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Marching Orders

Shobhan Saxena, TNN | Mar 4, 2012,

When a backpacker is woken up by the police in the middle of the night, forced to reveal the password of his laptop, and put on a flight toGermany because he is suspected of “financing” an agitation in the area, it looks both silly and paranoid.”In India, I lived on $10 per day. There was no budget for financing organizations or people. I never made any money transfer on behalf of other people or organizations. I am unemployed,” says Rainer Sonnntag Hermann, the German tourist who was deported from Chennai on Wednesday. “I participated in some anti-nuclear demonstrations. As far as I know, this was no illegal activity,” he adds from his home in Essen, Germany.

This week, as the Centre began looking into the funding of some NGOs for their “role” in the agitation against the Kudankulam nuclear plant, a WikiLeaks report revealed that a private US intelligence firm, Stratfor, has been spying on NGOs and activists in Bhopal on behalf of Dow Chemicals, the company they have been fighting with for compensation and justive to victims of the gas tragedy in 1984.

With the government breathing down their neck and private spooks on their tail, activists see a devious design – an attempt to silence protests . “There has been a concerted effort to criminalize the whole Bhopal movement. After 27 years of the tragedy , the people and firms responsible for the death of thousands of people remain unpunished, but there are a number of cases against the activists. If convicted , we could spend up to 15 years in jail,” says Satyu Saranagi, an activist who has been tracked by , the Texas-based firm.

Is space for genuine protests shrinking in ? Is the government so fearful of the so-called foreign hand? The government denies there is a witchunt in this case. “Accounts of NGOs are generally being scrutinised by various agencies. It is incorrect to say that 77 NGOs are being investigated. We are looking into the accounts of 12-13 Indian NGOs with regard to allegation of funds diversion,” Union home secretary R K Singh said on Friday.

But activists say bigger issues are stake. “There is a sharp contradiction here. The multinational corporations can come to India, do business and also influence government policies but foreign NGOs and activists have to face all kinds of problems,” says Sarangi.

In the inter-connected world, say activists, this paranoia makes little sense and governments must learn to live with global activists. “I was shocked when people were killed in police firing at Jaitapur, Maharashtra . Indian police killing their own people for the interest of a French nuclear company is unacceptable to us. I have a right to protest in my country as well as in India,” says a French activist who doesn’t want to be named as she fears revocation of her visa.

Visa is one of the sticks the government uses to beat the “trouble-making” foreign activists and NGOs with. The Foreign Currency Regulation Act (FCRA) and Income-Tax laws are other methods to “discipline” people. In states like Chhattisgarh and Orissa, there has been so much harassment by government agencies that NGOs receiving foreign aid have almost stopped organizing protest rallies. “Local intelligence units and the police regularly check our accounts and and scare us with FCRA and I-T laws,” says Indu Netam, a well-known activist who runs Adivasi Samta Manch in Kanker, Chhattisgarh . “By changing the definition of ‘political activity’ in FCRA, the government has made it impossible for us to organize rallies and the entire culture of protests has been silenced.”

What’s a democracy without disagreements and protests? Should a government try to control civil society groups and movements by using laws against them? The government should, say experts , regulate and not control NGOs. “Regulate the sector as you regulate foreign investment or companies . For years, NGOs have been demanding that they should be under FEMA and not FCRA as it’s that act which applies to companies using foreign exchange in India. All foreign companies operating in India may not be good for the country, but the government doesn’t try to control them. The same principle should apply to NGOs,” says Maja Daruwala of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. “I can’t understand this paranoia, this belief of the government that certain sector requires their suspicion, and others not.”

With NGOs and foreign activists under the scanner , there is a big question mark over the future of protests in the world’s biggest democrac

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