The details of the case are tragic. In early April, a group of activists arrives in Bengal to campaign against the three new farm laws. There, they come in contact with a young woman, and they convince her to come back with them to join the protests in Delhi. On the train, they allegedly make their first attempt at sexual assault. Unfortunately, the victim does not approach the police right away. On arriving in Delhi, they force her to share a tent with the accused. Nearly two weeks later, she comes down with the coronavirus and has to be shifted to hospital. Her father reaches the hospital, where she tells him about the incident on the train and the sexual assault in the tent. The Haryana police has now booked six of these activists on charges of gangrape.
The first incident of alleged sexual assault happened on April 11. It is not until yesterday that the matter came to light. Why did the so called farmer leaders make no attempt to alert the police for a whole month? Even after the victim herself passed away from coronavirus on April 30. And why did the victim not feel empowered to go to the police herself?
The Tikri gangrape incident forces us to talk about the dark underbelly of NGOs and activist groups. We have to talk about the potential for abuse of power, especially the danger of sexual abuse. These are loose organizations, with no fixed structure, no accountability and no liability. Membership is often as informal as word of mouth. Their setup is quite similar to that of a religious cult, with members expected to put some kind of ’cause’ above everything else. It is easy to see how this framework creates potential for sexual exploitation.
On their part, the farmer union leaders addressed a press conference yesterday. They take no responsibility for anything. They say that the accused belong to some unit that calls itself “Kisan Social Army,” which is not an official part of their organization. Yes, after 6 months of presenting themselves as representatives of 60 crore Indians who depend on agriculture, the great leaders take no responsibility for anything that happens in their domain on Tikri or Singhu border. With the air of a khap panchayat, they say that the accused have been exiled from the protest sites. Thank you, but this is not the year 1750. We have a modern criminal justice system in place. Perhaps you should have reached out to them.
To be clear, I am not saying that these farmer union leaders did anything illegal. However, I want to discuss two things. First, how did we make it so easy for activist groups to function with no accountability? Second, are we doing enough to make the public aware of the dangers this creates?
Imagine that the Tikri incident had happened within the confines of a corporate office in Gurugram or Delhi. Would the company’s directors be able to absolve themselves with such ease? Of course not. Because they have rules. They have a formal structure that shows who reports to whom. There are legal procedures on how to deal with complaints. And remember, there are also legal protections for those who bring these complaints. Break these rules and there will be hell to pay.
But activist groups have no such constraints. Nobody is ever legally responsible for anything because nowhere is it written as to who is in charge of what. They can disown anyone at any time. The organizations themselves are whipped up from thin air at any time. They are here today, gone tomorrow. The same individual can be part of hundreds of activist groups/NGOs that can vanish at a moment’s notice.
This did not just happen with the farmer protests around Delhi. Similar abuses have been reported from so called human rights groups, so called environmental groups and the like.
Despite this, public awareness about their dangers is low. Worse, the media created image of activist groups is one of moral authority. These people are supposed to be better than the rest of us. While the rest of us live only for ourselves, these people have chosen to live for all of humanity.
This is a problem because when something is too good to be true, it generally is. There was one Mahatma Gandhi and he really lived for all of humanity. The point is that there can be only one Mahatma Gandhi in a century or more. Now open your television and look at the face of every NGO activist giving a sermon. So many Mahatmas? No way. Like there was only one Einstein, there can be only one Mahatma.
In today’s world, activism is a full time job in itself. The only thing it is missing is proper regulation, with benefits and protections for everyone involved. The activist groups do not like to be regulated because nobody does. This is why celebrity activists invest so much in their image, trying to make sure the public does not call for them to be regulated. But we cannot go on like this. As the incident at Tikri border has shown, the price is too high.