Sneering at ‘five-star activists’ for being unpatriotic is a cynical device to weaken opposition to an economic model driven by market fundamentalism.
The Indian political establishment is openly antagonistic towards international engagement with domestic human rights and justice battles. While foreign capital is welcome, foreign support for justice issues in India is often viewed from a hyper-nationalistic lens. This can be heard in sections of public opinion, and stridently by the state when it is confronted with social dissent. Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently stirred the pot with his public taunts against people he described as “five-star activists”, warning the country’s senior judiciary from coming under their sway.
When the government and right-wing non-governmental groups express opposition to powerful, well-funded and internationally supported rights and sustainability groups, they often use a chauvinist idiom, deploying the paranoid metaphor of the so-called foreign hand. This rhetoric was adopted in an earlier era by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to discredit perceived American attempts to undermine India’s socialistic domestic programmes and its non-aligned foreign policy. But with the end of the Cold War and the active pursuit of globalised capitalist growth pivoted on foreign investment, this chauvinism and paranoia appears particularly incongruous.
Taking India’s issues to foreign forums, using foreign funds, is criticised as washing India’s dirty linen in public. For example, fighting India’s caste-discrimination within India was an old and respectable strand of social and political activism. But the moment some anti-caste activists took the issue to global forums such as the UN conference on discrimination in Durban in 2001, equating practices of caste untouchability with racism, this was considered both illegitimate and unpatriotic.
Source of strength
Civil society advocates for policy reform, rights and justice in India frequently derive strength and impact from non-governmental partners and credible and powerful voices in other parts of the planet. There are many examples in which successes in local influence can in part be attributed to the influence of transnational advocacy. These include domestic struggles for socio-economic rights, environmental justice and sustainability, gender and caste equity, disability rights, minority and sexuality rights, and post-conflict justice, and a range of other concerns. A recent example related to ensuring continuance of the so-called peace clause in the World Trade Organisation norms to permit countries to maintain large food stocks to feed their poor as well as contribute to food price stabilisation.
The nature of contemporary paranoid chauvinism that underlies the discourse of international support for dissenting nationally located groups was highlighted specially by two recent incidents. In June, an Intelligence Bureau report titled “Concerted efforts by select foreign-funded NGOs to take down Indian development projects” was quite transparently leaked to the media. This report purported to address the role of internationally supported civic dissent in contributing to the slowdown or stalling of development projects in seven sectors: nuclear power plants, uranium mines, coal-fired power plants, farm biotechnology, mega industrial projects, hydroelectric plants and extractive industries. The report lays culpability for this slowdown to agitations led by NGOs.
“The negative impact on GDP growth is assessed to be 2%-3% per annum,” the report says. It does not explain how it reaches this precise economic estimate. According to the Intelligence Bureau, while caste discrimination, human rights and big dams were earlier chosen by international organisations to discredit India at global forums, the recent shift in the choice of issues intended to encourage “growth-retarding campaigns”’ focused on extractive industries, genetically-modified organisms and foods, climate change and anti-nuclear issues.
“These foreign donors lead local NGOs to provide field reports which are used to build a record against India and serve as tools for the strategic foreign policy interests of the Western government,” adds the report. “The strategy serves its purpose when the funded Indian NGOs provide reports, which are used to internationalise and publicise the alleged violations in international fora.” All this, the report alleges, “is used to build a record against a country or an individual in order to keep the entity under pressure and under a state of under-development”.
In this way, any disagreement with the market-led economic policies of the state, or concerns about their environmental or labour right consequences, is conflated as anti-national. The Intelligence Bureau report describes these actions as violating what it calls India’s economic sovereignty. It is interesting that India’s Nobel Peace Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi was not nominated for the award by the Indian government – which never thought him fit even for significant national recognition – but by the European Union. His opposition to child labour in international forums were regarded privately as both defaming India and diluting India’s economic competitiveness in the global market built on cheap prices because child labour was employed.
In another dramatic example of governmental opposition to transnational support for Indian justice and sustainability causes, on January 11, 2015, Priya Pillai, an employee of Greenpeace India, was prevented from boarding an aircraft to London. Her passport was stamped “off-load”, apparently on the directions of the government of India. Media reports suggested that the government had issued a look-out circular against her. Pillai was travelling overseas to address a British parliamentary committee on the effects of a coal block allocation in the Mahan reserve forest area. The allocation went to Mahan Coal, a venture between Hindalco and Essar Power, a subsidiary of a British company. Pillai, as a representative of Greenpeace India, had been working closely with the Mahan Sangharsh Samiti, members of the community in Mahan whose rights, livelihoods and forests would be affected by the mining. Pillai felt she should apprise British parliamentarians of the concerns of those who would be affected by British investment.
Pillai challenged the government order preventing her overseas travel in the Delhi High Court. The government defended its order in court on the grounds that her activities would create a negative image of India abroad, and “whittle down foreign direct investments”. What is noteworthy in this case was not just strong state opposition on grounds of unpatriotic dissent against private sector investments in India, but also extensive, shrill and often viciously-worded attacks on Pillai in the social media as being unpatriotic.
The attack continues
The High Court, however, did not accept that espousing dissenting views abroad constituted anti-national activities, and suggested instead that limitations should be placed on the power of the executive to declare actions as anti-national. Pillai won her case on March 12, 2015, when she was declared free to travel overseas. However, the government refused to relent in its attacks on Greenpeace. The court verdict did not prevent the central government from ordering the organisation’s bank accounts to be frozen.
In this way, ideological and financial support to Indian justice and advocacy causes is in itself noisily portrayed in India’s current public discourse as illegitimate and unpatriotic. The popular civic and state interrogation of funding legitimacy rarely extends to the nature and sources of funding raised within India. In effect, money raised from companies that are charged with major tax defaults, labour oppression, displacement of vulnerable peoples, and environmental damage, are not regarded as illicit or unethical in the way that even funds transparently raised from small donors overseas are.
The influential official stigmatising of foreign support for human rights and environmental issues in India is part of a larger project to stigmatise and weaken dissent against a growth model built around encouraging large private investment, even when it impoverishes displaced local communities, violates labour protections, and destroys forests and habitats. To disagree with market fundamentalism, and what many perceive to be crony capitalism, is portrayed to stand against the nation itself.