Rights

Wir Schaffen Das! The Democratic Spirit Must Live in the Face of the State's Repressive Power

History has been witness to the kind of tumultuous times that we are going through, and as citizens, we must remember that we can resist the attacks on democracy.

Arnab Goswami was granted bail by the Supreme Court within a week of his arrest while the interim bail plea for Father Stan Swamy, a fragile soft-spoken man of 83, was rejected by a lower court and he is still in jail more than a month after he was arrested on October 8.

Would it have been too much to put Father Stan under house arrest in Ranchi itself? Considering his age and medical condition, surely, a little kindness couldn’t hurt.

His plight distracted me. I was planning to write on something else.

Where do I begin?

Basmati rice is a good starting point, something we are proud of. It has a geographical index tag in Kashmir.

Article 370 of our constitution that pertains to the state of Jammu and Kashmir was abrogated suddenly. This happened on August 5, 2019.

Overnight, amidst an extra-heavy presence of the paramilitary forces and a communications blackout, the state was made administratively ‘equal’ to the rest of the country, without any consultation with the state government.

But then, there was no functioning state government to speak of.

From Kashmir to Kanyakumari, India is one. All Indians know this. So, we said little.

Kashmir

Indian security personnel stand guard along a deserted street during restrictions in Jammu, August 5, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Mukesh Gupta

One year later, Kashmir remains cut off from the people of India. One doesn’t know what is happening there.

Then, in December 2019, we had the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA). We were told that Hindus and non-Muslims who can’t prove citizenship in Assam would be allowed to maintain Indian citizenship.

Also read: Why the CAA Is More Lethal Than a Projected NRC

And only non-Muslims from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan would be admitted into this amendment. Muslims aren’t part of the deal.

A state’s paranoia on display.

I thought of Angela Merkel who told the media at a press conference in Berlin: “I put it simply, Germany is a strong country.” This was on August 31, 2015, when she was faced with the rising concern of immigrants from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, applying for asylum in Germany that summer.

Most European countries as well as the US warned her about the ‘Muslim peril’. But she said, “The motive with which we approach these matters must be: we have already managed so much, we’ll manage this.” “Wir schaffen das (we can do this),” she announced.

Between 2015 and now, Germany has seen the least violence that can be traced back to the immigrants, unlike in France, whose attitude along its borders has been rather brutal.

I had always assumed that we were a strong country, unafraid. We have invited, visited, hosted and dealt with so many people in the world over the millennia. Turks, Afghans, Arabs, Uzbeks, Persians, Burmese, Chinese, among others. We even have a word for Cambodia: Kambujadesa.

In everything we eat, and in every language we speak, we taste and hear another culture. In fact, this alloy that is India is what makes Indians unique. Nicely mixed up. Nothing should really bother us.

Islamophobia on rise  

Civilisation is a mix of changing traditions, enforced purity is barbarism.

But we have become xenophobic. Muslims have become a threat. We fear their population will increase, and they will take over India. Some people tell us that. But it’s worth checking.

About 14.2% of the population of India are Muslim. This figure has not increased over most of the last decade. They number 195 million or so.

Most Muslims have low literacy rates, a higher degree of landlessness than any other social group. Only second to the Dalits in land-holding. The mean years of schooling are low, the percentage of graduates are lower than in other social groups in India.

Indian Muslims

Muslims hold pigeons during a march to celebrate India’s Independence Day in Ahmedabad, India, August 15, 2016. Photo: Reuters/File Photo

Muslims are hardly represented in corporate boards, or among the wealthiest Indians. Most of them are occupied in the informal labour sector, petty businesses, and artisanal industries.

But over the years, sustained Islamophobia, especially in India, has made the situation of Muslims worse.

Also read: Time to Wake Up and Smell the Bigotry

Why are we so frightened of Muslims? Of an already deprived and poor population, with little strength or wherewithal to even go anywhere?

Could Modi not emulate Merkel and say, proudly, Wir schaffen das? Hum sambhalengey!

No. Instead, at an estimated cost of Rs 300 crore, a Ram temple in Ayodhya will  be built. A a grand inaugural ceremony was held with Modi doing the honours. When? On August 5, 2020. The same day as the scrapping of Article 370 in Kashmir.

Two historic moments to be celebrated together. Saves time. Saves money.

Evokes new emotions, though they vary among the people.

It’s not very different with Dalits and the Adivasi people. They have been getting short-changed too. From colonial times to the present.

To correct an injustice meted out to the Adivasi people and forest dwellers since historical times, the Forest Rights Act (2006) was enacted. The implementation was completely left to civil society groups. The government shows total apathy to this Act, and from time to time abets the corporate sector to break the law. In effect, it tramples over the rights of its marginalised peoples, the Adivasis and Dalits.

After a decade and a half, less than 10% of what’s enunciated under FRA has been implemented. And wherever it has been implemented, it is because a civil society group is there to help and support the Adivasi community. It is not the state’s concern.

But the forest peoples are seen as a nuisance, occupying vast stretches of land under which lie resources. Coal, bauxite, uranium, iron. And NGOs and some civil society groups who support Adivasi and human rights have come in the way, raising questions.

Questions that should be asked and answers sought. About digging up the land. About fouling our rivers. About dispossessing people who have nowhere to go. These are not the state’s concerns.

This is where civil society comes in. With increasing difficulty.

Increasing curbs on NGO activities

For more than a decade now the Indian government has been making NGO work difficult. The technique employed is to raise the cost of compliance, much of it patently absurd, and time-consuming, and a drain on energy. The recent amendment to the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA), along with rules, is a step further down the road to minimise dissent. Now there is talk of an official NGO regulator.

