Monday, February 23, 2015
Priya Pillai: 'Speaking out is the most patriotic thing I have ever done'
Priya, a Greenpeace activist, was offloaded from a flight to London where she was to address a group of British parliamentarians about tribal and environment violations in India. The Indian government, on its part, defended the Look Out Notice against her saying her 'deposition' before a British parliamentary committee would have been 'prejudicial to national interest'.
By Priya Pillai
Over the last few weeks, I have been branded anti-national, a conspirator, a paid mercenary, a mole and a doodh mein makhi – and all because I was going to talk to an All Party Parliamentary Group of MPs in London about the violations of Indian laws by a multinational company with a registered office in London.
I have watched as BJP spokespeople spout the letters ‘APPG’ in TV debate after TV debate, as if the All Party Parliamentary Group is the powerful instrument of global foreign policy making. I have read the government's affidavit which espouses confidently that my ‘deposition’ in front of the APPG in London will have a ‘cascading effect’ that will open India to a sanctions regime similar to that of Iran, North Korea and Russia.
So what is this APPG that apparently poses such a potent threat to the world’s biggest democracy?
For the record, the APPG is, as the name suggests, an interest group that cuts across party lines and ‘has no official status in the Parliament’ as clearly stated on the British Parliament’s website. The Group I intended to speak to, before I was offloaded at Delhi airport, concerns itself with tribal rights. Other APPGs focus on matters as diverse as care for the elderly, education and mountaineering. The MPs on a Group often meet ‘informally’. They frequently invite organisations and members to discussions on various subjects.
So that’s who I was scheduled to speak to before the government tried to silence me. Now the government is claiming I was going to make a ‘deposition’ before this parliamentary club. Really? The word deposition denotes a legal hearing or undertaking. It doesn’t sound much like the meeting I tried to attend, but I wanted to be sure, so I asked my colleagues in London if APPGs ever call their meetings depositions. My colleague’s answer? “What’s a deposition?”
Out of interest, the chair of the Indo-British APPG was the first British MP to invite Mr Modi to the UK after he became prime minister last May. Not for a deposition of any kind, but an informal interaction. If our Prime Minister had accepted, would that have been anti-national? Of course not. It’s called diplomacy, otherwise known as the exchange of ideas. And that’s what I hoped to engage in before I was told I am banned from leaving India.
Multinationals and Indian Law
Essar is a multinational company. It has a registered office in London’s Berkeley Square, a registered head office in Mauritius, with corporate offices in Bombay, Doha, New York and Mozambique, to name a few. Until early 2014, Essar was listed on the London Stock Exchange. As a company registered under the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom, Essar seems to be playing rather fast and loose with Indian laws in Mahan. It has threatened and intimidated the local activists in the past and refused to comply by the provisions under the Forest Rights Act of India.
Within the UK, its operations are subject to the jurisdiction of the equivalent of British company law. Additionally, since UK is a part of the OECD group of countries, Essar needs to abide by the environmental norms and the principle of Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) when it comes to dealing with local communities. Essar is guilty of flouting all of the above.
As an activist and an Indian citizen, I chose to raise questions about Essar’s multiple violations in India using all means available to me in a democracy. Meeting British parliamentarians to let them know that a company is violating Indian laws with impudence was also a way of ensuring that Essar is held accountable in a country of its operation.
Not leaving my rights behindThe government’s ‘offer’ to me in the court was this: I can have my right to freedom of movement back, if I give up my right to free speech. Naturally I refused this offer. Does the government really think a proud Indian would happily pack her bags, travel to the airport, present her passport, check-in her luggage then check-in her constitutional rights as the price of being allowed to fly? Would you consent to such a farce? Of course not, and neither will I.
In the end I spoke to the MPs on Skype and I have appeared on live TV debates that can be watched anywhere in the world, London included. That doesn’t make me anti-national. I believe that helping the local community to claim their rights in Mahan by speaking out is the most patriotic thing I have ever done. And whatever our government may think, the Indian constitution guarantees my right to do just that.