News hog. Wannabe singer. Did path-breaking media and advocacy work at the WHO before setting up her own shop. Thinks globalisation is not a direction. Oh, was instrumental in investigating Bofors.
The Great Indian GONGO
In the beginning, there were non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Working outside the official realm, these groups would seek to centre-stage and advocate for issues from environment to human rights, nuclear disarmament to baby seals. They kept a constant watch over governments and exerted pressure on their elected representatives to deliver on electoral promises. Over the years, NGOs have moved national and international agenda from a people’s perspective. Since popular sentiment is always ahead of policy development and legislation, NGOs have often led from the front. That is their role. While their methods, sometimes militant, have been questioned, the substance of their work is rarely in dispute and often fires national and international talks and negotiations.
That NGOs are a force to reckon with is obvious from the various attempts governments – all governments – make, to buy them off, co-opt them or simply discredit their work. The accusation made most often against successful NGOs is that they accept funds from questionable sources and lobbies. While some of this is true, it also serves to keep everybody informed about potential conflicts of interests. If you trace the trajectory of NGOs you’ll see that it is usually started by women and taken over by men when big money moves in.
One fine day governments, multilateral and bilateral agencies and corporations struck upon an idea. They decided to infiltrate NGO movements in developing countries to get a mud-side view of how the poor lived, died and were arbitrarily detained in prisons by dictators. We, in India, hit upon a better one – we became an NGO, donned a wig and let ourselves loose on the world stage. The GONGO – government non-governmental organisation – was born.
Our government sends GONGOS to every international meeting whether it is in Geneva, New York, Singapore or Sao Paulo. The role of the Indian GONGO is to keep an eye on Pakistan and other enemies of India which may include journalists, judges and genuine NGOs. So obvious is this network that Indian officials can be seen handing them instructions on bits of paper in full view of the world. “Must we behave like this?”, an Indian Supreme Court judge remarked when he saw a GONGO carrying a minister’s bag. He was promptly labeled anti-national and dropped from the government’s list.
Every year, crores of rupees are spent on the GONGOISATION of India. Hundreds of people with multi-coloured wigs are sent to major international conferences ostensibly to defend our interests through a complex web of lies and propaganda when even a child can tell you that a nation is better served when its people speak the truth. Hundreds and thousands of rupees are spent on identifying Western journalists, diplomats and negotiators who are “India-friendly” and these people are brought to the country at national expense.
A typical government of India trip will look something like this. Arrival in New Delhi, rest in five-star hotel, trip to Agra and Jaipur, return to New Delhi to meet home and commerce ministry officials, Indian classical dance show in the evening, leave for Bangalore the next day and halt there for three days, followed by three days in Goa and one day in Mumbai. A slight variation is introduced if the western intellectual wants to meet Indian intellectuals in New Delhi to exchange names and addresses of good hotels all over the world. They are often accompanied by GONGOS whose job in India is to praise the foreign visitor till the guest turns blue in the face with embarrassment. A typical GONGO compliment is to praise the visitor’s perspicacity when he says India will have to take care of the population problem before all else or that India cannot hope to globalise unless it first has proper roads that leads to its villages. The GONGO thinks he is subtle. During endless dinners and lunches while accompanying the foreign visitor (who in most cases is white and often male), the GONGO will slip in bits and pieces of self-criticism and national breast-beating so the visitor does not mistake India for Iraq and reports back that we actually criticise our leaders in public.
The GONGO will connect with the “foreigner” at an international conference in Geneva, New York or London and remind him – discreetely – about the trip to Jaipur by gifting him a large sandalwood elephant wrapped in see-through paper with the price scribbled in chalk. The message is in the grin – we (GONGOS) expect you (white foreign intellectual) to stand up for us and say that even though our roads are bad and there are too many people, most of them are outside in the streets and not in prisons. The incest is continuous. The GONGO in turn gets invited abroad, and this way irrelevant Indians and irrelevant foreigners travel back and forth at our expense.
The Human Rights GONGO
Human Rights GONGOs are in great demand because in my humble opinion, they can be meaningfully meaningful. They can say a lot without saying anything, promise the sky without making any commitments, like an election speech by an Indian politician. Not everyone meets the mark. You have to have that certain deprived look about you that can turn to anger at a wink from an Indian official. It’s a good idea to come from Chotanagpur in Bihar. Most Indians including our babus in the foreign ministry don’t know where that is and by the time they find out, this GONGO will be on a plane to Geneva where all important human rights debates are held.
