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Radical Views
M C Raj
Are NGOs Foreign Agents? 30 November, 2012
Let us make the record straight. The nuclear power plants of India are constructed with foreign collaboration. The anti-nuclear endeavours are also done with foreign collaboration. One cannot cry foul over the other. We cannot set two different norms.

THE ANTI-NUCLEAR forums in the country are also very much concerned about development of India. Ascription of subversion has a long history in India. Every endeavour against dominant systems and structures is said to be against this or that. In reality, such endeavours often are pro something or other. Let us not also universalize this phenomenon and present the sinner as a saint. But the million-dollar question is who is a sinner and who is a saviour.

The attempt to club all NGOs in one box may create more misunderstanding. There are different types. It is questionable whether organizations started by religions can even be called NGOs. They are religious organizations. There are then political NGOs owing allegiance to one or other political party. There are the survival NGOs who start an organization for their own survival. In Tamil Nadu there was this funny story of four NGOs on one street and NGOs being registered as dowry at the time of marriage. Then there are the money-minting NGOs who pose themselves as professionals and charge participants in their programmes in US dollars.

However, the roots of NGOs can be traced to a global phenomenon of democratic dissent in many countries that were subjected to colonization of different nations. Indian NGOs also have a historical link with the freedom movement, later with JP Movement and a bit earlier with Brazil’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and above all people who grew in the leftist school with beedi and tea. Such was the spirit of these people, they would hardly eat, sleep very little, read a lot, discuss all their life, face any difficulty that came on their way and were almost dreaming of an Utopian India. One must understand that there are still some remnants of this global NGO phenomenon in India. While condemning NGOs, both the government and individuals must take care not to condemn this face of the development of meaningful democracy in India.

As there are many types of NGOs there are also similar types of NGOs in developed nations who channelize funds for NGOs in developing nations. Sometimes, such NGOs may have a sworn neutrality but their staff may have allegiance to certain ideological position. One of the recent mechanisms of NGO funding is also the spread of RSS, Islamic and Christian fundamentalist groups across the globe to spread their narrow mission within the borders of India. They collect fund from different countries and send it to India to their respective religious groups. Unfortunately all such groups and efforts are clubbed together in one box called NGO. Then it becomes a misnomer.

The Government of India has churned out statistics to show that many NGOs are funded by foreign donors in order to do subversive work in India. Their specific reference is to the recent protests in Koodankulam against the Government nuclear installations. The protest against nuclear power is not an isolated one in India. It is part of a global awareness and movement in the entire world against nuclear power generation. The governments and the consumers of their argumentation develop a thesis that development will depend much on the generation of power and money. The anti-nuclear protestors develop an antithesis that the means of generating power and money can lead to and often indeed lead to subversion of development.

When the GoI opened the floodgates of globalization they should have realized that it would also open the thresholds of uninhibited communication across the globe. This is bound to lead to the formation of new global alliances. Such alliances could be that of multinational and transnational corporations or they could also be of ideologically based groups keen on developing alternative models and methods of development. The point of conflict often happens to be the positioning of each. The government looks at development from a prism of monetized, infrastructural and anti-green projects. Such a perspective can easily be legitimized if your prism is made of industrial and urban development. Often, this is also accompanied by lip service to the poor and the agriculture sector. The rich and powerful sections of society are generally happy about such development. Those poor aspiring to become rich overnight will swallow such argumentation rather easily.

The protestors on the other hand have a different prism of looking at development. Not being part of the institutions of governance they take a liberal space to take sides with a different section in society, whom they see as the global poor, and develop strong antithesis against what they see as dominant methods of development. Now, such groups and individuals exist not only in the openly acknowledge poor countries of the world. They also have strong and significant existence in developed nations, both ideologically and strategically. In this era of postmodernism and globalization it is only natural that such forces join hands to realize their vision of development. Such endeavours are often resented by dominant forces and by governments that support their worldview. Unable to contain the thesis of such environmentalists, leftist, and pro-poor civil society actors, government generally take recourse to ascriptive practices. Ascriptions are generally made as a means of legitimizing the use of brute force on dissent. Civil society sees the development projects of the government as subversive to the future of the poor and government see the thesis of civil society as subversive of their mega development journey. The irony is that both speak of the nation.

Reeling out reams of paper and statistics to substantiate their positions by each party is not at all a difficult thing today. Even the Fourth Estate reels out many falsehoods these days for the sake of money. The citizen has to learn to take every data and information with a pinch of salt, these days even with a spoonful of salt. The irony of ascriptions is this. The GoI that points out an accusing finger at NGOs protesting against is priorities in Koodankulam is implementing its nuclear project with foreign money while allowing its citizens to stack Indian money in foreign banks. The NGOs that protest against government projects wait till the government announces one or other development project and get into acts of resistance. The vacuum on their part is the lack of any proactive alternative models that they can show to the government and to the world. They often present themselves as pathetic disaster resistant groups rather than as development groups, thus yielding themselves to easy ascriptions of being subversive.

The GoI is in urgent need of seeing such resistance as symbols and constitutive elements of a developing democracy. It is a veritable sign that Indian democracy is maturing and any State attempt to curb such development will go against governance in the long run. Amartya Sen said that this already exists in India by presenting an “Argumentative Indian”. I have gone a step further and said that India and the world should develop “Dialectic Democracy”. Dialectics is more institutional that argumentation. A matured civil society is bound to keep on producing its thesis and antithesis. Governments across the globe have to evaluate their own thesis in the light of the thesis and antithesis of the civil society instead of using ascription and brute force to put down democratic dissent.

This is what other countries have done. If Germany has decided to dismantle its nuclear installations by 2020 it is not simply a government decision. As a frequent visitor to Germany I know the level of citizen argumentation for greater Green world and a nuclear free Germany. It is the voice of the German citizen that has finally won in Germany. The way Green Party has increased its percentage votes, has made correct political alliances and the way German citizens have been educating themselves more and more on global warming mitigation and climate change must serve as a lesson for India. It is not a healthy sign to dump all foreign collaboration as ‘subversive’ when it is done by NGOs and doing seeking vote by the government doing the same.

The dire need in India that the governments develop the correct perspective, attitude and aptitude to listen to citizens of hue and cry, negotiate with dissent through argumentation and respect dialectic democracy. This may help healthy governance and national integration. Suppressing dissent may lead to uncontrollable eruptions of civil society at the most unexpected time and that time may be too late.

But can we camouflage all NGOs as being genuinely democratic? Do they not play into the hands of subversive forces in other countries? The legitimacy of such argumentation has to be looked into seriously. We shall do it in our next piece.

Editorial NOTE: This article is categorized under Opinion Section. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of In case you have a opposing view, please click here to share the same in the comments section.
About The Author
M C Raj is a human rights activist and award-winning author of more than 18 books. He has initiated a national campaign for proportionate electoral system, popularly known as CERI, in India. He is deeply involved in Climate Change issues.
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