Do not disagree: Blaming NGOs reveals the diminishing space for dissent in our democracy

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s stray remarks on have unwittingly revealed two bitter truths about Indian democracy. First, Indian democracy has diminishing place for dissent. Second, our diminishing capacity for dissent paradoxically stems from a government that is both technocratic and weak.

On the surface, Indian democracy has a cacophony of voices. But if you scratch the surface, dissent in India labours under an immense maze of threats and interdictions. Of course, NGOs should be transparent and accountable in terms of their sources of funding. And the reporting requirements for NGOs are immense. It is not the threat that NGOs pose that should worry us; it is the ease with which government can go after them. However, what was disturbing about the prime minister’s remark is its construction of what dissent is about. We all pay lip service to the idea that in a democracy there can be genuine differences. But the only terms in which we can understand deep disagreement is by constructing it as extraneously motivated. Nothing is more fatal for disagreement and dissent than the idea that all of it can be reduced to hidden sub-texts or external agendas. You may be a supporter of Bt brinjal or nuclear energy. But you ought to worry if we became a culture in which no one was spooked after Fukushima, or suspicious of data on agricultural technologies. The idea that anyone who disagrees with my views must be the carrier of someone else’s subversive agenda is, in some ways, deeply anti-democratic. It does away with the possibility of genuinely good faith disagreement. It denies equal respect to citizens because it absolves you from taking their ideas seriously. Once we have impugned the source, we don’t have to pay attention to the content of the claims. The necessity of democratic politics arises precisely because there is deep, good faith disagreement. Reducing disagreement to bad faith betrays a subconscious wish of doing away with democratic politics.

This has serious consequences for dissent. Our actions and rhetoric are sounding increasingly like China’s. The state, when challenged, will often resort to all power at its disposal to pressure organisations and institutions. Make no mistake about it: seriously taking on the state is still an act of bravery in India. The state has enough instruments to hold NGOs accountable. But it chooses not to do so in areas that are legitimate, like transparency. Instead, it uses its power selectively when its interests are crossed. But this government is determined to increase the asymmetry between state and civil society. The new FCRA regime, the proposed changes in the Direct Tax Code for not-for-profits, are symptoms of the desire to control. Second, the rhetoric, that the world outside, particularly of NGOs, is a conspiracy to hold India back, is second nature to paranoid regimes. The Chinese construct dissent as motivated. Indira Gandhi revelled in it. But in her case, in the backdrop of Allende, global geopolitics, the CIA and the KGB, there was a touch of plausibility. Now these arguments have so much a touch of farce to them. But they are pretexts to increase state control. Third, think of the pattern with this government. Like the Chinese, we have used the power of granting research visas to regulate research. Our visa regime for scholars is a shame for a liberal democracy. So great is our paranoia that in the small print of even PIO cards, you will see a prohibition on doing research. Like the Chinese, films showing India’s human rights record in an unflattering light are hard to release. Censorship, through formal and informal pressures, is legion. To be sure, politicians are often easy and unfair targets in Indian political discourse. But this surface politician-bashing disguises how hard it is to seriously interrogate the power structure in India.

Like the Chinese, we construct civil society as a special site of threats. What is appalling in this singling out of people who do research, or of NGOs, is this: private corporations are allowed to move money practically as they please, they can even advertise or lobby in ways beneficial to them, but NGOs have to be watched and blamed for obstructing the country’s progress. To be sure, NGOs are being given an increasing place in a range of service-delivery activities. This is more to compensate for state failure in those areas. But NGOs as sources of dissent are still suspect. Corporate activities and capital are constructed as a privileged site. The space of ideas and protest is represented as presumptively subversive, and anti-national. This is deeply revealing of what we think of dissent.

The hallmark of technocracy is that it cannot countenance the possibility of radical disagreement. Since there is a technically right answer, disagreement can only be explained by attributing motives. But while the mindset is technical, the capacity for political negotiation has also diminished.

The simple fact is that, for whatever reason, the government has not been able to bring Jayalalithaa on board on the nuclear plant issue. If it did, its capacity to negotiate with dissenting groups would be different. But this is a political failure, pure and simple. There is a systematic reason why the government’s arguments often lack credibility even among open-minded people. How do you trust a government’s claims on dams, when it keeps data on water flows a secret and publishing such data a crime? How do you trust a government on environmental assessment when there is general consensus that Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) are so flimsy? How do you trust claims on radiation and chemical poisoning when there is no reliable data on incidence of cancer? The problem is not foreign funding. The problem is that government’s secrecy, lack of engagement, has diminished its capacity to produce authoritative and trustworthy knowledge. This is the breach which opens up the need for different sites of knowledge production. This is a governance failure. But instead of attending to a political or governance failure, the technocratic mind will go for impugning dissent.

Jairam Ramesh did the right thing. He did something rare in this government: he owned up to his decision and his responsibility plain and simple. But the prime minister unwittingly showed what a banana republic India can be. If a few crores here and there, given to NGOs which have no instruments of power other than their ability to mobilise, can bring this country to a standstill, then we are indeed in deep trouble. Banana republics are more paranoid about dissent than self-confident democracies.

The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, express@expressindia.com

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