GONGOS love Geneva. Not much work, good food and excellent wine, clean city, not much dust – years of GONGO work makes them allergic to dust. The work load is also easy – just add on new numbers to the same old song because nobody can verify anything. Unexpected workload requires them to run to a photocopying machine or make sure that we as a country have made ourselves heard by removing “a” and replacing it with “the” at the very last minute. Pliant media reports back home ensure that replacing the indefinite article with a definite one has saved us from an international catastrophe.
Human rights GONGOS also have a dress code. Rule one – never wear a suit and never wear a pajama. It has to be something in between so the look is something-Western and something-Eastern. If this GONGO looks hale and hearty, Western money will not come, and if they look like beggars nobody will trust them. The typical GONGO look in this category is trousers and a khadi shirt, so intellectual moorings are upfront and includes a quilted jacket which in addition to keeping warm resembles a bullet-proof vest and makes the GONGO look important. Trotsky glasses help – some things never go out of fashion.
Speech – what? GONGOs are selected because they mouth officialese. They receive their speeches with drama instructions – remember to sob when you reach this word, remember to stand up when you say Pakistani terrorist so the cameras can get you, raise your voice when you say Indian police is not brutal, that people do not die in Indian prisons and if you get nervous just blame it on Pakistan. This GONGO will also discredit all Indian civil liberties organisations as American spies.
A typical tactic is to bump into genuine NGOs in coffee lounges and ask loudly “Who is paying for you, what is your source of funding?” Work for this GONGO also includes haranguing at least 12 people everyday saying India is a democracy and Pakistan is not, we are multi-ethnic they are not, we have Sardars but they have Zardaris. GONGOS find this task challenging. One of them told me since all foreigners look alike – “like all Chinese and Japanese people” – he was not sure if he was speaking to the same person
The only problem for this GONGO during the six-week human rights sojourn in Geneva is weight-gain.
The Disarmament GONGO
This is a different bomb game altogether. In addition to being good at ABCD, they have to be good in PCM – physics, chemistry and mathematics. That narrows the option immediately to a certain section of Indians. The Disarmament GONGO’s task is a challenging one because he is required to sound carelessly intelligent. Wisdom has to fall out of every pore and pocket without anyone feeling threatened. Others ask for coffee. He asks for a special Arabica blend that does not exist so he can stand out in a crowd. A disarmament GONGO typically comes from New Delhi or Chennai because Mumbai is too filmy and Calcutta is too filthy and even though the latter can give Chennai a run for its money, there’s a strong preference for the south Indian who in addition to being weaned on PCM (they think) is often a very good stenographer. New Delhi with its intellectuals, institutes and places like the India Multinational Centre is where all wannabe GONGOS congregate.
How does a Disarmament GONGO dress? Quite smartly actually, and he also wears his Harvard and MIT presence on his sleeve (I use the word presence because many of them spend three months in venerable institutions during summer months on lecture tours). It goes without saying that if you are talking about weapons-grade material, plutonium and high-energy physics with a jhola on your shoulder and paan in your mouth, you might get mistaken for a poet who lost his way. There is, however, little chance of any wardrobe-error because in nine out of ten cases, the disarmament GONGOs have spent a sabbatical or two photocopying a lot of papers in some strategic defence institute in Scandinavia, the United States or the United Kingdom. So when they return, they manage to look quite dandy complete with linen suits, nifty briefcases and in some cases foreign companions who “socially” lecture on why India should never exercise its nuclear option. A Disarmament GONGO can also grow his hair in an unruly way to recall Albert Einstein, though of late they have taken to oiling their hair and combing it neatly into a pony tail.
The Disarmament GONGO reads no scripts (he thinks). He is peace-loving and drawn to the idea of a world without nukes as bees to honey. However, what he detests most is the way the West has twisted this “principled position” to suit their interests. He shuttles around the world collecting frequent flyer miles and photocopies and making inane speeches to a captive audience. He can spot the subtle difference between the haves – the five nuclear weapons states i.e. the US, UK, France, China and Russia – and the rest including India, Pakistan and Israel who are nuclear wannabes. The disarmament GONGO is so knowledgeable that nobody including his bosses in India and elsewhere understands him. That is part-ploy, part complex but you will be amazed at his advocacy when he makes the world feel bad about having nuclear weapons and make India feel lousy for not having them, all backed with facts and figures that would send any computer out of business. The most important thing for this GONGO is this whole thing about a “principled stand.” In principle, nukes are bad; Western nuclear doctrines are weak in the principles they defend; in principle, India is a democracy; in principle, India cannot defend anything if there is no principle to defend. The Disarmament GONGO stands for everything the world is against and is against everything the world is for, which means India alternately lands next to Iraq or the US at the nuclear table without trying very hard.
