In a milieu where bedlam and mutual suspicion hold discourse to ransom, it is difficult not only to find voices of sanity, it is as challenging to remain circumspect oneself. One invariably ends up believing not the truth, but what suits one’s own predilections and narratives. It is this unsettling milieu that reigns supreme in the country today, and in such a frenzied backdrop comes a shoddily-drafted document that unabashedly spins a conspiracy yarn so fantastic that one would gleefully accept it as the gospel truth unless one were to be politically agnostic.
The report in question is the one prepared by the Intelligence Bureau that was leaked out to the press last week. Yes, the same one that blames “a significant number of Indian NGOs”, funded by donors based in the US, UK, Germany and the Netherlands, for creating “an environment which lends itself to stalling development projects.” The title of the sloppily-written text is definitive: Concerted efforts by select foreign-funded NGOs to ‘take down’ Indian development projects; and its tone is downright accusatory and assertive. Most of it, as we know, is old hat.
The 21-page document has, predictably and understandably, stirred a hornet’s nest. That, of course, could well have been the ulterior motive of the person who chose to leak a document that was distinctly marked ‘secret’; but one could only be hazarding ‘calculated’ guesses here.
What is, however, markedly manifest is that the acrimonious debate now is increasingly hovering over NGOs. Most, as most are wont to, are however missing the forest for the trees. There are good NGOs and bad, rich NGOs and poor, foreign-funded NGOs and unfunded NGOs. But then, the issue at hand is hardly about NGOs; it is about getting the message, not the comments.
So what is this report that has left civil society so rattled and angry, after all, about? The essence, de facto, is summarised in the second para itself: “Identified foreign donors cleverly disguise their donations as funding for protection of human rights, just deal for project-affected displaced persons, protection of livelihood of indigenous people, protecting religious freedom, etc. These foreign donors lead local NGOs to provide field reports, which are used to build a record against India and serve as tools for the strategic foreign policy interests of Western governments.” From Greenpeace International and National Alliance of Anti-Nuclear Movements to Action Aid and Amnesty International, all have been named and damned.
The document subsequently reads like a worn-out litany of woes — those, essentially, being of the previous Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. Except, that the listed-out woes are couched as persuasive allegations. Almost all the major peoples’ movements that had raged during the Congress rule have been cited — from the anti-POSCO agitation to the anti-GM campaign. In other words, all the changes that the Manmohan Singh dispensation could not enforce find mention here, except for the foreign direct investment (FDI) issue. All organisations that played major or minor roles in the movements have been accused of subterfuge. The ‘take down’ phrase occurs like a leitmotif throughout the document. The NGOs concerned have been accused of stalling development. As if that was their raison d’être.
The project, commissioned by the Congress rulers, ostensibly had only one laid-out objective: make a catalogue of NGOs that became stumbling blocks for then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s ruthless, unrepentant development juggernaut. That’s the reason why they are portrayed ad nauseam as “anti-development” throughout. That’s also why the allegations come with a price tag: the “negative impact” of the NGOs’ activities have been pegged at 2-3 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP) growth; but don’t ask how they came to such a preposterous conclusion. In other words, if the former Prime Minister could not achieve his cherished double-digit jump, it was because of these diabolical, venal NGOs. And what better way to do this than raise the foreign bogey in the same vein: that these are primarily funded by foreign donors with vested interests. So, dollars and pounds are bad for NGOs, but presumably good for corporates. You also now know why the FDI imbroglio was skirted altogether in this IB denunciation.
The report itself is not referenced (the IB could doubtless take lessons from Greenpeace on how to write meticulously-referenced reports backed by irrefutable facts), parts of it have uncanny resemblances with a book that had claimed that many NGOs harbour an anti-Hindu agenda. Moreover, sections of the report that is signed by IB joint director SA Rizvi and was submitted on June 3, have been lifted directly from a speech made by Narendra Modi in 2006. This is where the dots between the present and former Prime Ministers get joined. Singh was blinded, like Gollum, in his lust for development; Modi rode to power conjuring up his development dream. It was a fait accompli that Singh’s questions should fit the answers that Modi seeks. For many, there’s little difference between the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Both are alleged to be working for the same corporations and industries, driving the same agendas.
But in this din over NGOs, their sources of funding and schemas, the core issues are going unheard. Irrespective of whether it suits your political/economic narrative or not, the fact remains that the issues behind all the movements revolved around people, and have still not died down. The issues, ignore them at your own peril, will you, are genuine and have been written about widely. Those include environmental concerns, flagrant violations of the laws of this country, and utter disregard of communities and their rights. If raising issues that affect rights and livelihoods of people is anti-national, medieval times are certainly down upon us.
The IB report, needless to say, is not wrong in listing the peoples movements; but it is way off the mark in attributing subversive motives to NGOs. By turning a blind eye to peoples’ concerns and grievances, the bureau has effected a brazen exercise in mendaciousness. Leaving the people out of a debate is not only a blatant indulgence in half-truths, the act is in effect anti-people. Democracy, the last one had heard of the term, was supposed to have been about people.