Why PM hates some NGOs

Mr Modi’s dislike of ‘five-star NGOs’ stems from his experience of activists taking up the cases of the 2002 Gujarat riots… Also, since he came on a pro-corporate platform, he may not want ‘people-centric issues’ to hamper development.

Mr Modi’s dislike of ‘five-star NGOs’ stems from his experience of activists taking up the cases of the 2002 Gujarat riots… Also, since he came on a pro-corporate platform, he may not want ‘people-centric issues’ to hamper development.

The Narendra Modi government has suspended the registration of Greenpeace India under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, 2010, (FCRA) for 180 days, preventing it from receiving any foreign funds. Earlier it had frozen the bank accounts of Greenpeace for alleged financial irregularities. It has also placed the Ford Foundation on its watch list for allegedly funding organisations not registered under the FCRA. This came after the Gujarat government sought action against the agency for “direct interference… in internal affairs of the country and also of abetting communal disharmony in India.”

There is nothing new in harassing inconvenient civil society organisations and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) by denying them FCRA clearance. Past governments have also done this. Yet there is a renewed vigour with which the Modi government has been targeting NGOs, ostensibly based on a report of the Intelligence Bureau which accused NGOs of “using people-centric issues to create an environment which lends itself to stalling development projects”. The government has since gone out of its way to stigmatise them, thwart their free movement and erode their credibility.

Perhaps Mr Modi’s dislike of “five-star NGOs” stems from his experience of activists taking up the cases of the 2002 Gujarat riots and of extra-judicial murders of alleged terrorists in the state. It could also be that Mr Modi, who came on a pro-corporate platform, does not want “people-centric issues” to hamper development. It may also come from the fact of his being roundly defeated in Delhi by a ragtag group of NGO activists who formed the Aam Aadmi Party.

The antagonism to NGO activism, however, is not limited to the Prime Minister. It extends to the Bharatiya Janata Party and its Hindutva affiliates. But why is this antagonism not shared by other political parties — especially those that were a part of the United Progressive Alliance, which was no less corporate-friendly?

The UPA, in fact, brought them into policy-making through the National Advisory Council (NAC). It recognised that legislators often represented little more than personal interests and patronage networks. Some UPA leaders, therefore, thought it prudent to invite the leaders of various mass struggles inside the political tent. It was through the NAC that the UPA was able to put social inclusion at the heart of its policies.

The NAC became an institutionalised space for giving voice to the marginalised and the dispossessed. It made the government and Parliament look like sensitive democratic institutions as a result of path-breaking rights-based legislations, like the Right to Information Act of 2005, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act of 2005, the Forest Rights Act of 2006, the Right to Education Act of 2009, the National Food Security Act of 2013, and the Land Acquisition Act of 2013. The point is that the Congress-led UPA was able to strengthen its focus on inclusive development using social sector NGOs for brainstorming.

Why don’t the BJP and Prime Minister Modi do the same? What explains their inability to listen to civil society organisations and to chastise those who say that something needs to be done about rampant poverty, malnutrition, lack of health facilities and sanitation? The reasons are both historical and structural.

The origins of the BJP and before that, of its predecessor, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, are in fact in an NGO parent-organisation — the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The RSS, despite its quasi-paramilitary culture, is the largest and most powerful NGO in the country. It has spawned hundreds of NGOs of its own. Their influence extends from the deepest interstices of India’s social structure to almost all the organs of the state.

The RSS, with its own brand of Hindu nationalism, has always been suspicious of secular organisations. The exclusivist notion of Hinduism as “Indian-ness” developed by V.D. Savarkar and the RSS itself, developed in the context of the Hindu-Muslim riots of the 1920s and in the aftermath of the pan-Islamic Khilafat Movement supported by the Congress and Mahatma Gandhi, and perceived by Hindu radicals as a threat to Hindu society. The RSS still believes that the “Hindu nation” is under threat from the minority Muslims of India and proselytising Christians. The RSS is suspicious of any organisation that challenges its ideological space anywhere. It is threatened by all agitations organised around a rights-based approach which pushes religious identity into the background and foregrounds secular identities — such as landless or marginalised tribals.

Those who promote any collective identity other than that of the “Hindu nation” are seen as enemies — they include trade unions, feminists, LGBTs (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender), communists, secularists, non-Hindu religious organisations, tribal rights activists, oustees of big projects, and non-RSS groups organising farmers and agricultural workers. They are seen to be creating conflict by bringing in extraneous identities to bear on what is essentially presumed to be a harmonious Hindu society — ignoring its caste and class stratifications.

In its own extensive work with marginalised peoples, the RSS tries to draw them under the Hindu umbrella. In doing so, it must face the challenge of the fault lines created by “others” — the “enemies” of the Hindu nation and the political ideologies inimical to it. These other organisations bring social-economic indicators into the discussion to demand justice, equality. They do not hesitate to formulate demands as sectional interests based on social fault lines.

The UPA government took social movements on board because it believed that this bridged the crisis of political representation. The BJP and Mr Modi on the other hand think that social movements are already represented in the party through its connections with the RSS NGOs. Appointments to government and quasi-government educational and cultural bodies are made from this pool of NGOs.

This accounts for the difference in attitude of the UPA and the BJP towards civil society organisations. In a continuing ideological struggle for space in society, non-RSS NGOs are, therefore, discredited by them or even crushed by accusations that they discredit India internationally.

However, choking their sources of funds, deriding them and eroding their legitimacy — as the BJP and Prime Minister Modi himself are trying to do — can only shrink the democratic space in society.

India is not a “Hindu” society as imagined by the RSS and try as they might, the votaries of Hindutva do not represent the diverse identities with their myriad problems that make up this amazing democratic nation of India.