Info Change India



Last updateSat, 22 Jul 2017 6am

You are here: Home | Governance | Governance | Small World | Stirred by a foreign hand?

Stirred by a foreign hand?

How states relate to dissent is a litmus test for how they relate to civil society writes Swarna Rajagopalan. At Koodankulam, the state targeted NGOs, raised the old bogey of the ‘foreign hand’, and securitised the issue, taking it beyond the realm of debate

Kudal Commission
  • In mid-February 2012, the Voluntary Action Network of India (VANI) drew attention to the targeting of NGOs in the name of scrutinising their IT exemption and FCRA (Foreign Contribution Regulation Act) permission status. Some of the organisations which had received notices or had accounts frozen included venerable (and indigenous) civil society actors like Seva Mandir in Udaipur and the Society for Participatory Research in Asia which works with panchayats around the country. (1)
  • For over a decade, people in Koodankulam have been questioning whether the Russian-aided nuclear plant located there is safe or a viable choice. Matters came to a head last year when the plant was about to start work. Protests have intensified in recent months, gathering support across the country. The prime minister stated on February 24, 2012 that foreign agencies based in the US and Scandinavian countries were backing the protestors. The ‘foreign hand’ re-entered Indian political discussions after a brief absence. (2)

For those of us who grew up in the 1970s, the ‘foreign hand’ is an old bogeyman. Everything bad that happened in India was at some point attributed to foreign meddling. A not-quite-decolonised Indian mind expressed its xenophobic worldview in this paranoid manner—closing out foreign products, foreign researchers, foreign funding, and foreign volunteers. This mindset lingers, and sometimes the anti-liberalisation rhetoric of the mostly leftist Indian intelligentsia recaptures its essence—intentionally or otherwise.

The ‘foreign hand’ issue is one way in which the push-pull relationship between state and civil society expresses itself. Political science posits the state and civil society in a relationship whose potential spans all possibilities but is usually at least mildly antagonistic. In fact, civil society is often charged with the task of keeping the state accountable. The state, on the other hand, is charged with protecting sovereignty, which is interpreted as anything from protecting territorial integrity to limiting the interaction of citizens with the outside world through multiple means to censoring the flow of ideas. Where civil society and state find many ways to cooperate in the development and social sectors, the default setting on political and security matters appears to mutual suspicion.

This column will unpack the complex of concerns that make the ‘foreign hand’ bogey such a powerful political tool. There are at least three strands of questions we can raise here. The first strand relates to civil society, its role and its practices. The second relates to the state and its ways of dealing with dissent. Globalisation is the third strand.  

Civil society

One of the interesting things to emerge in the last year is how much scepticism there is in the public about NGOs. Throughout the Lokpal debate, one of the sticky questions related to whether NGOs should be brought under the ambit of such an ombudsman or not. Over and over again, one heard about NGOs ‘getting’ a lot of money and misusing it. This comes from many factors: a view that social service should be accompanied by ascetic lifestyle choices, rooted maybe in tradition; the visibly large budgets of large NGOs and their state-like administrative structures; lack of transparency in NGO governance; the commonplace that foreign funding agencies set the developmental agenda; and given the large size of the sector, possibly the difficulty of finding one office through which to seek accountability. The aspersions are cast by both state voices and by other voices in civil society, which use them to challenge the credibility of different views.

The social sector is now extremely diverse.(3) Many individuals working in the social sector now earn liveable salaries, although they are still lower than those in the market sector. They work in proper offices with career paths. They use the language of business (clients, stakeholders), and they adopt some of their practices in accounting and marketing. How can they possibly be selfless social change workers? Aren’t those people supposed to look like the frail, fasting Gandhians of another time or the grassroots-worn workers of another decade? A legacy of associating renunciation and asceticism with service sits in contrast with the reality that most social workers live in the real world and have to pay real bills, raise real families and face real crises.

