The paranoia over Ford Foundation

There is an irony in the government’s crackdown on Ford Foundation that seems to have escaped most observers. In the 1960s, the principal critics of the Foundation were the Indian Left, which maintained a steady drumbeat of attacks on the Foundation and its projects in the country, along with a generalised attack on all such institutions which have played such a significant role in transforming the country. The critique really takes aim at NGOs and civil society institutions that provide depth to the Indian democracy. But their role in promoting education and agriculture has been forgotten.

NGOs and civil society institutions have played a vital role in promoting education and agriculture. Pic for representation/Thinkstock
NGOs and civil society institutions have played a vital role in promoting education and agriculture. Pic for representation/Thinkstock

The deeper motivation, however, seems to be the same. The Left believed that these groups were fronts for the US intelligence agencies and their aim was to undermine India’s non-aligned or independent status. The Sangh Parivar seems to now be mirroring this belief. It believes that its political trajectory is on the ascendant and the only forces that can undermine it are foreign powers — principally from the West. In this, there is a remarkable congruence between the government of India and the government of the People’s Republic of China, which, too, has cracked down on NGOs based on a similar belief.

During the Cold War, some western foundations did play a role in assisting their respective country’s political objectives. A closer look at the Church Committee revelations in the 1970s come up with little or nothing with regard to India. Indeed, Mrs Indira Gandhi was convinced she was being targeted by the CIA in the run-up to the Emergency, through the funding of Socialists and the Sangh Parivar by the US.

Ford Foundation, which has been around since 1951, seems to be targeted because it supported Teesta Setalvad, who has run an NGO seeking to prosecute those responsible for the 2002 Muslim massacres in Gujarat. You may argue there is no evidence linking Modi and his government to the massacres, but you cannot ignore the fact that the massacres did take place and that scores of people responsible for it haven’t been punished. Pushing for the application of the rule of law can hardly be considered a crime.

NGOs like Greenpeace can be pesky institutions, challenging the might of the state. But they play an invaluable role in holding up a mirror to the governance and societal institutions and aid in the process of their transformation. This is true whether it relates to reduction of hunger, community development, adult literacy, women’s empowerment, protecting the environment, caste discrimination, or exercise of arbitrary power.

As for Ford, one of its key roles was in encouraging the profession of economics by funding research and training institutions like the Institute of Economic Growth, Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics, the NCAER, IIMs in Ahmedabad and Kolkata. Among its earliest grants in the early 1950s was to set up training institutes for village extension workers, rural public health training centres, and for five agricultural colleges. So intense was the commitment that Foundation officers were sitting in on planning meetings of the Delhi University, which got massive funding of over Rs 5 crore to re-organise its library and its other schools. This was thrice what the UGC was offering for the five-year plan period. This is just a synoptic rendering of the role such institutions have played in Indian life.

The Foundation has not only helped nurture significant academic scholarship in India, but has also played a role in the intellectual life of the US itself. It helped create the Public Broadcasting Service and supported arts and humanities in the country; it promoted desegregation and voter registration of the Black people. Abroad, it has helped set up the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, and backed Palestinian NGOs. It has followed an essentially liberal agenda, which has been criticised by conservatives in the US. And now, we are seeing a similar phenomenon in India.

Neither the Left, nor the Right seems to have much confidence in the Indian people, who have displayed a feisty sense of independence, and nor do they realise that manipulating the politics of a vast and diverse country like India is not a simple task. It is one thing to back the Colour Revolutions in eastern European countries, which are the size of an Indian state, and quite another thing to deal with a country which is a continent in itself and is a flourishing democracy. And more often than not, such manipulation usually backfires — as was evident in the case of Iran in the 1980s and Ukraine today.

There is one thing the government and critics of foundations and NGOs fail to realise. India of 2015 is not the India of the 1950s or 1970s. We are a self-confident, resilient society with institutions that have gained considerable depth; communications technology has bound the country far more securely than it ever did in the past. More than that, we are also a transparent and open society where backroom deals and manipulation are not easy to implement.

The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi

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