The audacious and unprovoked attack last week on a group of activists who held a peaceful rally in Rajasthan can only be explained in terms of the rising resentment on the part of the ruling class towards civil society organisations demanding accountability. Flagged off by social activist Aruna Roy, the Jawabdehi Yatra was aimed to spread awareness about government schemes and raise the issue of accountability in their implementation. A mob, allegedly led by BJP legislator Kanwar Lal Meena, attacked the members of organisations such as the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghathan (MKSS) at Aklera in Jhalawar district, in a sign that sections of the ruling party in the State were unhappy with civil society activists entering a region falling under a Lok Sabha constituency represented by Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje in the past and by her son Dushyant Singh now, and demanding answers from the authorities. While the police have registered a case and arrested some of the assailants, it was only after video footage showing the apparent presence of Mr. Meena in the crowd was released that there is a hint that his involvement may be probed. The 100-day yatra, under the banner of the Soochana Evam Rozgar ka Adhikar Abhiyan, itself was as innocuous a programme as there could be. It merely tried to cover blocks across all the State’s districts to listen to people’s grievances and spread awareness through street-corner meetings. The Rajasthan Chief Minister would do well to heed the call for a formal inquiry into the incident, come out openly in condemning such unsavoury events, and prosecute the offenders.
It is difficult to see this incident in isolation. The Centre itself has been a poor role model, looking at the way Greenpeace India has been hounded and its registration sought to be cancelled. It is not difficult to surmise that a message is being sent out that activism should be tempered by a nuanced deference to the state’s overarching interests. Even under the previous UPA regime, activists in Tamil Nadu opposing the Kudankulam nuclear power project faced, and continue to face, hostile treatment by various arms of the state. If bureaucratic aversion to criticism is often an adequate source of harassment and intimidation, political players too weigh in with disparaging remarks against non-governmental organisations and individual activists. Their influence is obvious in incidents as diverse as the prevention of a Greenpeace activist from going abroad and the registration of a large number of cases against activists. In recent years, civil society has played a significant role in shaping policy. Landmark pieces of legislation — the Right to Information Act, for instance — have come about only because the government chose to involve stakeholders across the political and social spectrum and obtain their inputs and advice. Any attempt to prevent the free functioning of such organisations will amount to de-legitimising key participants and stakeholders in the country’s social, economic and political policymaking sphere.