democracy was restored in March 1977, George Fernandes became Industries minister in the new Janata Government, and gained instant publicity by banning Coca Cola. Shri Atal Behari Vajpayee was the Foreign Minister and Shri L. K. Advani Information & Broadcasting Minister in the same Janata Government. The FCRA ordinance was allowed to continue during this regime, neither repealed nor lapsed.

When Smt. Indira Gandhi became the Prime Minister again in 1980, she launched an Enquiry Commission, known as Kudal Commission, to investigate those voluntary organisations which were associated with Gandhi Peace Foundation, AVARD and related Gandhian entities, as they were seen to be ‘hosting’ such opposition leaders as Jai Prakash Narain. Over the next seven years, and after producing several volumes of Reports, the Kudal Commission concluded that voluntary organisations “gradually digressed from their aims…and some became hotbeds of political activities.” It alleged (though could not prove in any single case) that foreign funds were being abused to “paint a very grave, exaggerated and false picture of the country”; the Commission alleged that this was particularly so in tribal and border regions of the country.

It is, therefore, not surprising that Prakash Karat decided to denounce all such voluntary agencies as ‘a strategy of western imperialism’ by June 1984. The Khalistan Movement was at its peak then, and Operation Bluestar had been launched to flush out Sikh militants from the Golden Temple. As the movement was supported by Sikh organisations abroad, in October 1984, the then government of Smt. Indira Gandhi promulgated an ordinance further restricting FCRA. End of that month, she was assassinated. When Shri Rajiv Gandhi won 80% of seats in parliament end of December 1984, his government regularised into a law in early January 1985 the amendments to FCRA.

It is in the late 1980s that a large number of voluntary organisations began to focus on building awareness and organisations of the rural poor, particularly amongst tribals and dalits. Participation of the marginalised in their own development began to be accepted as the cornerstone of many government schemes under Integrated Rural Development Programme (IRDP). I saw that as acknowledgement of the work that PRIA had been doing over the past decade.

It was during this period that several social movements began to spread in the country. Women’s groups began to protest against discrimination and violence girls and women were facing, even in government programmes. When tribals and other rural poor began to lose their land and livelihoods due to large dams and industrial expansion, they also began to demand their rights. ‘Who gains and who loses in development’ was a common concern of many voluntary organisations by the end of 1980s.

The voice of dissent, of questioning the dominant development approach, was largely raised through the efforts of the voluntary organisations and social activists. The discomfort that such dissenting and questioning voices posed to government officials and political leaders became the basis for harassment of such voluntary organisations throughout the 1990s and since. Of course, the first question always investigated was about the source of funding. And whenever an organisation, so investigated, was found to have received any foreign funding (even if it also received government funding), it was accused of ‘being a part of the foreign hand’.

I am bewildered today because the same discourse is being ‘re-played’ in 2015. Since the beginning of this century, globalisation and global inter-connectivity are being touted as the major shifts of our generation, supported through a technology revolution. Recent government policies are actively securing ‘foreign hand-shake’ to bring large sums of investments into the country. Over the past decade, government of India has invested in ‘foreign lands’ more than one billion dollars annually to support their development.

Therefore, it is somewhat disturbing that India’s political culture has remained stagnated in the 20th century. Domestic dissent can not be any longer equated with ‘hidden operations of the foreign hand’. If citizens of India ask questions about any policies and programmes of the state and/or national governments, they have a right to do so, without being asked to ‘bare’ their source of livelihood. “Good governance” and “Sabka Saath” have gained current political meaning because citizens have bene demanding the same for decades.

Citizens are more than voters; having elected a government  as voters, as  citizens, they also have a right to comment on the government’s performance throughout its five year term.

Good governance of democracy is ultimately the responsibility of all citizens!

Rajesh Tandon, Founder-President PRIA Delhi
May 2015