The excuse of “interference with domestic political debate” is just a flimsy fig leaf, and it just takes a quick, closer look to know that.
The Indian government — and not just the Indian government of the day — is no fan of Amnesty International. But which government is criticism-friendly, anyway?
At the very best, governments almost anywhere tolerate criticism and put on happy faces purportedly in support and celebration of free speech. However, no government really welcomes criticism because rarely are we, as people, happy with scrutiny and questions. And the government is not packed with angels from a nobler world. Nevertheless, it is not about what the government likes, or tolerates, or can tolerate, or what is good for the government, but about what helps governance and brings an increasingly just system of governance. What surely doesn’t help is silencing criticism and averting scrutiny, particularly by way of what can be best described as dubious enforcement of the laws through motivated deployment of the law enforcement machinery.
The international human rights watchdog accuses the Indian government of engaging in a witch-hunt targeting Amnesty International. On the other hand, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), Government of India, says that Amnesty circumvented the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) when “Amnesty UK remitted large amounts of money to four entities registered in India, by classifying it as Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). A significant amount of foreign money was also remitted to Amnesty (India) without MHA’s approval under FCRA. This mala fide rerouting of money was in contravention of extant legal provisions.”
The Ministry was also quick to point out in the press release that Amnesty International was granted permission under the FCRA only once “twenty years ago (19.12.2000)”, and since then the permission has been denied to it by successive governments despite repeated applications, due to which the organization had to down its shutters in India in March 2009 after the government kept declining its request to seek overseas funds.
Watch: Indian Government cracks down on vocal dissident NGO Amnesty India
The Indian government, speaking through the MHA, says that “Amnesty is free to continue humanitarian work in India”, but adds that “by settled law” India “does not allow interference in domestic political debates by entities funded by foreign donations. This law applies equally to all and it shall apply to Amnesty International as well.”
And that is the heart of the problem the government says it has with Amnesty International. Amnesty is a human rights watchdog; it’s not the Red Cross. The “humanitarian work” it does, involves investigating and reporting human rights violations, and those can be, in fact, are very likely to be, by or with the direct or indirect complicity of the government, and a report on human rights violation is bound to either ignite or feed into a political debate because such violations reflect on the performance of the government in terms of the maintenance of law and order, which is one of the primary functions of the state.
It might sound like the government is objecting to direct foreign interference in domestic politics, which would have been a perfectly fair and reasonable objection, had it really been the case. What the government is actually objecting to is criticism, and is using the pretext of “foreign interference” to shut down a source of loud and consistent criticism, which, due to the international reputation of the organization concerned, has a domestic as well as a global audience.
To understand this better, let’s ask a few questions and open this tightly packed bundle of “interference in domestic political debate” that is so often made to sound like a national security issue in the same bracket as military espionage. Organizations such as Amnesty International and Greenpeace put together reports on the issues of national importance much the same way as any investigative journalist would, and in the same way they also cite their sources. They can also be wrong in drawing their conclusions and may report lopsidedly, too, which is also what any investigative journalist might end up doing.
Naturally, Amnesty International, Greenpeace, and such organizations regularly invite governmental displeasure because they unearth and report inconvenient facts that do not reflect well on governments, which is precisely what responsible news organizations are supposed to do. The only difference between the likes of Amnesty International and a media organization conducting investigative journalism is that the former are funded not only by the domestic donations but also by overseas contributions and grants, which makes them more independent than the domestic media houses.
The Government’s Right to React
Now, let’s say they get something wrong, like any journalist might, is the government powerless to correct it? How does the government react to media reports that are incorrect in its view? It issues a clarification, and presents its own side of the story and the data supporting its position to refute the “incorrect reportage”. So what stops it from doing the same with regard to the reports by the likes of Amnesty International and Greenpeace? But why react to inconvenient reports, as and when they surface, when one can conveniently throw the inconvenient reporters out on the grounds of “interference in domestic political debate”? That’s far easier, and far more permanent, and takes far less in terms of resources than engaging in a truth-based debate, which might force the government to deal with the truths that it would rather not allow to come to public notice.
Let’s change the angle on this a bit, and ask a different set of questions, just to cover all the bases. If reporting on India’s “domestic political issues” is the same as “interference in the domestic political debate”, is there anything that stops the New York Times or the Washington Post or the Atlantic or the Guardian from reporting on India’s politics and doing exactly what Amnesty International has been purportedly stopped from doing? Don’t they actually report on Indian politics? Didn’t the New York Times call out Modi, India’s Prime Minister, no less, on blatantly lying about the existence of the “detention centers”? Didn’t the Time Magazine call Modi “India’s Divider in Chief”? And wasn’t the story then picked up by the mainstream Indian Media, and run and discussed over and over again? And don’t Indians read and take into account such reports in forming their political opinions? Besides, what’s wrong in considering multiple reports and opinions before making one’s own mind, no matter what the source? Doesn’t Indian media and even the current Prime Minister himself regularly comment upon the “domestic affairs” of other countries?
What can be construed as Interference in Domestic Politics?
In fact, it’s only in some cases that a comment even by a head of state on the internal affairs of a foreign country can be called interference in domestic politics or domestic political debate, which is when one state intends to actually interfere in the affairs of another country for its own gains. Else, any nation’s humanitarian problems can be a concern of any other human being, foreigner or not, head of state or not. However, a report by a media organization or any organization, for that matter, on the issue of national importance of any country cannot be dubbed “interference in domestic political debate”, for bringing to light anything of concern is almost never wrong, regardless of motivations. It might, at best, be called “participation in domestic political debate”, but not “interference”, for it’s a contribution to the debate and not an obstruction. But turning a blind eye, or suppressing unflattering facts is bad policy for a nation in all circumstances although it might be politically expedient in many circumstances to deflect, deny or attack the integrity or motivation of the reporter, or do all of it at once.
An organization with varied resources within the country and abroad is harder to suppress than a domestically funded organization because the latter kind is far easier to pressure, for all its sources of income are within the sovereign reach of the local government.
So, unless we want to intentionally turn our backs on hard facts in the name of, say, patriotism or nationalism or some such contorted excuse, it is hard to miss that such international organizations as Amnesty International and Greenpeace are targeted to suppress the information that could form the basis of an informed public dissent, and could cause a reversal of the political fortunes of entrenched powers. The excuse of “interference in domestic political debate” is just a flimsy fig leaf, if anything.