Autumn, '97


by Dr. Ahmed Mukarram

The final day of the ASEAN Regional Forum's meeting held in Malaysia in July 1997, once again very poignantly propelled to the fore the heated and now familiar `East Vs West' argument over Human Rights. While the U.S. and the EU reiterated their stand that the (civil and political) rights of the individual were absolute, universal and indivisible, Malaysia, Indonesia and China provided the `Asian' response to this `Western' pressure by prioritizing the economic, social and cultural rights and claiming that individual's civil rights are meaningless if they do not have the social means to enjoy them, hence implying the primacy of the strong State and collective good over individual's civil rights. Where does this argument leave NGOs and Human Right activists?

Globalization of Information and Media:

There is no gainsaying that one of most important developments in the context of globalization has been the loosening of governmental monopoly over sources of information. Though it is too early to say anything definite about the extent and the impact of this process, the significance of the development can not be denied. With the onset of satellite television, mobile phones, internet, electronic mail, fax machines and courier services, alternative sources of information are available which are considered to be more reliable than the government-controlled media. There is little that the governments can do to stem this tide. It is thought that when people are armed with the information that is derived independent of the governmental sources, they are in a better position to hold governments answerable and accountable to their acts of omission and commission.

a) Print and Electronic Media in India and the Freedom of Expression:

The real impact of this development may remain underestimated in India which has been a functioning democracy since its independence, for actually it is in the authoritarian regimes or strictly regulated democracies that one becomes fully conscious of the significance of the free flow of information. In India, the print-media, both in the English language as well as in vernacular, have enjoyed almost complete freedom from governmental interference. Despite the obvious limitation of the medium, it has been one of the solid foundations of Indian democracy and has generally worked as watchdog against the actual or potential excesses of the State although governments can and have been using this medium for their own benefit.

It is the electronic media in India on which the effects of globalization of information have been most profound. Till recently, electronic media had been government-controlled and terribly lacked credibility among people. With the onset of private Indian television channels and foreign programs beamed through satellites, a whole new dimension has been added to peoples' consciousness of themselves and the society and the world they live in. This non-governmental medium of communication has lived up to the standards set by the print-media by putting the government on the defensive.

The availability of not only information derived through non-governmental sources but also the independent means of communication through which one could instantly reach people across national boundaries have brought about nothing short of a revolution. The world has certainly shrunk and, at least in theory, interaction and networking with people and private and non-governmental organizations who share ideas have become much easier than was the case before. In the past few years, a number of NGOs and think-tanks have surfaced in India and Asia which conduct a number of out-reach social programs and provide discussed and debated opinion on social, economic and political issues independent of governmental guidance. However, amidst the euphoria of the globalization of media and information, any temptation to overestimate its influence should be resisted. While it is true that information explosion has provided people with alternative sources of information, it is too early to determine the real extent to which it in itself strengthens citizens' movement. The availability of information does not automatically translate into the type of organization that is required to strengthen NGOs or committees of citizens. In Asian democracies, governments continue to retain the coercive power required to stifle the civil society in the name of national security or economic development. Governments themselves are free to make use of these alternative sources of information to manipulate public opinion in their favor. Secondly, in India, the private television channels and the foreign media are by and large seen as a source of entertainment; serious national issues or intellectual debates continue to occupy a very low rating on the popularity charts though the trend is changing slowly. It will not be an exaggeration to say that despite its apparent pervasiveness, the information revolution has not affected, at least as yet, Indian masses in a way that would empower the Civil Society in an organized manner. In fact, it is not enough just to have alternative sources of information or a body of information; what is required is a change in peoples' mind-set, in the social consciousness and the concomitant social organization in order to mobilize public opinion and to transform loosely-formed interest groups into affective organizations. That organization is certainly coming about but slowly. Moreover, what is still lacking is interaction, networking and coordination among such private and non-governmental organizations, committees and think-tanks within the country and across the region. This is definitely one area which has a huge potential for NGOs but remains to be properly exploited.

