stifling criticism

As government denounces ‘bad activist’ Priya Pillai in court, ‘good activists’ come to her defence

The Home Ministry tried to divide social campaigners by lauding some for never testifying before a foreign committee.

If the government is trying to divide social activists by invoking questions of national honour and sovereignty, its plan is not working very well. In an affidavit filed before the Delhi High Court last Friday, the government praised prominent social activists, including Medha Patkar, Nandini Sundar and Praful Bidwai, for never testifying before a foreign committee. That vote of approval was meant as a takedown of Greenpeace campaigner Priya Pillai. But Patkar, Sundar and Bidwai told Scroll.in that they object to this differentiation by the home ministry and expressed their support for Pillai.

“The MHA is basically trying to confuse the issue by making an invidious distinction between activists by saying that a majority of them are in principle opposed to appearing before foreign committees, which is not true,” said journalist and activist Bidwai.

Last month, the authorities at New Delhi airport prevented Pillai from boarding her flight to London where she was to testify before a British parliamentary committee about London-based multinational company Essar’s coal mining project in Mahan affecting local tribal people. In the affidavit, the home ministry justified its move of stopping Pillai, arguing that her testimony would have been “prejudicial to national interest”. The government is worried that Pillai’s statement would be included in foreign policy documents by governments that want to “subdue India’s increasing strength on global platforms”.

Obstructions along the way

Sundar, who is a professor of sociology at the University of Delhi, criticised the ministry’s rationale. “With the internet and all, even if you depose before an Indian committee, if it involves something that foreign countries find interesting, they will pick it up,” Sundar said. In this case, even though Pillai had been physically stopped, she appeared before the British committee via Skype.

Moreover, Sundar pointed out, Pillai has every right to bring the activities of a London-based company to the notice of British legislators. “The question here is: why is the Indian government so interested in defending the foreign companies’ right to exploit Indian resources and Indian adivasis” she said. “Are you concerned about your own resources, your own people and your own environment or the profits of foreign companies?”

The affidavit says that Patkar, Sundar and Bidwai along with Aruna Roy, PV Rajagopal and Admiral Ramdas have “relied on all the institutions of India’s vibrant democracy as provided for by the Indian constitution. They have protested through ‘dharnas’, fasts and marches, approached Indian Court at all levels, petitioned the State and Central government and its officials and extensively used the print and electronic media to make their views known. There is no restriction on the petitioner [Pillai] to use the same or similar routes”.

Patkar countered: “Every government has questioned us, stopped us, harassed us, attacked us, arrested us – so how can you say there is no restriction.” Patkar, in fact, appeared before the US Congress in its 1989 hearings on the Sardar Sarovar project, a fact that the home ministry has forgotten or chosen to ignore.

The ministry affidavit goes on to say, in words formatted in bold, that documentation arising from Pillai’s testimony would create a “misleading” depiction on India’s efforts to protect tribal rights especially at a time when the government is inviting foreign investors to India.

Informing the world

If the prime minister and chief ministers can approach international fora to plead for investment in the country then a citizen activist like Pillai had every reason to go to an foreign committee to protect indigenous rights, Patkar argued.

Bidwai took the same stand. “If you want an integrated world, you want investment from the West, and you want the whole world to take notice of your rising power, then the world has every right to demand accountability from you, whether on environmental issues or gross human rights violations as in Gujarat in 2002,” he said.

Two weeks ago, while asking for an affidavit from the government, the Delhi High Court had said that expressing a different point of view from the government does not amount to being anti-national.

In a statement, Pillai said: “We have filed cases in the High Court in Madhya Pradesh, the National Green Tribunal and in the local court in Waidhan. To ensure that Essar does not get away scot-free, I decided to speak to British MPs who are concerned about tribal rights. It is essential for them to hear the facts about Essar, a London registered company, and for them to express their opinion about UK companies violating Indian laws.”

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