Role of Social Activists in Democracy
BY AMULYA GANGULI
WHILE making the unwarranted and unsubstantiated allegation of how the judiciary is scared of ‘five-star’ activists belonging to NGOs, Prime Minister Narendra Modi appears to have forgotten the intimidatory presence in the background of outfits such as the RSS which can be called non-state actors where his own government is concerned.
How the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh interacts with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party can be seen from the regular meetings between its top leaders with BJP president Amit Shah and other office-bearers. The seconding of Ram Madhav, who was earlier a spokesman of the RSS, to the government is only one example of the close ties between the pro-Hindu organization and the government.
However, if the RSS influences the government, the latter returns the compliment. This two-way interaction can be surmised from the decision of the RSS to put the Ram temple issue on hold, apparently in response to Modi’s call for a moratorium on sectarian tension in his Independence Day speech.
It is also possible that the reason why RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat no longer argues that all Indians are essentially Hindus is an internal communication between him and the government.
Arguably, there is nothing unusual about such interactions between different wings of what the Hindutva camp claims to be one big ‘parivar’ or family.
But the point is that such exchanges between the RSS and the government take place behind the scenes while there is nothing secret about the pleas of the ‘five-star’ activists, as the prime minister derisively calls the various NGOs, before the judiciary.
Besides, not only are the NGOs open to judicial and media scrutiny, but their emphasis is almost always on public welfare irrespective of religious denominations.
It is possible, of course, that there is a hidden political motive behind some of their initiatives or that some of the activists push an agenda which has the support of what Indira Gandhi used to call the ‘foreign hand’. Even then, what stands in favour of the activists is that their intentions are liable to be revealed sooner or later as the lawyers for and against them present their cases in open courts.
Unfortunately, this isn’t true of saffron organizations like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, for instance, which have always been associated with an anti-minority outlook. What the general public will be grateful to the government, therefore, is if it can keep outfits like these in check.
On the other hand, the average citizen will expect the NGOs to continue to function without fear or favour because they are known to comprise people who, to a very large extent, have no axes to grind. The very fact they occasionally run afoul of governments is testimony to their impartiality. Moreover, in such cases, the government’s charges, as against Greenpeace, usually carry less conviction than the latter’s defences.
It will be a pity if India is to begin to resemble the totalitarian and theocratic countries where NGOs are unwelcome. It has to be remembered these are very much unlike the RSS or the VHP which are opaque organizations which admit the followers of only one religion as members.
It goes without saying that the three institutions which enjoy considerable public trust are the judiciary, the media and the NGOs. Of the three, the last two may have their faults, but they operate in an open, competitive field where the slightest slip can be disastrous for their future.
In contrast, the general reputation of politicians is hardly lily-white.
One must be thankful that Indian democracy is far more vigorous today than, say, four decades ago when large sections of the media were accused of crawling before a draconian government. Such an eventuality is extremely unlikely at present because of the huge proliferation of television channels, newspapers and magazines, not to mention the social network sites.
An Act of Weakness
The judiciary, too, has recognized that the 1975-77 Emergency period was not its finest hour, as is evident from the comments of P N Bhagwati, one of the judges who delivered the verdict in the so-called habeas corpus case. According to him, his judgment was ‘an act of weakness’, adding that ‘it was against my conscience’.
Although the media is seemingly not under any overt official pressure, there is little doubt that the NGOs have become somewhat more vulnerable, as the recent deplaning of an environmentalist, who was on her way to Britain, showed. As may be expected, it was the judiciary which came to her rescue.
But the episode underlined the government’s ire, which is probably due to the fact that several NGOs had joined the National Human Rights Commission, the National Commission for Minorities and the Supreme Court to pillory the Gujarat government under Modi during the 2002 riots.
The apex court had then described the state’s rulers as ‘modern-day Neros’ who fiddled while Gujarat burnt. Modi’s charge that the judges fear the NGOs is apparently a riposte to that accusation 12 years later. IANS