Civil society activists are not enemies of the State

What is the Indian State afraid of? A lot it seems including longish kissing scenes in movies, historical scholarship and dissenting slogans at universities, judging from recent controversies. Civil society activists heading to academic conferences also appear to have become fearsome entities for the establishment. Gladson Dungdung, a writer and human rights campaigner from Jharkhand, was stopped this week at Delhi airport and prevented from travelling to the UK for a conference on environmental politics at the University of Sussex.
The sequence, in Mr Dungdung’s narration, tells its own story. On hearing that Mr Dungdung was a researcher on human rights, the immigration officer left his seat and came back to tell the airline staff to offload the activist’s luggage. Mr Dungdung was informed that his passport is impounded. In fact his passport was impounded in October 2013 and restored in July 2014 and, according to the Ranchi passport office, “there is no problem whatsoever with his passport” as per its current records. Whether this is a problem of coordination between MHA and the MEA is unclear but clearly an official reflex about human rights activism has been instilled in the government machinery. Greenpeace campaigner Priya Pillai was also offloaded en route to a meeting with British parliamentarians in January 2015 but her travel ban was subsequently overturned by the Delhi High Court.
The Centre and state governments have to seriously rethink their approach to dissenting voices. Impounding passports of activists is an old bureaucratic practice which serves very little purpose other than embarrassing governments. These are public relations disasters regimes can do without and it should not be any surprise if such instances make their way into international reporting on India’s human rights. That activists highlighting environmental concerns or protesting the displacement of people by industrialisation projects are treated on a par with armed insurgents is to betray contempt for deliberative democracy. On the contrary, activism often serves as a helpful warning mechanism about social tensions that are prompted by government action. The establishment need not always agree with contrarian views but using blunt instruments against activists is unfair, unproductive and politically risky.

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