Globalization of Culture:

This development has both its admirers as well as detractors. There are groups of people who have welcomed the exposure to the world beyond their societal confines, others have felt threatened by what they regard as degrading affects of an (often immoral) alien culture which would pollute their own social ethos and values. The point here is not to support one view or the other, but to underline the fact that the forces of cultural globalization can exacerbate social tensions in Asian societies, particularly in the pluralistic societies like India and Malaysia. Rightist-religious movements have benefited from this development in Asia. This is simply a recipe for demands for more State intervention to counter such cultural threats emanating from outside or to wrestle with the political tension which it generates within their own societies. Private organizations and NGOs certainly assume an important role in this scenario; State generally treats such social tensions as a problem of law and order which diffuses the tension temporarily but does not address the underlying causes of the tension. Inter-community groups consisting of people which enjoy the reputation of being neutral to the parties can work as a bridge between the communities in such situations and can play a role that is eventually more important than that of the State. Many such organizations are already working in societies like India and Malaysia but they need to be strengthened and there is definitely a need to have more of them. This is certainly true of India.

Globalization of Economy:

Since 1947 when India achieved independence until about 1990, Indian economy had been heavily influenced by Socialist ideas in which State planning, labor-intensive technology, public sector and the policy of import substitution played a fundamental role. This policy made Indian economy inward-looking. As a result, relations with the export-oriented and capital- and technology-driven economies of East and North and Southeast Asia were minimal. In the past few years, however, there has been a definite shift in the orientation and direction of Indian economy. State is loosening its control over certain sectors and there is greater emphasis on opening to and linking with global market. India has also realized the economic, political and strategic significance of the region of Far East, North and Southeast Asia; a policy that has come to be called `Look-East Policy'. Economic interaction with Asian economies has intensified. India has become a member of the Asia-Pacific Region! al Forum (ARF), Full Dialogue Partner of ASEAN, and an aspirant to join the APEC. The idea of an Indian Ocean Rim Community has also been revived and given some substance. There has been a definite improvement of relations between India and China. India has also explored a strengthening of bilateral relations with ASEAN countries specifically with Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand. Korea has emerged as the third largest foreign investor country in India. All these developments in India have suddenly brought her closer to the countries of this region. Looked at from the other side, countries of the region have also shown an increasing interest in the Indian market and society. The two-way interaction, hugely under-exploited at the moment, is set to increase manifold in coming years. The pity is that despite historic links, these societies know very little about one another. Here is a definite case for increase in societal interaction at every possible level in every possible ! manner. NGOs and think-tanks have an important role to play here.

As for the globalization of economy, certainly it has its economic merits and even its detractors admit its inevitability. However, they vigorously question its distributive implications both within a country and across the globe as the gap between the haves and have nots widens alarmingly. They point out that globalization has actually meant systemic violation of economic, social and cultural rights of people as the economic capacity of developing countries to provide daily sustenance, housing, potable water, education, employment and health facilities to their population is being increasingly curtailed. On one hand, they argue, the foreign media channels project a life-style of affluent nations, on the other their governments fail to provide even basic necessities of life to them. The result is an increasingly dissatisfied population advancing towards social and political chaos. The scenario again demands State intervention in economic and political spheres.

It would, however, be unfair not to take notice of some of the positive fall-outs of the process of globalization. As consumerism, driven by market forces and propelled by tantalizing advertising campaigns, assumes unprecedented dimensions, a new Consumer Right consciousness is taking place in India. What is more, it is being translated into social action. Citizen's committees are coming up fast which are taking private companies to courts to make them more responsible towards their customers. This practice is leading to an unprecedented development: people have also started treating governmental departments in the same way as they do private companies; their relationship with the government is changing from that of the governor and the governed, to that of a producer and customer. The practice of Public Interest Litigation is slowly but definitely gaining currency and the governmental inaction, inefficiency or corruption is being increasingly questioned. It is certainly forcing political leaders and bureaucracy to become more responsible and accountable for their deeds. Having said that, it must be mentioned here that despite its strong democratic tradition, Indian polity has in recent years experienced serious institutional crises. Lack of governmental transparency and accountability over the years led to gross inefficiency, corruption and general complacency in the standards of public service which has caused erosion in the credibility of political institutions like the Legislature, Executive and Bureaucracy. One positive fall-out of this scenario has been the emergence of the Judiciary as the protector of citizen's rights and public interests. Judiciary has assumed an unprecedented pro-active role and enjoys tremendous popular support. It is bound to force Public Servants to be more responsible and responsive towards citizens. Judicial Activism is supplemented by an increasingly active role of organizations like National Human Rights Commission and National Minorities Commission which have even made bold attempts to sometime question governmental actions in highly sensitive areas affected by militancy, insurgencies and terrorism. Other private and non-governmental civil liberty groups have also spoken out against the excesses committed by security and para-military forces and have faced hardship in carrying their task. National security is a sensitive issue in India and while government claims that it cooperates with Human Right Activists and organizations, the latter on their part complain of obstacles in performing their job.

