Defending the people and fighting for their rights at the ground level became less and less important.
The present crop of Indian political parties have been largely incapable of taking on the BJP’s brand of authoritarian and religiously sectarian politics. Many think that the hope of an alternative politics may lie with those who work outside the framework of political parties in the voluntary sector.
Could they somehow become effective in reviving the politics of resistance in an increasingly authoritarian, majoritarian and relentlessly market-driven polity? The question may seem odd at a time when NGOs, human rights organisations, or what are broadly called civil society organisations, seem to be losing steam.
Civil society organisations have been under a constant onslaught for the past decade. What started with the ostensible aim of preventing money laundering and terrorist funding through Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA) in 2010 has ended with specific targeting of civil society activists. The FCRA was the response to international pressure by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) on Money Laundering on countries to “review the adequacy of laws and regulations that relate to entities that can be abused for the financing of terrorism”.
The FATF had found India non-compliant in terms of its recommendations in 2010. Even before the FATF report could be published, eager to comply, the Indian government at that time led by the Congress brought in a stringent FCRA. This law allowed the government the discretion to describe troublesome civil society organisations as “political”, and thus to prevent their access to foreign funding.
The targeting of civil society organisations, started under the Congress government, mushroomed into a full-blown onslaught on them under the BJP. Organisations that spoke up for protection of human rights, the rights of minorities, dalits or tribals were constantly on the State’s radar. Their licences were cancelled and their office bearers termed “anti-national” or “urban Naxalites”. Many continue to be harassed, entangled in legal cases or incarcerated. All this is fairly well known.
However, the sections of civil society that remain functional seem to have capitulated quickly. Can they be the basis of hope of an alternative?
From the 1970s to the 1980s, the civil rights movement both at the national level and in the states was fairly strong in India. They were voluntary in nature and funded themselves through contributions. The agitated over issues of poverty, gender, caste, minorities, workers and peasants.
A major transformation in this sector seems to have come with the once liberal availability of foreign funds. However, foreign funding changed the focus of civil society organisations to investigations and reports. Defending the people and fighting for their rights at the ground level became less and less important.
Because the State saw them as adversarial and acted or threatened to act against them, sections of civil society organisations withdrew from getting involved in peoples’ struggles. It was easier to become post-mortem experts who would send investigation teams and write reports in the aftermath of a conflict.
Foreign donors also encourage this as they view such reports as their main “output”. A social activist described this process as the “project-ising” of civil society organisations, who cease to be interested in a social issue once the project funding for it is over.
Foreign funding also puts civil soceity organisations in a quandary over whether they should focus on the agenda of the funders or on the issues of tribals, dalits, landlessness, poverty or other pressing local issues? It is also possible that once these organisations see the fate of activists in conflict zones, their desire to survive prevents them from taking up issues which can pit them against the government and those in power.
There is also a tendency for civil society organisations to see themselves as apolitical, and to project their agenda as non-partisan. This leads them to equivocate about about whether they stand on the side of the weak, whose rights need to be protected against the onslaught of the State, and the interests it promotes.
If they are to be the nursery of an alternative politics, Indian civil society organisations need a course correction. Many social activists feel that there is a need to get out of the observation and recommendation mode and move towards activism, either based on forming trade unions or associations of interest groups.
To reduce their dependency on donors, and particularly foreign donors, civil society organisations once again need to go back to voluntary contributions. Innovative ways of funding need to be designed — such as looking not for a single big foreign donor but a larger basket of domestic donors and charities. The retail contribution of volunteers and other donors will also give them a sense of ownership.
The State is the protector of rights given by the Constitution, and activists’ groups can push it to do its duty by using protests, sit-ins, strikes, non-cooperation, or politics-by-other-means. For this, civil society organisations will need to get out of the professional NGO mode and go back to voluntarism. Just as political parties ask people to join them voluntarily and become stakeholders in their future, so should civil society organisations make people their partners. They can create a network of volunteers and membership among the affected people, instead of relying only on the well-intentioned vocal elite. This alone will give ordinary people a stake in the activites of civil society organisations.
They will also have to work in local politics outside the metropolitan cities. Instead of working in their centralised silos in metro locations and aiming for big change, it might be more productive for them to decentralise and work with local bodies like municipalities, elected village and district bodies, and state administrations. Those who are doing so already are paying a price. But this is a more effective way of changing this country’s politics than merely sloganeering against the Big State, its functionaries and ideologues.
Instead of being accountable to their donors, civil society organisations can then become truly accountable to the people and their politics. They can still complement the protection of rights through legal and constitutional means with participation in local political movements by the affected organised through local regional and national campaigns.