Attack on Greenpeace India is an attack on free speech

[This is an AHRC Statement.]
The announcement by Greenpeace India of its imminent shutdown is saddening. However, it was only a matter of time. How long could the organization have continued running with its bank accounts frozen and with a ban on foreign funds? That this has happened after the Delhi High Court’s judgments in two cases related to the government’s crackdown on Greenpeace India is telling on how the Modi government views dissenting voices in India.
The second of these judgments has arrived against the union government’s attempt to muzzle dissent by restraining Priya Pillai, a Greenpeace activist, from travel to the U.K., on account of her creating a “negative image” of the country. The judgment is unequivocal:
“Criticism, by an individual, may not be palatable; even so, it cannot be muzzled. Many civil right activists believe that they have the right, as citizens, to bring to the notice of the state the incongruity in the developmental policies of the state. The state may not accept the views of the civil right activists, but that by itself, cannot be a good enough reason to do away with dissent.”
The judgment goes on to state, “Contrarian views held by a section of people on these aspects cannot be used to describe such section or class of people as anti-national…. If the view advanced on behalf of the respondents is accepted, it would result in conferring uncanalised and arbitrary power in the executive, which could, based on its subjective view, portray any activity as anti-national”. This kind of action by the executive is unacceptable in a democratic republic, the Court has ruled.
The earlier judgement, delivered on 20 January 2015 is even more unambiguous in criticising the government’s attempt to suffocate the organization by drying up its funds. It clearly states that there is “no material on record to restrict the petitioner (Greenpeace India Society) from accessing the bank account with IDBI bank in Chennai," and observes that the "amount in fixed deposited [sic.] in the bank be unblocked and transferred to the NGO's account”.
The government of India has, clearly, been in no mood to listen and has responded to the Court directive by suspending the FCRA registration of Greenpeace India and freezing all its accounts on grounds termed by the organization as “arbitrary”. The government has, however, attributed the decision to the failure of the organization to inform the authorities concerned about the transfer of foreign contributions received in the designated FCRA account and from that account to other ones.
Though answering these allegations and challenging them legally is Greenpeace India’s job, the crackdown is clearly aimed at sending a categorical message to the civil society at large, more so those opposed to aggressive “development” policies being adopted by the current regime at huge human and environmental cost. Many of the these projects have resulted in displacing communities and accelerating deforestation and the government’s singling out of Greenpeace is perhaps because the organization has successfully stalled several such projects, the Mahan projects in Madhya Pradesh being the most recent.
More sinister than the crackdown on Greenpeace India, is the arbitrariness of the allegations the government has made against the organisation. There is no doubt that the government can take action against any legal or financial irregularity committed by any organization. But, taking such action on the grounds that the organisation is adversely affecting “public interest” and/or the “economic interests of the state” opens a Pandora box where anything, as Delhi High Court observed, can be declared antinational.
It is in this context that the Indian civil society must resist the attack on Greenpeace India with all its might. It is not a mere organization but the overall democratic framework of the country that is at stake now. This is thus also a wakeup call for the Indian civil society to put its own house in order. It must remember how easily the government could cancel the licenses of a whopping 8,975 non government organisations not on the easily challengeable “adversely affecting public interest” ground but for failing to file annual returns for the years 2009-10, 2010-11, and 2011-12 in a row, and then failing to do the same within a 30 days notice period. Though this failure does not presume any guilt or wrongdoing, it does give the State a stick with which to silence dissent.