The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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To appear just is sometimes as good as being so. The Communist Party of India (Marxist), whether it intended to or not, may have somewhat reassured nervous non-governmental organizations by a decision made at the party congress. No member of the party will be allowed to run an NGO on overseas money. Even when drawing funds from government schemes, the socially enthusiastic member would need the party's permission to run the NGO. Besides, any member connected with an NGO would have to submit detailed accounts to the party. It might be asked why NGOs should be reassured by this. After all, the strictures have been pronounced because many members of the party, from the politburo to the legislature in West Bengal and Kerala, are connected with or are running NGOs. They do not file accounts with the party and their lifestyles, claim in-house detractors, have been seen to change. This controversy blew up in Kerala, and the latest set of instructions is the result.

In spite of the refreshing air of uprightness, there is something faintly ridiculous about the entire situation. It is really the manifestation of a dilemma the CPI(M) is in, which in turn springs from its ambivalent response to an institution of civil society that refuses to depend on the party's largesse. If rhetoric can satisfy, then NGOs may feel some relief, even temporarily, on two grounds. For one, the CPI(M) in West Bengal does not feel kindly towards NGOs, especially those which draw most or all of their funds from overseas agencies. While working 'in the field', NGOs often need the cooperation of government officials at various levels. The experience is not always pleasant: indifference, actual obstruction and even open hostility are not uncommon. The core of the problem is contained in the label: these are non-governmental organizations. And the work they do does not always endear them to a government settled in its ways for 27 years. 'Foreign' money and NGOs is a most unpalatable combination.

But this is only part of the story. Recently, members of the party, officials in government-backed institutions, have been creating new NGOs, apparently unconscious of the irony. This is unnerving for the NGO sector, with its possibility of the political state taking over a space in which civil institutions could mobilize change through work and pressure. In effect, it was seen as an effort to neutralize the impact of independent bodies and suppress critical comment and corrective work. Together with the promise held forth by the CPI(M)'s decision of curbing the unchecked advantage of party-controlled NGOs, there is also the decision to evaluate which NGOs are doing 'good' work and which are hostile to party-approved 'socialism'. Clearly, the effort to establish discipline within the party is one thing, allowing civil institutions independent space is quite another.

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