The Environment GONGO
The Environment GONGO is generally a woman with grey hair carrying lots of khadi files from Gurjari. The medium is the message – that’s why, you stupid. Or may be the government has decided that the issue attracts many women intellectuals so why spoil the party. Clever move.
The Environment GONGO typically wears a sari, is kind and soft-spoken and walks fast as if running to save a falling tree. They avoid silk saris because they are made from boiling worms and that is a very cruel thing to do. Cotton is best. Everybody around this GONGO gets a complex at Gandhi promotion. Colours have to be kind too, and no make-up. They generally wash their hair with natural products and allow it to drip dry all over. There’s another advantage to this look – at the end of the day this GONGO looks as tired as the cause. “Are you a vegetarian because you hate trees or because you love animals?”, one GONGO asked me. I laughed. That was a mistake. When you are a GONGO, your sense of purpose has to precede your sense of humour – in public.
The Environment GONGO has her job cut out. She has two things to do. First, she has to accuse the Narmada gang of being bought off by Western environmentalist lobbies which don’t want India to progress and second, she has to quote chapter and verse from our scriptures to show that we in India were hugging our tall trees when the Western world was in shrubs. The environment GONGO has to vehemently deny that India buys toxic waste (between you and me, we do booming business in this) and when the conversation gets serious, this GONGO turns around, flicks her hair and walks away but not before she has asked the West why they produce so much waste in the first place. It’s all about sharing incompetence.
A typical GONGO CV in their own words
I am an Indian GONGO. I am a rock, I am a think-tank, I am a fish, I am a tree, I am a chemical, I am an amoeba, I am an intellectual and I am a low-form of life. Now you see me, now you don’t. Now you kick me, now you don’t.
I have a fax, a modem, a computer and an electronic mail address. At a pinch, I can create my own internet page to send out thousands of mails. I have no morals, no commitments, no self-respect, and nobody, just nobody, can accuse me of being consistent. Sometimes I don’t know what I am talking about and have also delivered the right speech in the wrong place. That, however, has not posed a serious problem because my speeches are wailing sessions and are remote-controlled from New Delhi. Today I can defend human rights in Geneva, tomorrow I am in Kashmir recycled as a lawyer, and the third day I lead a panel discussion at the India Multinational Centre in New Delhi where ministers and important officials clap after I speak and promise me better and longer trips abroad next time. In Geneva I curse Pakistan, in Kashmir I curse India, and in New York I curse the weather. I also collect frequent flyer miles which are very useful when my wife and children want to go shopping in Singapore.
The government’s desire is my command. The government’s enemy is my enemy. The government’s friend is my lord and master. If my government has one hole in the brain, I have two. I can be secular, muscular and avuncular – as the occasion demands. I am a quick change artist who can shame the world’s greatest actors. I only need a seven-minute advance notice to change my shoes and wigs. Shoes are very important as they can give you away. A chappal-clad is not a Ferragamo-clad. A man with a white shoe is an entire message. GONGOs have to keep these details in mind because they mingle with important people who look at each others’ shoes all day and all year long.
A good GONGO should have a wardrobe for every occasion to match dress to cause. We can look chic, ethnic, jholtan and have make-up and facial tricks to show anger, pain and beating marks. Ponytails are an absolute no as they can look high and mighty.
I can fax, e-mail and write to important politicians from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, British politicians and American senators. But in recent years, I noticed that it is equally important to write to Indian intellectuals or better still, invite them to seminars and panel discussions with fancy names like “Whither Kashmir”, “Is CTBT an Indian ploy or a Western toy”, “How many people will have to drown before Narmada can be saved” etc. If you tell them the panel discussion will revolve around their paper and there will be media coverage, the intellectuals may come for free. Otherwise they charge a hefty fee.
My greatest strength is that I can destroy any discussion.
Now that I have told you everything about myself, let me share a problem. I have heard the government is angry with me. The same government that took me out of my original surroundings – grassroots – and transplanted me in international fora now says it is terrified with my act. In the beginning, I was trained to cry when the lights came on, shout when the tape recorder was switched on and limp when approached by a white diplomat. Part of my original job was to spot imposters and inform governments about them.
