I have spent two decades campaigning for causes I care deeply about – an end to caste discrimination, gender equality, and fighting against divisive and non-secular politics. In this blog post I want to explore the curious occurrence of political apathy in the NGO sector in India. Time and again, when working with colleagues in the ‘social sector’, I encounter a reticence to engage with politics; from the politics of gender to the politics of wealth distribution, the politics of education to the politics of caste.
Let me share a short anecdote with you. A while ago I was invited to evaluate the programs of a very large and very well respected microfinance NGO in India. The evaluation coincided with the NGO’s annual meeting – an occasion which saw the coming together of over 5,000 women (all members of self-help/MFI groups).
Around lunchtime I heard a commotion in the kitchen area. I went over and found a group of 30 or so women having a heated discussion with some of the volunteer organizers. The women were refusing to eat the food that had been prepared. When I enquired as to why this was the case, they answered, ‘because you have already served a bunch of Dalits’. The volunteer organizers were trying to pacify the women, ‘lets not disturb the event, we will make sure there are separate lines for queuing for food and separate seating arrangements for eating’. So I went up to the main organizers, the top layer of management at this large NGO, and I said ‘you have to disband this meeting right now – it has to be called off. This incident is an attack on your basic principles, which I am sure are not negotiable. If your empowered and conscious women are still holding forth their sense of high and low, then you need to rethink your social empowerment strategies. But right now, we have to communicate to them that this cannot, and will not, be tolerated. Everyone needs to be sent home and told that they will be communicated about the future of the SHGs in due course. Your message to the women should be loud and clear.’
Interestingly, the meeting was not disbanded but the organizers agreed to take this matter up with the women in the next meetings. However, the NGO realized how serious I was about my suggestion of not tolerating this nonsense, which resulted in a very interesting discussion with the NGO about the role that our sector, the development, social, voluntary sector, whatever you want to call it, plays. When do we start intervening in which situations? This country has thousands of organizations working for the underprivileged.
Under what circumstances is it fine for these organizations to work on economic empowerment but not be concerned with challenging the politics of power that give rise to the very poverty they are trying to combat? This tendency to avoid active political engagement is most apparent in organizations that are concerned with ‘service delivery’. Their mandate is not political transformation or empowerment – their mandate is ‘let us reach water to X number of villages’ or ‘let us set up X number of micro finance units benefiting X hundred women’. These type of organizations do not want to engage in work that shift paradigms or subverts the status quo – this is seen as too activist. They say ‘we are not jhandadhaaris (flagbearers) – we do not wear the badge of a political movement’.
It is this, this literal aversion to ‘politics’ that I do not accept. An NGO providing microfinance (or any other) service to its ‘beneficiaries’ stating that it will not engage in politics is a very political stand! By taking such a position they are clearly stating that they are interested in maintaining the current castiest and patriarchal power structures. Very unfortunately, there are a large number of such NGOs with big budgets (and some even have been awarded for their social empowerment work!) that refuse to subvert the existing power structures and take the easier path. They don’t seem to realize that this apolitical easier path they take now is going to cost all of us very dearly in the long run.
Casteism, like patriarchy, racism and violence, should not be tolerated no matter what the consequences are.