Dr Bharat Jhunjhunmara looks at the thin line dividing some NGOs and the state.
NGOs are nowadays considered to be an integral part of the "civil" society.
There are two breeds. Some take it upon themselves the responsibility of demanding
Right to Information from their governments, in protecting human rights against the
alleged excesses of the governments, and so on. The presumption is that the governments
are somehow "wrong" and the NGOs are the ones to set it right. The second
breed is of those engaged in planting trees etc. in cooperation with the government.
My problem arises only with the first breed. The question is whether these NGOs indeed
have a locus standi in the task of restraining the state.
The presumption is that these "selfless" organizations of the people can
restrain political parties from going berserk. They are seen as a bulwark against
the excesses of the state. Is such an eulogization justified? Probably not.
There is a fundamental flaw in such thinking. The problems of pol-itical parties
are inherent in all organizations. One cannot fight an allegedly corrupt organization
- the political party - by relying on another equally suspect organization - the
The case in favor of NGOs rests on the premise that they are "selfless",
while politicians are "selfish". But what exactly does this mean, selfless?
Does it mean that the person has no desires? Not really.
Every action that we undertake has a desire behind it. A missionary treats the poor
because he wants to reach closer to God. That too is a desire. The difference between
a missionary and a criminal is that the nature of their desires are different. We
must, then, examine the nature of desires.
The ancient Indian tradition has a fourfold classification of desires - physical
pleasures, wealth, social acclaim and self-realization. One desires physical pleasures
- eating food, for example - so one takes up a job. One desires wealth - to build
a business empire - so one sweats through the night watching the exchange rates.
Others desire social acclaim - to be received well by the "poor" - so they
distribute blankets to the street people. Yet others desire self-knowledge - or God
- so they meditate in the forests.
The question then is whether the desire of the NGOs is any different from that of
the politicians? Not quite. The politician makes a political party. He brings many
people together and leads them. He enjoys the fact that people listen to him.
So also the NGOs. The NGOs too bring people together. They enjoy the social acclaim
or power that public activism brings. Both desire social acclaim. Why else would
they create "organizations"? Organization equals power.
The NGOs claim that they are "serving" the people. Maybe. But why build
an organization in order to serve the people? There are many other ways of serving
the people. They could earn lots of money and distribute free clothes and food packets
to the needy. Or they could learn to play the flute to the poor children in the slums
and ghettos. But the NGOs will do no such thing because it does not bring them the
power and the social acclaim that they desire.
Moreover, the politicians too claim that they are serving the people. There is really
nothing to distinguish between them.
Now we may ask whether the NGOs can restrain the politicians? The basic problem is
that all organizations are inherently suspect. It is difficult to rein in one allegedly
corrupt organization - the political party - by establishing another equally suspect
organization - the NGO - because the latter is as open to corruption as the former.
If the political parties have degenerated, so have many NGOs. It is foolish to say
that one organization - an NGO - will remain pure while another - a political party
- is said to be necessarily corrupt.
That leaves us with the question of how the society may restrain the politician if
no organization can? This contradiction was resolved in the Indian tradition by positing
the concept of a brahmin (not to be confused with its degenerate form under the caste
system). The defining traits of the brahmin were the pursuit of self-knowledge, voluntary
poverty and non-possession.
This is best explained by an example: Alexander invaded India three centuries before
Christ. Mega-sthenes, the Greek ambassador to the Indian court of Pataliputra, has
narrated an incident. Alexander came to know of a sage called Dandamis and sent his
soldiers to fetch him. They said to Dandamis: "King Alexander, who is the sovereign
lord of all men, asks you to go to him, and if you comply, he will reward you with
great and splendid gifts, but if you refuse, will cut off your head."
Dandamis, unafraid, refused to go and said: "What Alexander offers me, and the
gifts he promises, are all things to me utterly useless; the things which I prize
are these leaves which are my house, these blooming plants which supply me with dainty
food, and the water which is my drink. Should Alexander cut off my head, he cannot
also destroy my soul. Let Alexander, then, terrify with these threats those who wish
for gold and wealth. Go, then, and tell Alexander this: Dandamis has no need of aught
that is yours, and therefore will not go to you, but if you want anything from Dandamis
you come to him."
Alexander then admitted that Dandamis was the only antagonist in whom he, the conqueror
of many nations, had found more than his match.
It is people like Dandamis who alone can restrain the politician. Truth is their
weapon. Resistance to evil politics requires not another powerful organization -
which may be equally evil - but the absence of the same. It is the frugality that
gives the brahmins the power to resist the power of politics.
The NGOs, with their huge funds and big offices, are too attached to their worldly
pleasures to be able to restrain the politician.
We have thus two entirely different solutions. First is to build another set of organizations
- NGOs and their like - with their paraphernalia of cars, computers, bank deposits
and air tickets. Notwithstanding their claims to the contrary, these are as suspect
as the political parties that they set out to control.
The second alternative is to invigorate the tradition of the brahmins. Let the selfless
live frugally and become speakers of truth.
This is not to say that NGOs have no locus standi. They have a positive role to play.
They are, truly speaking, extensions of the state and that is with what they must
aim to excel. They can make the people aware of pollution, improve the breeds of
local cattle, help design better curriculum for the schools, etc. But to ascribe
to them the task of restraining the politicians is like asking one patient to cure
- (The author, a PhD from the University of Florida, consults with donors and
Indian NGOs on economics and rural development.)