Now even my bosses don’t want to see me. They say I am an embarrassment, I shout too much, my wig is showing, my sari makes me look like a beggar and I have become fat. My mentors in New Delhi now say very nasty things about Pakistani and American GONGOS in my presence.
I was made to criticise the World Bank in Geneva and then go to the same bank in Washington begging for money. I am baffled. Governments created me. I am defending their cause. Now they want to destroy me. I feel like the mad cow.
What you’ve just read is an excerpt from my book India is for Sale, written 15 years ago. R.K. Laxman, one of the world’s most distinguished cartoonists very graciously designed the cover.
It was written when we turned 50 and I used journalistic reportage from my work reporting from the United Nations (UN) and other talks in Geneva and tried to capture some stories in caricature. Year after year, I saw our politicians selling us down the drain, driven only by pettiness and self-interest ably assisted by GONGOS who picked up the crumbs. They used the Vedas to explain our past and the World Bank and the IMF to predict our future while our present fell apart in front of us.
I have worked with NGOs in various capacities, nationally and internationally. Some of them do excellent work. Most don’t. Today the funding-route is through India. Everybody wants to save India, and their jobs – not in that order. Let us look at the three GONGO types I mentioned.
Human rights – What is our record? I am not talking about fighting with all our neighbours and working on a useless international resolution that makes three people advance their careers. I am talking about the way we treat our country, our rules and regulations. I am talking about the way Indians treat Indians. Do you know of any self-respecting democracy that hounds its own people and calls it operation “green hunt” however erroneously.
Disarmament – What is our record? I am not a weapon’s expert or for that matter any expert. But I am a proponent of nuclear energy and have always been one. I understand the challenges of waste disposal and safety standards. I know enough to know that I do not wish to live next to a nuclear power plant. I know of no one who will. There’s no point in telling us we have been running our reactors for 30 years. You only die once and I do not want to live next to Kudankulam. I have the luxury of choice that most of my country does not. What happened to all that fire and fury we saw recently.
Environment – What is our record? During the last jamboree in Brazil (Rio plus 20), we reported that there’s a drop in the number of malnourished children in the country, primary healthcare and education have shown great advances, the way we have handled the Bhopal gas tragedy is environmental jurisprudence, MNREGA is a thumping success…and we have the longest nose in the world.
The might of our diplomacy, media and GONGO efforts ensured that the word “poverty” didn’t fall off from the omnibus 53-page document entitled, “The Future We Want”. Billions of dollars have been pledged by companies to cut fossil fuel use (they were not thinking about our political parties – at least not in that way) boost renewable energy, conserve water, alleviate poverty, save the tiger…
The media also reported that in our “scathing” criticism of rich nations we said when we talk of the green economy, India is committed to a green world economy and not a green-washed greed economy. Indians are not greedy.
For any issue to take roots, some five sectors – NGOs, media, academia, industry and government – have to kick-in at the appropriate moment with correct information. NGOs have to plough new fields, the media has to report, analyse, explain, academics have to provide data, domain-knowledge, numbers, the industry has to create jobs and the government has to govern and lead.
Today, in the name of national security, economic growth and good governance, we have all turned into some form of a GONGO, ably supported by PINGOS (private industry groups) and PANGOS (partnership groups).
Forget about G-20 and G-77. Welcome to G-37. This group represents all sectors and its principle aim is to shout at each other every evening on national television. They are held together not by their knowledge or wisdom – though sometimes that does happen – but by their irrelevance. They are also held together by fear – fear that they may not be invited to the next TV programme or foreign trip aboard our own Air Force 1 and the fear that their funding may dry up. And we are pompous enough to think we either represent or speak for a country of 1.2 billion people, to the world’s conscience, to greedy multinationals.
When the President of India announced that we must beware of unfettered protests, the G-37 (surprise, surprise, they are all on first name terms), swung into action calling it creative confusion, spectre of emergency, dangers to democracy and even a million mutinies now. Strangely enough, the G-37 was rather quiet on the Prime Minister’s announcement of our proposed trip to Mars. Wouldn’t it be fun to have a studio-hopping Martian?
India has turned into a democratic GONGO without any conflict. It represents all interests, all groups, all lobbies, all religions…with fear and unbridled shame.
I propose that we build the next nuclear power plant in New Delhias the northern grid seems to need some help. What better place than that for being close to the seat of power.
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