COVID-19 has shown how civil society groups across the country have been more efficient than the government. They have done what it takes to reach out to people in remote areas of the country. And to those who have walked miles across the country.

migrant workers covid 19

Migrant workers collect free food at a community kitchen during the lockdown in Prayagraj, April 14, 2020. Photo: PTI

All due to the callousness of a state for which the fundamental rights of marginal peoples are of fleeting importance. That’s for election-time.

Dissent is already minimal within the parliament. Now it will reduce outside too.

Three major changes are enforced by the FCRA amendment. Bank accounts need to be opened in a State Bank of India branch in Delhi. Re-transfer of foreign grants between NGOs is no longer allowed. And a cap of 20% of the total grant has been fixed on administrative costs.

It’s the clause banning re-transfer of funds that hits the NGO sector hardest. As it ruptures the collaboration between NGOs of varying capacities working towards similar causes.

It destabilises the adaptive and vibrant way many networks function, with one central administrative secretariat, allowing the NGO partners to concentrate on ground-level work. Urgency and efficiency are crucial in grassroots work.

Also read: ‘FCRA Being Used to Crack Down on NGOs, But Why No Transparency on PM-CARES?’

Many of the country’s rural and grassroots NGOs are not capable of following the norms required by foreign donors, or the new FCRA amendments. Nor should they be required to.

Why not improve the “ease of doing business” for NGOs? It’s an equally important business for what’s left of the Indian democracy. The funds the sector receives is only 5% of that which comes in as foreign direct investment.

Some figures may help. Ninety percent of the registered NGOs do not receive big grants. 82% of them receive grants of less than Rs 1 crore annually. The NGO sector as a whole received Rs 16,343 crore in 2018–19. In 2018–19, 4,107 NGOs received re-grants, of a median value of Rs 7.6 lakhs, meaning that half of these NGOs received less than this amount.

These are not big amounts. No comparison to the brakes and compliances being imposed.

The FCRA amendment will sideline grassroots work across rural and tribal India. These are the areas where people lack sanitation, health care, education, and basic food and nutritional security. With a defunct civil society and a toothless press, we will stop hearing about all this.

We will not hear how the land given back by POSCO in Jagatsighpur is now sought after by Jindal. The people protesting the takeover of their land have been denied the basic amenities through the difficult days of the pandemic.

Not about how 13,000 trees that a tribal community nurtured and protected in Talabira were felled to make way for Adani’s coal mine, while we promise increased carbon stocks in the Paris Agreement.

And not about the people of a village in Bastar who prevented their trees from being looted by a timber mafia posing as a religion.

With a majority in both houses of parliament and popularity that was unheard of among other leaders, it is puzzling why the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have shown such apathy and fear in facing dissent.

True confidence in a leader is contagious and instills optimism in people. Then dissent is not shunned but voiced without fear, as the leader listens. There is space for discussions, for dialogues, for consensus.

Dissent is not countered with an attitude of ‘who are you to tell me what to do?’ It is the cornerstone of democracy.

Shooting the messenger 

India has been ranked 142nd out of 180 countries by the Press Freedom Index this year. In response, our minister for Information and Broadcasting tweeted, “Media has the power to inform and enlighten people. Media in India enjoy absolute freedom. We will expose, sooner than later, those surveys that tend to portray bad picture about ‘Freedom of Press’ in India.”

Also read: The Fate of Press Freedom in India Over the Years

It’s not as if we are disputing a photo-finish in a 100 metres dash. We have scraped ahead of Pakistan and Cambodia, and rub shoulders with Mexico and Eswatini.

Our press is in serious trouble and we do not want to accept we have a problem. Not only that, the minister’s denial ironically comes with a veiled threat.     

Environmental concerns ignored

The Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) draft 2020 is yet another matter. It concerns the environment of India, assesses projects before they are implemented. We know that most assessments have been a pretence. That they have been little more than paperwork, a formality, with little link to what happens on the ground.

mining

Trucks move in the Mahanadi coal fields, near Talcher town in Odisha, March 28, 2012. Photo: Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri/File Photo

Yet, a formality too is a straw to grasp, a mirage that might just become real. We held on to it.

But the draft EIA 2020 has taken away even that. It has recommended that projects may be assessed for their impacts after they commence. That is, we can discuss the impact of a blasted mountain or a dammed river after it happens. It makes little sense.

The draft was released for comments some months before it was to be finalised. Quite unusually, only in Hindi and English, not in the regional languages, even the scheduled languages. Yet, 17 lakh responses came in, asking the ministry not to go ahead with such a draft.

India has a vibrant and sound environmental movement. They know and care for the state of the country’s environment and its state of affairs. Most of them responded to the Draft.

Also read: Why the Draft EIA’s Plan to Ease the Approval Process for Projects Is a Bad Idea

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has raised several points about the draft and has asked India to reconsider the matter. It is not a matter to be taken lightly.

But the environment ministry denied the allegations, said that the draft does not violate any international green commitments, and said that it was to remove “redundancies” and bring “defaulters to the environmental regime” to book.

There was also a backlash on activists who expressed reservations against the draft. An environmentally conscious nation would have honoured them instead.

Protests, proofs, warnings make no difference to the decisions made in India. Nor do UN observations about India’s state of affairs. Ignore, then deny, then threaten or clamp down on dissent. There is a brazenness in the way the administration functions that leave us helpless. It does not matter whether criticism comes from within or without.

Upfront media is relegated to a kind of record-keeping. They are documenters of the time when, as the constitutional scholar Gautam Bhatia says, the Supreme Court of India is the ‘executive court of India’.

The best of satire came from times like this. As writers and citizens, we will manage these strange times too.

Wir schaffen das!

Madhu Ramnath is a botanist, anthropologist and writer. He is the author of Woodsmoke and Leafcups.