The Indian government’s apparent crack-down on civil society escalated further yesterday, with an Australian Greenpeace activist refused entry to the nation apparently for political reasons.
It’s the latest in a string of offensives from the Indian government, which has so far unlawfully frozen Greenpeace’s international bank accounts, prevented an Indian activist from travelling to speak with British parliamentarians and now prevented an Australian man from entering the country without offering any explanation.
Aaron Gray-Block had been travelling to India on an Australian passport to meet with Greenpeace India staff and learn more about the sub-continental branch’s campaigns, and no doubt its struggles with the hostile authorities.
The court has already ruled twice in favour of Greenpeace after the government froze its funds and restricted Indian activist Priya Pillai’s movement.
“Our [Australian] colleague has a valid business visa, and yet he was prevented from entering India with no reason given,” said Divya Raghunandan, Greenpeace India’s Program Director.
“Free movement of people across the world is crucial to the work of business, as well as charities.
“Greenpeace International is a global organisation that helps to find solutions to environmental problems. There is absolutely no reason why one of its staff members should be treated in such an arbitrary way, and we expect the Ministry of Home Affairs to offer a full explanation.”
A spokesperson for Greenpeace India said Gray-Block’s passport was seized in India and only returned when he reached Kuala Lumpur on a flight organised by Indian authorities.
“The treatment of Aaron Gray-Block is just the latest in a series of attempts by the Indian government to obstruct Greenpeace’s work,” the spokesperson said.
The first time India’s Ministry of Home Affairs froze Greenpeace’s bank accounts, the organisation was forced into the Delhi High Court where in January this year Justice Justice Rajiv Shakdher reversed the government’s “untenable” decision.
“There [was]no material whatsoever on record which would justify declining [Greenpeace’s] request for allowing it access to its bank account,” Justice Shakdher ruled.
“Non-Governmental Organisations often take positions which are contrary to the policies formulated by the government of the day.”
The government has argued in court that Greenpeace’s campaigns, which focus on the dangers of coal and the struggles of Adivasis (ethnic or tribal minorities), are against the national interest.
It’s not just the courts that disagree. Civil society organisations in the world’s largest democracy have banded together to resist what they say is a concerted crackdown on dissent.
In May, Greenpeace joined nearly 150 other Indian NGOs in signing an open letter addressed to Prime Minister Nahendra Modi which expressed “deep concern at how civil society organisations in general and their support systems, including donors, are being labeled and targeted”.
The government’s decision to freeze Greenpeace’s international accounts last year was deemed unlawful in January but by April, the organisations domestic funds were frozen too.
Greenpeace claims the move is also illegitimate, and a punitive move to block its access to donations from 77,000 Indian citizens and starve it of funds while fresh legal wrangling is in play.
Late last month the Delhi High Court gave Greenpeace some reprieve, ordering the government to allow partial access to the funds so that the organisation can continue its basic functions after alarms were raised by Executive Director Samit Aich, who said Greenpeace could only survive for one more month.
The main case is still to be heard but the court’s firm rebukes have given heart to the broader civil society, which sees itself as threatened by precedents which would allow governments to act with impunity.
“This kind of coercive domestic environment being created under [Modi’s] watch does not augur well for the world's largest democracy, that professes aspirations to being a global leader,” they said in the open letter.
Freedom of association, collaboration and speech are key concerns, and Gray-Block is not the first person to have his movement restricted for what appears to be reasons of policy rather than law.
In March, the Delhi High Court was also forced to overturn a Ministry of Home Affairs travel ban used to prevent activist Priya Pillai from travelling to Britain.
Pillai was scheduled to speak with parliamentarians about a Greenpeace campaign against the Mahan Coal Block, which aimed to shine a light on alleged human rights abuses connected with the mining development in Madya Pradesh province.
The campaign attracted strong support from Amnesty International India, which slammed the government’s travel ban as an attempt “to disable an organisation for promoting the voices of some of the country’s most powerless people”.
According to Greenpeace the development would have destroyed 400,000 trees in Asia’s oldest Sal Wood forests and the livelihoods of 50,000 people. Ironically, the government has since backed away from the plan despite arguing in court Pillai’s advocacy was ‘anti-national’.
When the courts dismissed that claim, Justice Shakdher said restricting Pillai’s travel looked like an attempt to “muzzle” dissidents for advocating policies that the government finds “unpalatable”.
“The State may not accept the views of the civil right activists, but that by itself cannot be a good enough reason to do away with dissent,” he said in his judgement.
Yesterday Aich, Greenpeace’s Executive Director, dared the Home Minister Rajnath Singh to just “state it clearly” if all international staff of Greenpeace will now be prevented from entering the country.
The organisation had managed to survive to June because staff had offered to work without pay until the freeze is tried in court. But other civil society organisations have also supported Greenpeace by providing logistical support like office spaces.
“An atmosphere of hostility against civil society actors in a democracy,” the civil society organisations wrote to Prime Minister Modi.
“The uncertainty and insecurity created among communities across the country can only be to the detriment of our society and the government,” they wrote.
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