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Mainstream, VOL LII No 28, July 5, 2014

Umbrage against Activists

Saturday 5 July 2014, by Kuldip Nayar

Democracy and personal liberty should never be taken for granted. This is a warning that the imposition of the Emergency gave 39 years ago when the then Prime Minister, Mrs Indira Gandhi, furtively extinguished the lights of freedom on the night of June 25-26 to save her skin.

The Allahabad High Court had disqualified her as an MP for six years for using official machinery during her election campaign. Instead of stepping down, she suspended the Constitution, imposed Press censorship and constricted personal freedom. More than 100,000 people were detained without trial and all the Opposition members, including Jayaprakash Narayan who had led the movement against her corrupt government, were put behind bars. The worst was that she destroyed the institu-tions which still have not regained their health.

The lesson to learn is to have a transparent government which can rule within the precincts of the Constitution. A strong government means an effective government, not one person rule, which negates the very parliamentary demo-cracy that we have preferred to the presidential form. People are the masters and anything done to silence their say goes against the very grain of our Republic’s democratic, pluralistic and egalitarian ideals.

Those who violated these principles were punished when elections were held in 1977. Even a tall person like Mrs Gandhi was defeated at the polls. To know all this is important so that it does not happen again. Yet some signs are starting to be visible to remind us of those days when we see the working of the govern-ments. One of its wings, the Intelligence Bureau (IB), has leaked out certain passages of a report which alleges that the activities of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) have brought down the rate of growth by two to three per cent.

I cannot blame Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government because the report was obviously prepared during the Congress rule of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. But top bureaucrats are responsible in putting across such information that tarnishes the image of those who are working at the grassroots. Some of the names mentioned in the report are people of integrity and I, as an activist, know them personally. Their defence that the government has circulated “a cock and bull story” is understandable because they have given years of their lives to work for the welfare of people in the rural areas.

Disparagingly, they are called ‘jholewalas’. This tag has been linked with them because they carry shoulder bags which have grams, a frugal meal for their long sojourns in remote parts. The allegation against them that their protests or agitations have stalled economic growth carries no conviction because they are conscientious objectors against big dams, nuclear power stations and the likes.

Take Medha Patkar who is associated with the opposition to the Narmada Dam. No doubt she had the World Bank loan for the project to be cancelled, but her objection was that you could not displace people without giving them alternative accommodation. The opposition to the dam became so strong at one time that the government appointed the Narmada Tribunal which said in its judgment that the people should be given an equivalent site of land and a rehabilitation grant six months before they are uprooted.

Gujarat, which is the main beneficiary, took the responsibility of rehabilitating the displaced persons. Initially land was given for land, but subsequently cash awards were offered. Many took it but today they are mere labourers because the cash has not lasted for long. The new announcement that the Narmada Dam would be built to its original height and that the gates would be installed amounts to the betrayal of the understanding given that until the uprooted were rehabilitated the dam’s height would not be raised.

Prime Minister Modi, hailing from Gujarat, may not have anything to do with the decision that the Narmada authorities have made. But he is bound to be accused of giving his blessing for the additional work. I recall that when the agitation against the dam was at its height, several Gujaratis told me that the dam was their Kashmir. “If you do not allow the dam to come up, we shall be forced to take up guns as the separatists in Kashmir are doing.”

The story of the nuclear power station at Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu is no different. Rightly, the people living in that area complained that they did not want a nuclear plant in their midst and they gave the example of Fukushima in Japan where the radioactive nuclear fuel leaked into surrounding areas. Still the plant has come up and is working to its full capacity with all the hazards that the inhabitants in that area face.

The point which emerges from such projects is that the government cannot take people for granted and that there is more to life than ends justifying the means as they did in Communist China or Communist Russia. But Mahatma Gandhi’s India was different. Of course develop-ment is important but it has to be balanced against the adverse fallout affecting every individual.

India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, did point out that there were two ways available to build the future India: communist dictatorship or democratic transparency and accountability. He said that India had chosen the path of consensus, which is an essential ingredient of a democratic system.

I personally think that the costs of the project go up and the delay in completion takes place because of red tapeism and corruption at every tier of government, right up to the Minister. The effort to put the blame on NGOs is bound to go awry because the media today is vigilant to expose the scams even at the highest level. The Manmohan Singh Government was notorious for that. One scandal after another would tumble out of its cupboard. All the guilty have escaped punishment because there is no accountability in the system.

In fact my fear is that the atmosphere of paranoia is being built because some undemocratic steps are in the offing. I hope they do not end up with another Emergency, another era where dissent would be construed as anti-national.

The author is a veteran journalist renowned not only in this country but also in our neighbouring states of Pakistan and Bangladesh where his columns are widely read. His website is www.kuldipnayar.com