How to make dissent 'anti-national'

IN Media Freedom | 17/06/2014
Selective witch-hunting by those in power against those who challenge this power will result in the clamping down of all expression of dissent.
The IB report is a weak attempt to discredit dissenters, says GEETA SESHU
The IB report on foreign funding of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) is only the latest in a long list of serious attempts by the State to bring to book groups and individuals that are also seen to be in the forefront of public dissent. Thus far, expressions of dissent have invited a range of action – from direct physical attacks, threats, sedition charges, defamation notices or litigation.
For quite some time now, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have had to contend with a number of curbs on their activities. NGOs like Greenpeace, for instance, have had SLAPP suits against them after the took on the mighty Tata industrialist group with a cheeky Ninja Turtle-inspired campaign against the company’s Dhamra Port construction which would threaten the Olive Ridely turtles in Odisha.
In Kerala, literally thousands of villagers of Koodankulam, including their leader S P Udayakumar, have had sedition charges under the Indian Penal Code slapped against them, apart from being charged for participating in unlawful activities under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967. 
Other NGOs and even academics and researchers or journalists who work on or write on issues as wide-ranging as health, sexuality rights, tribal rights, communalism and justice for riot victims in Gujarat, human rights violations by the army in Kashmir or in Maoist areas of central India – have had to contend with cases against their activists, scrutiny of their funds and bank accounts and curbs on their very movement in these ‘troubled’ areas.
So what’s new about this IB report? Billed ‘Secret’ but leaked selectively to work as a clumsy whisper campaign, the report is an investigation into a number of NGOs in the forefront of civil society dissent against a range of projects initiated by corporate India, coal mining allocations, GM foods, the raising of the level of the Omkareshwar dam in Gujarat and nuclear installations.
With some very loose language, some rather wild surmises about the nation’s GDP and some very clear indictments against the leaders of these agitations, the report makes out that the dissent they spear-headed was inspired by the classic bugbear of Indian politics: the foreign hand!
Its incredible that an intelligence agency working under the Ministry of Home Affairs has deployed so much funds and time and its top officers to come out with a report of much of what is already in the public domain.  Udayakumar, leader of the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE) was particularly targeted for his association with a US University, which the latter never attempted to hide. Besides, he was also targeted for ‘harbouring’ a German national, who was later deported from India.
In a television talk show, Udayakumar repeatedly raised the question to the host of the show: why was the German national deported? Why was he not charged or arrested and investigated into while he was in India?  Obviously, there was no answer to this question, lending more credence to the feeling that the Intelligence Bureau report was nothing more than a slander campaign with innuendoes and allegations that maps of nuclear installations were found on the seized laptop of the German national and that hand-written names slips were found to evade e-gatweay searches!
ASHA (Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture), which was also mentioned in the report for its work on Genetically-Modified (GM) foods, is a coalition of more than 20 organistions all over India. The report takes on a conspiratorial tone when it states that four organisations share the same address but doesn’t say why this is objectionable or anti-national. The organisations were also accused of being ‘active facilitators of news articles, liaison with other activists and social media activism’, without again telling us why this was illegal or anti-national.
It is nobody’s case that there must not be total transparency and accountability in all aspects of civil society and politics, whether of political parties, social groups and corporate houses, including those who own the media. Let’s have everyone come forward to disclose their sources of income, their assets and ownership. If we allow this kind of selective witch-hunting from those in power against those who are challenging this power, it will only result in the clamping down of all expression of dissent, with disastrous consequences.
The freedom to speak up requires a climate conducive to the airing of views and opinions in the confidence that it will be met with in the same measure – not by violent clampdowns or excessive and repressive measures or by the filing of cases, arrests and threats. And definitely not by these weak-kneed attempts to defame and discredit organisations and individuals who speak up.


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