Why the government’s defence in the Priya Pillai case is not only unsound, but also self-defeating
By Madhav Chandavarkar
On January 11th, Greenpeace activist Priya Pillai was prevented from flying to London by immigration officials on the basis of a look-out circular issued by the Intelligence Bureau (IB). Pillai was on her way to the UK to speak before an All Party Parliament Group (APPG) on tribal affairs about how Essar Power, a company registered in Britain, was violating the human rights of tribal peoples in Madhya Pradesh. This restriction of Pillai’s fundamental rights created a furore in the country, especially in light of the persecution faced by Greenpeace after the controversial IB report that claimed that NGOs were “actively stalling economic development”. Greenpeace immediately filed the inevitable writ petition challenging Pillai’s off-loading in the Delhi High Court. The case is currently being heard, with the bench reserving its judgment until a later date.
This post will not delve into the legal validity of the actions of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) as that issue has been analysed by more able minds, and will indeed, be conclusively decided by the Delhi High Court. It instead factually and logically examines the arguments (if they can be granted such a lofty title) that the MHA put forward in its affidavit in defence of itself. It paints a ludicrous picture of global politics claiming that vested foreign interests seek to “subdue India’s increasing strength on global platforms”. The contentions raised by the counsel are rife with glaring issues; the facts are unfounded, the links drawn are tenuous, they reveal an archaic mindset, and the overall argument is self-defeating. If All India Bakchod wished to remind the country that they are more than just comedy roasters, they could simply parody the whole affair by reading out the affidavit verbatim.
The MHA’s defence, to put it in a nutshell, was national interest. It claimed that if Pillai had been allowed to “depose” before the APPG, it would have lead to reports on human rights violations in the UK (and somehow, automatically in the EU and US as well) that would have painted India in a negative light. These reports would have consequently damaged “India’s growth prospects, at a time when India is actively pursuing economic growth and development, which requires foreign direct investment and manufacturing capacity.”
Firstly, Pillai was not “deposing” as that would imply that she spoke before an official Parliament body; while APPGs are officially recognised and regulated by the UK Parliament, they are not a part of it. A simple Google search of “all party parliament group UK” links you to the page of the official website of the Parliament on All-Party Groups. You don’t even have to click on the link to read the description of them as “informal cross-party groups that have no official status within Parliament.”
Next are these reports on human rights violations that are apparently part of a “system of various ‘instruments of control’” by “some foreign nations/groups of nations” to “further their ‘core objectives of foreign policy” “masked in the cloak of protecting civil rights”. The MHA ascribes an importance to them that seems detached from reality. A negative report is painted as having as bad an effect on foreign investment as a poor rating by global credit agencies like Standard & Poor. Terming them as ‘instruments of control’, the affidavit actually refers to these reports as if they are ends in themselves. The MHA states how determined nations will use such reports to target India without describing why; the creation of these reports seems to trump other concerns like trade, security, or national interests when determining a country’s foreign policy.
The affidavit goes on to state that Pillai’s testimony would have had a “global cascading effect” as “all reports from various commissions and countries feed on each other and quote each other, thereby creating circular documentation”. The MHA seems to be under the impression that foreign governments and agencies function with the same cut-and-paste mentality of Bollywood scriptwriters, college students on Wikipedia, or even the Indian Government itself. For good measure, the MHA also states how these ‘instruments’ had been “used very recently against Iran, Russia and North Korea” because citing those countries to justify the restriction of human rights is always a valid argument.
The affidavit finally accuses Pillai of “travelling to UK with the clearly defined motive of carrying out a campaign against the Government of India in order to impact India’s image abroad” when she was actually campaigning against a British company that was allegedly violating Indian laws. It also singles her out for the ignominy of deposing before “a formal committee of a foreign parliament” when “other prominent Indian activists such as Medha Patkar, P V Rajagopal, ….. , Praful Bidwai, have never been known to have done so.” That Medha Patkar, has testified in front of the US Congress in 1989 again shows the MHA’s penchant for factual inaccuracy. The affidavit concludes by magnanimously offering to allow Pillai to travel abroad if she gives an undertaking not to express her opinions before foreign parliaments. Pillai thankfully, rejected the offer with disdain.
These are just some of the issues with the specific claims made in the MHA’s affidavit; the over-arching arguments fare much worse. As many people have already reported, the off-loading of Pillai did not prevent her from speaking before the APPG. In the modern age of the internet and Skype, a restriction on the movement of a person does not restrict the movement of their ideas. The MHA’s poor knowledge of modern communications was made more apparent when it stated that there were no restrictions on Pillai talking about the same information within India. The affidavit therefore started off on the wrong foot; it sought to justify a restriction of human rights when the purpose behind the restriction was never going to be achieved in the first place.
The second major logical flaw is in the crux of the argument itself. Let’s assume that these reports actually do directly hinder the potential of India’s economy to grow and attract foreign investment. The MHA’s proposed solution to reduce negative appraisals on the state of human rights in India is to, rather counterproductively, actively restrict fundamental rights. This bizarre strategy is a textbook example of a self-fulfilling prophecy, where attempts to avoid one’s fate end up actively taking you on a path towards it.
An appraisal of the affidavit leads to two possible conclusions; that the current government lacks either the mental capacity or the inclination to debate with dissenting points of view (both foreign and domestic in origin). Either of the two is disturbing enough, but the unfortunate reality is that it’s probably a combination of both. Also, given the mortal fear that the MHA seems to have of these reports as well as the fact that the reports cited are those that rate India low on religious freedoms, one begins to question the real nature of Obama and Modi’s supposedly bosom friendship.
Madhav Chandavarkar is a Research Associate at the Takshashila Institution. His Twitter handle is @MadChaP88