The recent IB report insinuating that NGOs receiving foreign funds work against national interest is comic as much as it is outrageous. It is also reminiscent of the days of institutionalized xenophobia when the mysterious “foreign hand” was conveniently used to explain away every social disorder. The Northeast, where grievances were numerous, ranging from simple demands for statehood under the Indian Constitution to complete sovereignty from it, was a prime focus of this glare of the intelligence establishment. For some years now, it had seemed a new era of liberalism based on trust and respect of the voices of democratic dissent was dawning, but now this optimism seems belied.
The men behind the IB, as many observers have already pointed out, are mere playing to what they believe is the taste of their new boss in Delhi’s corridors of power in the tradition of bureaucratic sycophancy so familiar in the Indian officialdom, otherwise this allegation should have been their conclusion long ago as there is nothing new about foreign funds for social activism. Adding credence to this hypothesis is that the foreign funds singled out for the insinuations are those that support ecological conservation, human rights, anti-mining campaigns, gender equality, indigenous peoples’ rights etc. Ironically, the report has nothing to say of foreign funds that flow liberally into the mining sector, dam building, and other private businesses and enterprises which fall into activities categorized by the State as progressive investments.
The hypocrisy however does not end here. Foreign funds for instance are also available in terms of scholarships and fellowships for studies abroad. It will not be a surprise at all if some or many of those very same IB officers who have put together the report on foreign fund flow into the social sectors of the country, have their children studying abroad on foreign scholarships and thereafter working in the countries where these funds originated from. It would indeed be very interesting to do an assessment of the number of top bureaucrats and functionaries of the Government of India, who would fall into this category. This is important, for if NGOs can be influenced by foreign funds to soft peddle the vested interests of the countries these funds originate from, top bureaucrats also obviously would become soft towards the counties which availed fellowships to their children, and thereby opening up employment avenues for them there. People in positions of power, capable of determining the country’s policy directions in a profound way, coming under the influence of the soft diplomacies of foreign powers this way obviously should be seen as compromising the interest of the country much more than NGO environmentalists and human rights defenders.
There is one more interesting inference to be made from the IB report controversy. It has exposed the abject lack of the spirit of philanthropy in this country. That NGO activism is a vitally essential part of the democratic polity is beyond argument. Indeed the United Nations is the mother of all NGOs. The Geneva Conventions, The Hague Laws, etc would all fall within this broad wing of democratic governance, sometimes even referred to as the fifth pillar of democracy. Their birth and existence were all premised on the assumption that while the State is inevitable, there is nothing to presume the State can do no wrong, and in fact, left unchecked the State can do immense wrongs. An adversarial role for themselves against the State hence is the logic of their very existence – not to destroy the State but to prevent it from doing wrongs in their “nationalizing” and “developmental” projects. But NGOs are not authorized to levy taxes to raise their own money. This is the sole prerogative of the State. They are not businesses of profit either. They therefore have to depend on charity to run their campaigns.
The stark and shameful fact is, there is virtually no such funds independent of the government within the country. This is precisely because the notion of donating to charity is alien to the ethos of this country. The country has so many Fortune 500 billionaires today, but not a single worthwhile charity under their names. So if activists in the country want to work towards alleviating poverty or the misery of AIDS, or fight deforestation, check degradation of land by mining, conduct media sensitizing programmes… they would have no choice than to look to the philanthropies of the likes of Gates, Ford, Fulbright,
Agassi, Rockefeller, CARITAS, CORDAID etc, for help. This is a country where the rich are interested only in dodging taxes and not donating to public funds. Few or nobody believe in giving back, they only believe in taking.
In those “foreign countries” with huge charitable funds, even teenage stars like Taylor Swift and Matt Damon donate selflessly to public charities. In India, as an India Today story put it, even potential Bharat Ratna and unparalleled cricket star, Saching Tendulkar, entered his profession as an actor in the income tax return form, claiming he has acted in TV commercials, so he can save a few crore rupees. The list of Indian billionaire tax dodgers is intimidating. But of course, how would IB report writers be interested in these mundane affairs. They only want to change their hues in keeping with the change of bosses.
Leader Writer: Pradip Phanjoubam