The reality is that NGOs are proliferating and the myth is that they are all being founded and funded by outsiders. They are not. It takes a lot of resources to garner a lot of resources—from people to write proposals to people to keep complicated accounts to people to apply and follow-up on the many legal hoops you have to go through. Each part of this is time-consuming and unless you have a lot of seed money, there really is no way to purchase the human resources that this takes. And most organisations don’t start with seed money. They start with an idea or an identified need. They start with a small group of people who want to make a big change. And most of them blunder along, just as their ‘stakeholders’ do, from month to month, programme to programme. This is partly why corporate governance standards—now seen as a way to reform NGO governance practices—are so hard to propagate for this sector. Who is there to do the work and who is even there to read the reports? I know as a person who runs a small non-profit (true confession) that in spite of our best intentions and efforts, it is hard to retain enthusiasm when we ask ourselves this question.

Vulnerability to foreign influence is arguably at both ends. The larger agencies are often country branches of transnational NGOs. And for anyone seeking a front for any activity, the smaller ones are the easiest to imitate. For anyone seeking to undermine the credibility of civil society, it becomes really easy to tar organisations at both ends with the same brush. ‘Foreign hand’, ‘foreign funds’, ‘terrorist front’ etc are easy allegations to levy in this age. And like any act of securitisation, they evoke easy credulity. It’s also true that one survival strategy of NGOs across the spectrum is to ‘follow the money’. Find out what people are funding and write a proposal to match that, leaving a little room for what you want to do, I often hear. And it does make sense at some level, except that more often that not that contortion effaces your own identity and vision. Everyone does the same kinds of programmes and sounds the same. That soon becomes the orthodoxy of the social sector and there is strong peer pressure to conform. Except wait, this is not college; this is the world where people style themselves ‘changemakers’.

The social sector’s own response has been to adapt, adopt and propagate corporate standards on governance.(4) This involves communicating the importance of good governance to non-profits. There are also incentives; when an organisation is certified as following good governance practices, it also encourages donors. Or that is the idea behind portals like GiveIndia which have stringent norms for those seeking to register. Together, the various laws and rules of taxation and the growing acceptance of certain norms in the sector limit the scope for ‘wrongdoing’ far more than people think.

State and dissent

The second strand of questions relate to the state—government, its rules and regulations and its enforcement capacity.

How states relate to dissent is a litmus test to find out how they relate to civil society. Even when civil society groups are not always opposed to the state, they find themselves in positions where they can challenge the state or hold it accountable. Civil society groups can offer platforms for the government to engage with citizens at large, if they respond to dissent by entering into discussion and debate. At Koodankulam, there was an opportunity to open up an overdue pan-India conversation about nuclear energy, energy conservation, power needs and development. This was a conversation that could have started in countless other locations where people have protested nuclear plants or large dam projects. After the consequences of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami last year, it was inevitable that around the world these debates would reopen. Had the government responded with openness, the energy and development debate -- and democracy -- would have benefited.

But it seems hard for states to show imagination in these circumstances. It is always possible that engagement would have brought the state a favourable outcome. But never ever conceding that possibility, turn by turn the central and state governments have chosen to see this as an us-versus-them situation. Should the protestors at Koodankulam (or Jaitapur or anywhere else) gain a point, the government must be seen as losing face. One way to wrest the advantage in this situation is to securitise the situation, and this has been the government’s response over and over in the face of even mildly expressed dissent.

