By attacking activists and NGOs, India is becoming more like China

N Jayaram
N JayaramFeb 18, 2015 | 16:36

By attacking activists and NGOs, India is becoming more like China

Among a few obsessions India and China share is a paranoid distrust of activists of various hues and of non-governmental organisations (NGOs). In China, activists and almost entirely home-grown NGOs - whether concerned with the environment, human rights including labour rights, land-grab, those suffering from AIDS/HIV or Hepatitis B and so on - are closely monitored, controlled or silenced through house arrests or other forms of illegal detentions.


India, which preens itself as the world's largest democracy, is increasingly resembling China in this respect: Witness the harassment of Teesta Setalvad and her husband Javed Anand, the curbs put on Greenpeace, the action against hundreds of anti-nuclear activists in Koodankulam and the jailing of Maruti Suzuki workers, Dr Binayak Sen and members of the Kabir Kala Manch, to cite but very few examples from recent weeks and months.

One oft-repeated canard against such activists and NGOs is that they serve the agenda of hostile Western forces. Former prime minister Manmohan Singh too infamously made that charge against the people in Koodankulam in Tamil Nadu. Never mind that these were mostly impoverished local villagers and indigent people from within the state and the country. Never mind, too, that the pro-nuclear lobby's foreign funding and cushy Western connections are rarely queried. That many human rights activists - such as Irom Sharmila in Manipur, Dayamani Barla in Jharkhand and Soni Sori in Chhattisgarh - are not merely Indian but in fact Adivasi, is a fact lost on the jingoist crowd that buys into such propaganda.

China disallows foreign NGOs having local branches or representatives. Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF or Doctors Without Borders), which does humanitarian rescue work - after earthquakes and such other disasters - is an exception. But, Amnesty International, Greenpeace, Human Rights Watch and others have no presence in the country.


The situation in India is not that much different. MSF is present and works unencumbered and has done yeoman work upholding India's interests by opposing multinational drug companies' unreasonable patent requirements. But India makes it difficult for human rights and environmental organisations to function. Amnesty International was absent from India for many years and just managed to get back a foothold a couple of years ago. Human Rights Watch has a representative and Greenpeace - the worldwide environmental organisation currently headed by the South African former anti-Apartheid activist Kumi Naidoo - has become a bête-noire for the BJP government. Priya Pillai of Greenpeace was prevented from travelling to Britain last month and her passport stamped 'Offloaded'. And when Greenpeace challenged that move in the Delhi High Court, the government was told to keep nationalism and jingoism apart. Despite that the home ministry filed an affidavit claiming that letting Pillai depose before a British parliamentary committee would have had a "cascading effect" on India's image. Greenpeace highlights the threats to the lives of people living in the margins - the urban poor and Adivasis for instance - and destruction of their habitat. It bats solidly on the side of the global poor and against the machinations of mega corporations and the governments backing them. It has opposed French nuclear testing in the South Pacific and Japanese and Norwegian whaling. It is a thorn in the side of Western governments. It is therefore shocking to see a government in a developing country taking umbrage at its well-founded warnings.


Chinese officials said in late January that they would file formal charges against Pu Zhiqiang, one of the country's prominent human rights lawyers detained since the middle of last year, accused of "picking fights and causing trouble". Pu is one of several dozen human rights lawyers in China either under detention or their licences to practice cancelled or under constant threat of cancellation.

In India last week, a court in Gujarat refused anticipatory bail to Teesta Setalvad and Javed Anand, who have done more than any others to try and bring to book those behind the anti-Muslim pogrom of 2002 in the state in the face of tremendous odds created by the former Gujarat chief minister and now India's prime minister, Narendra Modi. The cases being pursued and supported by Setalvad and Anand implicated Modi and the current BJP president Amit Shah in several instances of murder and extra-judicial killings not only in 2002 but later. While it is gratifying that a large number of people have come together to support Setalvad and Anand, it is a matter of great concern that sections of the judiciary seem to be choosing to ignore the stark reality - a clear case of political vendetta.

Labour rights, or lack thereof, is an area of growing convergence between China and India. China prohibits independent unions. The officially sponsored All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) claims more than 200 million members, many of whom are blissfully unaware of its existence. At places the factory manager, the head of the Communist Party committee therein and the ACFTU leader, have been one and the same person. Elsewhere they work in close concert as the ACFTU's mandate is less to uphold workers' interest than to ensure "social stability", meaning keeping workers cowed down.

Obviously, over the years thousands of lightning strikes have taken place all over China and the brains behind it have usually been picked up and punished. Even as innocuous an outfit as an academic body looking into workers' issues, the International Centre for Joint Labour Research based in the southern province of Guangdong - home to a vast number of industries - was forced to shut late last year.

In India, once glorious trade unions, especially in the textile industries in Bombay and Gujarat, have disappeared. (Political scientist Ashutosh Varshney credits these unions in part with having long preserved communal harmony. Where unions have declined, amity has frayed.) Today, not only in the textile industry but in many other industries, there are hardly any unions. Unionisation is often sternly opposed with official connivance. The violence against Maruti Suzuki workers and the continued detention of nearly 150 of them is just one example of repression.

Land grab by powerful developers in cahoots with local authorities both in urban and rural areas is common to India and China. And in both countries, resistance is put down ruthlessly. China has some peculiar issues of its own - coercive imposition of the one-child policy and discrimination against HIV and Hepatitis B carriers, among others. Activists defending those targeted face violent suppression. A blind "barefoot lawyer" Chen Guangcheng managed to leave China after repeated and dramatic attempts to escape house arrest.

Those defending the interests of ethnic minorities in China such as Wang Lixiong and his wife Tsering Woeser face frequent curbs on their movement or outright detention. Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti has been jailed for life. In general there are hardly any assassinations, murders and extrajudicial killings of those opposed to the regime in China. It can place them under house arrest or get them jailed. In India, on the other hand, "encounter killings" and murders are rife. The rape and murder of the Manipuri woman Thangjam Manorama by Assam Rifles personnel, the rape and torture of Soni Sori by Chhattisgarh police, the long jailing of Dr Binayak Sen in the same state, the assassination of the anti-superstition activist Narendra Dabholkar, the killing of human rights lawyer Shahid Azmi and the recent shooting of Communist leader Govind Pansare and his wife are but a few instances.

In China, there is a vast army of paid pro-government commenters whose job is to counter criticism of the regime. They were nicknamed the "50-cent army" - a reference to the alleged payment received per post. In India too, a look at especially the un-moderated comments sections of some Indian news websites indicates that some well-funded call centres might be behind the volume and content of the fare seen there. The extent of venom spewed against not only Setalvad, Anand and Pillai but several other human rights activists and NGOs is unlikely to be spontaneous.

One can only hope that when the Supreme Court takes up for hearing the anticipatory bail plea of Setalvad and Anand on February 19, it will not be swayed by such questionable ranging of public opinion against activists.

Last updated: February 18, 2015 | 16:36
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