Human Rights: Individual vs. State?

In the entire development of increased privatization, economic liberalization and political democratization, the single most important aspect is that the human agency which has actually been instrumental in bringing about these changes has been the State itself. While admittedly these processes have a logic of their own which should eventually enlarge the space for civil society, in Asia State has not lost any of its fundamental power of socio-economic policy and decision-making, and retains instruments of political coercion. Whether it is the Socialist, import-substitution oriented policies of India before the economic reform of 1990s; or her linking up with the global market after the initiation of the reforms; or the export-oriented and the capital- and technology-driven economies of the Asian Tigers, in every case it is the State that is defining, directing and controlling the economy. While the process of globalization of economy, culture, media and information accords certain choices and freedoms upon the civil-society, it also has certain negative affects which have or may lead to exacerbation of socio-cultural and economic conditions, which would require a stable, strong State which could prevent the situation from getting out of control. The explanation for the primacy of the State is simple: it is primarily the task of nation-building, socio-economic development and protecting the interests of cultural minorities and other socially backward communities in pluralistic societies like India and Malaysia that requires State intervention. All these factors taken together lead to a situation where people regard the State as fundamental to their socio-economic development, in fact to their survival. State in their perception is not an enemy, not even a necessary evil, but a friend in need. They need State intervention to provide and not just protect the civil and, more important than that, cultural and social rights; in fact, greater the state intervention to affect changes in their daily lives, better off the individual and communities. It must be said that even if one concedes the centrality of the State due to the socio-economic circumstances of Asian societies, this should not at all mean that one can condone the atrocities which States/ regimes in Asia have or can commit in the name of protecting cultural and economic rights, or ensuring national security. But this unfortunately is really the paradox of the State power: if one needs State intervention to protect the socio-economic interests of individuals or communities, then how does one ensure that the State power is exercised just for the mandate it has been given and is not abused by those who exercise it. This perhaps is crux of the whole issue: how to first make masses realize that while it may be necessary for the government/State to have power to carry out its mandate, it nevertheless remains a mandate from the people where ultimately it resides. And then, secondly, how is this message effectively put across to governments. In other words, it! seems that the challenge of NGOs concerned with the promotion of democracy and Human Rights in Asia in current circumstances is to ensure not curtailing the State power but ensuring its proper exercise. This means engaging the State, which continues to wield decisive powers in all spheres of human activity, in a way to create room for maneuverability for themselves. Not an easy task by any reckoning. There is no doubt that NGOs will have to press on, but the ways in which NGOs can move ahead in pursuit of their goals is something that needs to be discussed. The information revolution, globalization of media and economy, increasing push towards democratization, are the developments which are opening up tremendous opportunities and new horizons for the civil society. Certainly the task for the civil society groups is not going to be easy. Moreover, it will require working with the State at a time when even though State retains tremendous control over the civil society, it is nevertheless realizing the necessity to engage the NGOs in the course of socio-economic developments. NGOs, think-tanks and citizen's organizations are going to play increasingly important role in this regard. What is at least clear now is that networking with people and organizations which confront similar issues, providing and sharing information on such issues, and building up pressure through co! ordinated efforts within the country and across the region, as we do here, are some of the ways to strengthen the cause of the Civil Society. .

[Dr. Ahmed Mukarram is a Resident Fellow
at the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, India.]

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