Govt crackdowns on youth and NGOs betray fear of emerging leadership

Except for the Emergency in 1975-77, no government has targeted political dissent as single-mindedly as the present one. While the state of Emergency was seen as exceptional, today the criminalisation of democratic resistance by the state has become a “normal” and continuous process. This is why the state’s attack on dissent appears far more egregious now. 

The latest onslaught are the amendments to the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) to choke Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs). The government has targeted citizens’ movements like “United against Hate” and Pinjra Tod as well as others who protested against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the state’s indifference to millions of urban migrant workers having to flee to their villages because of its ill-planned national lockdown. 

The heavy handedness of the government in invoking sedition and Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) against these youngsters has been shocking. The Modi government is not afraid of parliamentary Opposition parties which its electoral success has effectively marginalised in legislative fora. However, it seems fearful of the youth because the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) see a potent potential threat in this new crop of student and youth activists. 

The recklessness and idealism of youth makes them brave and confrontational in ways that parliamentary political parties cannot replicate. They are at the forefront of the agitations against atrocities against Dalits, against Hindutva’s cow vigilantes and opposed to the unfairness of the CAA. They poured into the streets waving the Indian Constitution, organised public readings from it and supported the hundreds of anti-CAA sit-ins that sprung up across the country

The political motivation of these youngsters is lofty, idealistic and transformative. Their aim is not to gain loaves and fishes of elected office, but rather to shape a new India. Because of this they pose a challenge to the BJP-RSS’s majoritarian project. After all, its future leaders are recruited from the same age-group and pool. If their ideological crop is to be protected, then potential challengers need to be weeded out. 

What the BJP-RSS combine seems to dread is the emergence of a coalition between rights activists with Dalits and Muslims. While Dalits challenge the Hindutva nationalist ideology from within as being unequal and Brahmanical in nature, Muslims challenge it for existential reasons. This political cocktail is perceived to be even more potent if left-wing rights activists are also involved, e.g. as in the Bhima Koregaon case. 

During its first term in office the Modi government did not seem certain about how to deal with the challenge of youth leaders– whether left-wing, Dalit or Muslim – who were critical of its policies. It was largely confined to campaigns of individual smearing such as “Kanhaiaya Kumar is anti-national”, “Rohit Vemula was not a Dalit”, Chandrashekhar Ravan and Jignesh Mevani are a threat to national security and Hardik Patel’s morals are questionable, etc. However, the gloves are off after its huge Parliamentary win in 2019. It seems to have a more comprehensive strategy to handle this challenge. 

Most of the recent arrests under the draconian UAPA have implicated those active in the anti-CAA protests in organising communal riots in North-east Delhi. They are all in their twenties such as Safoora Zargar (M.Phil. student of Jamaia Milia Islamia), Gulfisha Khatoon (recent post-graduate of Delhi University), Devangina Kalita and Ntasha Narwal (JNU students and activists of Pinjra Tod which came up to protest hostel fee hikes), Asif Iqbal Tanha (Jamia student), Meeran Haidar (Ph.D student from Jamia), Umar Khalid (former JNU student leader), and Sharjeel Imam (Ph.D. student from JNU). Each one has shown prominent leadership qualities. So have non-student activists from the peaceful anti-CAA protests like Shifa-ur-Rehamn (President of Jamia Alumni Association), Abdul Khalid Saifi and Athar Khan (members of “United against Hate”) and prominent faces of local anti-CAA movement like Shadab Ahmed, Tasleem Ahmad, and Mohammed Saleem Khan.

Even their mentors have been put on notice. Civil liberties ideologues and others who advised them to keep protests peaceful or assisted them in various ways like Harsh Mander, Rahul Roy and Saba Deewan, Swarajya Party leader Yogendra Yadav, Prof. Apoorvanand and office bearers of a fledgling, largely Muslim political party, the Popular Front of India, have been named in police charge-sheets. Now, NGOs and civil society organisations that have provided idealistic youngsters a forum are sought to be controlled through the FCRA restrictions. 

In its first term, the Modi government cancelled the licences of 20,000 NGOs in 2018 – some of whom had criticised the role of the Gujarat government and its then Chief Minister Narendra Modi, in the anti-Muslim riots of 2002. Curbs on grassroots activism of NGOs have been further intensified in Modi’s second term. 

In serving the under-served sections of society, NGOs create local support networks, foster local activism against mis-governance, instil social awareness amongst Dalits, tribals, Muslims, women and other poor people and provide them a step up in life. These roles bring them into direct competition with the agenda of the front organisations of the RSS who also address the same issues but within a majoritarian, Hindutva framework.

The recent amendments to the FCRA will cut off the link between larger NGOs receiving foreign funds legitimately and the smaller grassroots NGOs who collaborate with them in the fields of education, health and other public policy domains. Activists claim that limiting the administrative expenses of NGOs receiving funds from abroad from 50% to 20% of the grant will reduce the number of local youth activists they can employ. Greater surveillance will become possible by the new directive that FCRA accounts may only be opened with the State Bank of India’s New Delhi branch. 

In the “managed democracy” that India seems to be moving towards, there is only space for a single political vision. However, the hegemony of this vision backed by the Modi government is not going uncontested by youth. This, the Hindutva forces cannot countenance.

Twitter: @Bharatitis

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