What does it mean to securitise an issue? (5) It means that you take it from its own space in the political realm into a zone demarcated ‘security’, an act which immediately accords it importance and urgency, which entitles it to greater resource allocation and most important, from our point of view, sets it beyond the realm of dissent and debate. Securitisation is always tactical. States are not the only people who securitise policy questions; civil society does too. To talk about gender security or gender violence as insecurity, or to discuss farmer suicides in terms of livelihood security, are both examples of securitising these issues. The hope is that when I say that the pervasive threat of gender violence is a fundamental source of physical insecurity, I will draw attention to that threat, draw resources to addressing it and raise its place on a policy agenda. When I say something is a source of insecurity, I am also positing that as axiomatic; to challenge it is to compound the insecurity. Energy, but especially nuclear energy, is a great example of the state securitising something to take it out of the realm of public debate. Because nuclear energy has been so lifted out of the realm of public discussion, most of us do not know much about it; feel incompetent to challenge authority figures; and it is easy to impugn those who do ask difficult questions as being against the state. It is not the human search for security that is inimical to democratic politics; it is the tendency to securitise policy that is.

The other response that is made by the state is to set up inquiries into the activities and finances of NGOs and civil society actors. One example is the Kudal Commission which was set up to investigate Gandhian organisations in the mid-1970s. Yes, the state should enforce its laws and ensure compliance to its rules and regulations. But the starting assumption should be that the person being investigated is innocent, not guilty. When it comes to dealing with dissent, the timing, manner, and now publicity, surrounding the allegations and investigation suggest otherwise.

But let us not single out the state and its agencies for vilification. Governance is the art of balancing diverse needs and interests and politics is the medium for working out those differences. In the case of energy policy, a government has to contend both with the genuine concerns of people who will live and work around a nuclear reactor as well as the needs of the people in that entire region who are meant to benefit from its output. We need to recognise that reality. The government’s development mandate is not an easy one and is full of very hard choices. Good governance lies in turning those challenges into democratic opportunities, taking the time for consultations, taking the trouble to be transparent and resisting the temptation to take the short-cuts offered by securitisation.


Fear of the foreign hand is particularly strange in an age we describe as experiencing ‘globalisation’. It is no cliché that the world is shrinking; we are interacting and learning from each other on an unprecedented scale. There have been other ‘global’ moments in human history but arguably none so intense. The very rationale for this column is that we live in an age where flow describes our reality (at every level in society, in every corner of the world) far more than the self-contained state boxes of just a few decades ago. From people to viruses, information to money, weapons to chartbusters—state borders seem to exist only as pretend impediments to their flow. A popular passage by Ralph Linton written in 1937 presages today’s far more interdependent world.(6)

In other words, today, wherever you are in the world, the foreign hand is present. On September 9, 2001, when the World Trade Centre was attacked, people from 69 countries lost their lives. On the road in rural India, you can buy Britannia biscuits and Maggi noodles and now, Lay’s chips—sold and consumed by people whose proximity to the Swiss Alps is limited to song sequences in Hindi films. Or not. In South Asia’s middle class, including the families of government officials who make and implement rules about foreign-ness and the families of activists who protest globalisation—are members who are abroad to study, to work, to be with non-resident spouses and foreign-born children. Sinhalese children who don’t speak Tamil want to understand the words of Hindi film songs. The point is, paranoia about things foreign is a little misplaced in these times—whether it emanates from the state or civil society.

States exist in part because other states recognise them and their identity as such derives from the existence of a particular global system of states. They have official and unofficial interactions with others. A given state is charged with looking after matters within certain boundaries. That somehow morphs over time into becoming guardianship of the boundaries themselves. There is a greater interest in stopping things from coming in and going out than looking after people and things within. It is as if all states are doing a fine job and problems only exist because they come in from the outside. Which is not true, of course.

