In India, a pervasive paranoia blocks progress on human rights

As a human rights activist, working among Dalits and Muslims, the poorest and most marginalized sections of Indian society, I completely agree with the views of James Ron and Archana PandyaRavi Nair and others on India’s draconian, almost Stalinist suspicion of foreign funded nongovernment organizations (NGOs).

Why the paranoia?

It is truly inexplicable, considering the fact that India is a vibrant democracy with an open society. Since the 1991 economic reforms, successive Indian governments have gone out of their way to invite foreign capital into the country, yet when it comes to outside money for NGOs, a wall of opposition sets in and petty officials put up every conceivable hurdle. Unlike government funding of schemes where half the money is wasted and does not reach the people for whom it was intended, foreign funding for NGOs is constantly monitored.

Under India’s rather archaic Foreign Contribution Act, all organizations seeking to receive foreign funding must first apply for permission from the federal Interior Ministry. This brings in the intelligence agencies, which are required to investigate NGOs and determine whether or not they can be enticed by foreign funders to work against India’s “national interest.”

Compounding the suspicions are prejudices surrounding caste and religion, especially in the northern states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, which are among the more rigidly caste-conscious.

Much of my work is among the Musahar community (loosely translated to “mouse eaters”) in the eastern part of Uttar Pradesh. Despite the law of the land, they are considered to be “untouchable,” and prejudice against these poorest and most marginalized people continues unabated. Musahars do the lowliest jobs in the village. The upper-caste men rape their women with impunity. The men who protest are beaten and humiliated, often paraded naked to keep them in their place and not paid enough for the lowly work they do. Their land is often seized by rich landlords and their houses burned. Their children are not allowed to attend the schools attended by higher-caste children.

The Dalits, Indian Untouchables, are excluded from the system of Indian castes. They are more commonly called the untouchables because it is considered that the simple act of touching them brings impurity. Above, women cover their faces from dust and asbestos as many long-standing homes in their Dalit community are systematically demolished, and former slum townships razed to the ground — part of what is referred to as the Delhi beautification scheme. Andy Ash/Demotix (All rights reserved)

Despite a constitution that grants equal rights to all its citizens, Dalits are at the bottom of the heap. I have personally had government officials ask me why I, an upper-caste person from a “good family’’ (read Thakur warrior), should waste time and money on Dalits and Muslims. Many of the officials are otherwise good people, but cannot comprehend that Dalits and Muslims are equally citizens of India, and that unless they progress the country cannot prosper.

The role of the church

Indian intelligence agencies are extremely suspicious of the role of the church in tribal areas, where many had converted to Christianity. Accusations abound that poor Dalits and Adivasis are being lured by Christian missionaries, flush with funds from the Christian Right in the United States. Instead of working to uplift these deprived sections of society, it is easier for the authorities to point fingers at a ubiquitous foreign hand.

Soon after independence, when the Naga tribes of the northeast took up arms against the Indian state, the church had backed the bid to separate from the Indian mainland and carve out an independent country. The missionaries, whether they were Presbyterian, Baptist or Catholic, were always looked upon with suspicion, though it was these pioneers who were responsible for building schools and hospitals.

Within a decade of independence, new foreign missionaries found it difficult to obtain permission for residence in India. Once the older generation died, there were no replacements. 

Politics are also at play

India’s deep distrust of the West is ironic in a country so proud of its Westminster-style democracy inherited from the British. Some of this may have to do with the fact that during the Cold War years, India was aligned with the former Soviet bloc as archrival Pakistan was aligned with the United States and its allies.

More recently, the massive people’s protests against the Russian-built Kudankulam nuclear power plant in Tamil Nadu also led to charges that NGOs close to the United States are guilty of sabotage. The simple fact is that since Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster, there has been worldwide apprehension over nuclear power.

Fishermen and their families protest against the Kudankulam nuclear power plant (far right). K. S. Harikrishnan/Inter Press Service/Flickr (All rights reserved)

Intelligence agencies regard many NGOs as working against the government, and lower-level officers work within this framework. 

The Peoples Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR), where I work, is particularly targeted because the organization receives funds from the Danish Institute Against Torture (DIGNITY). Indian intelligence is wary of Danish involvement largely due to fallout over the Purulia Arms Drop case in 1995. Kim Davy, a Danish national is alleged to have been on a small plane that dropped arms in the Purulia district of West Bengal in eastern India. Later, he escaped, and efforts to get him back to India to face trial have continued. The Danish government has refused to hand him over, and the motives for the arms drop or who engaged Davy remain a mystery. Neither the Indian government nor its intelligence wing have been able to crack the case.

Institutional memory of this case makes it hard for the PVCHR to function. Fresh funding from Denmark for 2016 is possible only if the Home or Interior Ministry in New Delhi gives the green light.

Following the money trail of terror outfits is the legitimate duty of all national governments, but senseless suspicion of all NGOs funded by Western governments is not the answer. Unless this myopic vision ends, NGOs that have done excellent work among the most vulnerable groups — on such issues as human trafficking, and bonded labour — will not be able to carry on with their work.

Entrenched interests

In India, as in many parts of the global South, local funding for human rights is dismal. Though historically Indians have always contributed to charity, much of this goes to temples and mosques and churches. Temples all across India are extremely rich and get contributions of solid gold. Vijay Malya, the owner of a Kingfisher Airlines, which has been grounded and declared bankrupt, had not paid his crew and owes a huge amount to the government. But on his birthday two years ago, Malya went to a temple and donated three kilograms of gold. His employees were hurt and angry.

Some rich people also contribute to charitable hospitals, usually to help poorer sections of their own caste or religious group, or donate occasionally to schools or colleges. But, as a rule, the rich do not invest in programs for reducing poverty or community empowerment. Social divisions and desire for ownership of resources brings them into conflict with the poorer sections struggling to claim their bit of the pie.

Unfortunately in India, the elite and the educated middle class continue to control the state institutions that are meant to protect democracy and promote human rights. Their class interests and prejudices harden them against reforms, the rule of law, accountability and reconciliation. To build an equitable and inclusive society, the new government in Delhi needs to seriously rethink the Foreign Contribution Act, as well as implement its constitutional promises of equality.