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The Lonely Battle [of Activists]

by Manoj Mitta, 28 November 2010

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The Times of India, November 27, 2010

Journalists are unlikely to carry their messages to the rulers or offer to do scripted interviews with them. In the hierarchy of journalistic contacts, activists aren’t as sought after as corporate lobbyists. This, despite activists engaging in lobbying as well, if only for social causes.

Media discrimination against activists is symptomatic of the increasingly adverse environment in which they operate. Nowhere is this change more evident than in the dramatic drop in the profile of the activist-packed National Advisory Council (NAC).

When it was set up in 2004 under the stewardship of Sonia Gandhi, the NAC provided unprecedented scope to activists to influence public policy, that too from within. Sure enough, in the very first year of its existence, the NAC propelled the UPA-1 government to come up with the Right to Information Act (RTI) and National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA).

Though Sonia Gandhi heads it this time round too, the NAC in UPA-II has made no such breakthroughs. No longer does it enjoy the political clout it had during UPA-I. It no longer generates the political frisson it did when it was overseeing implementation of the UPA-I’s common minimum programme (CMP) alongside the Left parties.

For all its efforts, the NAC has not been able to break the deadlock on the much touted Bill to combat communal violence. Its weakened position has been laid bare by the watering down of the ambitious food security Bill.

Activists Aruna Roy and Jean Dreze, the moving forces behind RTI and NREGA, find themselves unable to pursue their mission to address the incongruity of an "emerging" India having millions of people with sub-Saharan nutrition.

The UPA-II’s untold story is that while Sonia Gandhi is still the one-person "Congress High Command", she counts for little in her capacity as NAC chairperson. The odds are stacking up against activists. This reinforces the charge bandied about by left-wing groups that neo-liberalism is undermining the government’s professed commitment to inclusive growth.

More than ever before, social concerns seem to register, whether with the government or the media, only when there is a "sexy" angle to them. A case in point is the sudden concern over the diversion of funds allocated to scheduled castes in the run-up to the Commonwealth Games (CWG).

In the spate of negative stories that appeared then on CWG, the media highlighted the concern raised by activist Paul Divakar about the violation of "the special component plan for scheduled castes". Though he has been compiling such statistics for years on Dalits being denied their due, Divakar never got this kind of attention, from the media or government, till he could link it to the splurge on CWG.

Not all activists had the benefit of such serendipity. And the adversities the activists faced this year were not only in the context of their larger battles for equity. Some activists find themselves in the dock for their acts of dissent. Take the vociferous demands from right-wing groups to charge writer-activist Arundhati Roy with sedition for daring to express sympathy for the growing azadi sentiment in Kashmir. The government declined to take any action against her, in keeping with the law laid down by the Supreme Court that no sedition case could be booked unless there was a call to violence. Yet, in a blow to free speech, a Delhi court on Saturday ordered the police to register an FIR against Roy and six others.

The proceedings against advocate-activist Prashant Bhushan are just as controversial. The SC initiated contempt proceedings against Bhushan for alleging, in a media interview, that half of the last 16 chief justices of India had been corrupt. But the apex court was in a quandary when Bhushan responded to its notice with an affidavit detailing the basis of his allegation against each judge.

Activist Teesta Setalvad is facing a nastier attempt to scuttle her campaign for justice for the victims of the Gujarat riots. She has been accused by an estranged associate, Rais Khan, of tutoring witnesses to attack chief minister Narendra Modi. This followed the ignominy suffered by Modi of being examined by the special investigation team (SIT) for his alleged complicity in the riots. The SIT probe against Modi and others had been ordered by the SC on a plea filed by Setalvad and victim Zakia Jafri. Earlier this month, an Ahmedabad court directed that Khan’s statement against Setalvad be recorded by the SIT.

Though activist Swami Agnivesh himself was not the target of any such attack, he suffered the shock of his interlocutor being gunned down in an alleged fake encounter. Maoist spokesman Azad was killed at a time when he and Agnivesh were in the process of working out the modalities of peace talks.

The range of problems faced by activists this year is a measure of the state’s hostility to civil society. The situation has been aggravated by the media’s indifference to them.