Nor do I find civil society reasonable in its paranoia about things foreign/ western/ global. Many of us who constitute its most vocal corner would ourselves fail an authenticity test. We are shaped by language, ideas, technologies, work-styles and yes, funding that is not entirely indigenous. Our non-profits may not receive foreign funding, but we may have benefited from the presence of a USIS or House of Soviet Culture library in our formative years. Moreover, the question of authenticity is a can of worms. As Sri Lankans have discovered, you can keep going back in time to find and reinterpret origin and authenticity, only to find the present blowing up in your face. The point is, in this day and age, is it honest or realistic to expect that anyone, any activity or any thinking would be untouched by the world outside? I think not. Buddhists describe this as ‘interbeing’. Political scientists describe it as ‘interdependence’. The reality is that we are because of each other, we shape each other, we make and break each other, and we stand or fall together. And mostly, we are each of us, okay with this. It only bothers us when we think it causes people to disagree with us. Both state and civil society—in India today—are intolerant of dissent, but the difference is that the state has the capacity to express that through legitimised violence. For the state, the foreign hand is fine for technical assistance, voting support, tourism and trade, employment of Indians abroad, but not for ideas and politics. For civil society, the foreign hand is fine for conferences and projects, for networking and social networks, for the technologies used for documentation or dissemination, but dubious for development projects and political debates.


I want to conclude by asking three questions about state and civil society in India, in the context of globalisation.

First, what sort of civil society do we want? Do we want civil society to be just charitable organisations or those that will engage with civic issues? Do we want them to hand out money and goods and support good works? We might want them to be engaged in the business of social change, but inevitably that work is political. Even when you are raising awareness about street sexual harassment, it’s not just about an individual harasser and victim. It’s about changing social and legal structures that make harassment acceptable, and it’s about the design and safety of public spaces so that the vulnerability to violence is reduced. Ditto with the development sector, at the core of whose work are issues of distributive justice. How do you not confront injustice or debate priorities in this work, and if so, how can it not be political?

Second, why are we so afraid of the foreign hand? Is the reality that we are not confident of our own strength and resilience? Indian history weighs heavily on Indian shoulders. Much of it is narrated in terms of Indian disunity which facilitated outside conquest, occurring like a refrain in every age. The quieter story is the one where people travelled, migrated, intermarried, traded, shared and created new Indian realities in every age. This is the resilient ‘palimpsest’ that Nehru wrote about, and from which we should derive confidence in our adaptability and resilience. Equally, we should have confidence in our own ability to debate and adapt anything to suit our interests or needs. That too, we seem to lack.

Somewhat related to this last point is my final question: what is the relationship we want between civil society and state? Western political science has posited this potentially antagonistic relationship, in which theorists like Joel Migdal have written about degrees of mutual autonomy. In India, the ‘state’ has always been embedded in and subservient to ‘society’. Even eschewing many aspects of this traditional arrangement, there is one we can insist upon and retain: the right of society (read, citizens, maybe directly, maybe through civil society organisations) to engage with state decision-makers and the accountability of the state to society.

Infochange News & Features, April 2012

(1)  Sreelatha Menon, NGOs cry 'witch-hunt' after tax notices, Business Standard, February 21, 2012; NGOs based in hostile countries a source of terror funds: Government, Economic Times/ PTI, December 7, 2011; Annapurna Jha, NGOs flay ‘archaic’ FCRA norms, The Pioneer, March 28, 2012
(2) Dinesh Sharma, Foreign hand nuking Tamil Nadu nuclear power project, says Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, India Today, February 24, 2012; Prabir Purkayastha, A Foreign Hand in Kudankulam or a Failure of Governance? Newsclick, March 1, 2012
(3) The best mapping of the social sector that I read was by Dr. Rajesh Tandon of PRIA, Voluntary Action, Civil Society and the State, Mosaic Books, Delhi, 2002, which is accessible at
(4) See Mark Sidel, The Guardians Guarding Themselves: A Comparative
Perspective On Nonprofit Self-Regulation,  Chicago-Kent Law Review, Volume 80:803,  pages 814-822. Accessed at on March 27, 2012. See also: Vijay Nadkarni, Good governance in our own backyards, Agenda, November 2009,
(5) ‘Securitisation’ is a concept explored by security scholars based in Copenhagen and the UK.
(6) Ralph Linton. 1937. One hundred percent American. The American Mercury, 40: 427-429. United Nations Development Program. 'What is globalization?' Available at: and accessed at