Remarks on the Vibrancy, Resilience, and Impact of India’s Civil Society, at a Reception in New Delhi, India

Ambassador Samantha Power
U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations
U.S. Mission to the United Nations
New Delhi, India
November 19, 2015

AS DELIVERED

Thank you, Ambassador Verma. Can anybody think of a more perfect representative of the United States to be here in India at this time? Raise your hand if you can. [Applause]. Okay, good. [Laughter]. Rich, seeing you and your beautiful family together living this adventure and forging this path for our two countries, and bringing about breakthroughs of the kind that few could have anticipated before you got here – it’s just a tribute to you as a diplomat and as an intellect, but also, just, you’re a good person. People say that the essence of soft power is to make others want what you want – I think you’re a walking embodiment of soft power and it’s really great for the United States and I think it’s really great for India [Inaudible].

I began my career as a journalist, and gradually moved into academia and activism – and so it’s a pleasure to be here among friends, among colleagues and sit with each of you for a day to try dig deep on the kinds of challenges you all are working on. I have the deepest admiration for the work you do which is often unheralded, sometimes unappreciated, sometimes resisted, but is most important, and to ensure that the next generation and the generation after in this country is going to have more dignity, more security, and the realization of the rights that everyone deserves.

My boss – also our boss – began his own career as a community organizer in Chicago. And in that capacity, a young Barack Obama worked to help marginalized citizens press their local government for changes that would improve their lives – things like summer jobs for teenagers, or improvements to a public housing project. And I know that that is familiar to many of you; modest – but so tangible – steps that affect real people in communities that need a helping hand. And I think what President Obama was doing in Chicago is what so many of you are doing here every day.

And whether it’s in Chicago or Chennai, a place which I was privileged to visit a few years ago, this kind of civic participation is not new to either of our nations – we have these traditions in common. This kind of activism is in our DNA, it’s in our very foundations. Both of our constitutions begin with the words “we the people,” and I think that reflects the shared conviction that our governments’ legitimacy derives not from divine right or military might, but from the public’s support and from the steady stream of engagement. President Obama – one of his favorite quotes – and I’ve heard him give this in multiple venues – is “the most important office in any democracy is that of citizens.” And you all are office holders, and you are office holders who try to also support the other office holders in your networks.

This legitimacy is reaffirmed through elections, of course. But it also comes in through the vibrant civil society that India is known for. And I think there’s nothing hyperbolic about saying that Indian civil society is the top of the world. Every time it goes quiet for a while, it just means that people are plotting something behind the scenes – it’s about to get very loud in a hurry. [Laughter].

President Obama has said “almost all the progress that America has made in expanding freedom and opportunity has grown as a result of that bottom-up civic participation.” And you all are putting that principle to practice here as well. In the United States, whether it’s the abolition of slavery, the enfranchisement of women, the civil rights movement, the incredible LGBT rights movement – which has notched successes in the last year that few would have thought imaginable even three years ago – our ongoing discussions, necessary discussions, about income inequality and racial justice. It is your American civil society counterparts who have been the single biggest driver for change in the United States.

And the story in India, I think, is similar, at least to an outsider. From the campaign for independence to the campaign for polio eradication, the social enfranchisement of marginalized communities, the push for sustainable economic development – that’s all civil society pushing [Inaudible]. In taking effective advantage of your landmark Right to Information Act, you’ve also demonstrated how civil society can demand and leverage greater government transparency to reduce corruption and improve the delivery of social services, public services for citizens. And that has been a tool, again, that is a powerful in the hands of communities all across the country.

It is critical that Indian civil society continue to thrive and to live up to these proud traditions, even in the face of some who might want to dial civil society back. While you have been building “Incredible India,” you have been inspiring the world, and we have every expectation that that is going to continue.

Unfortunately, around the world, we are witnessing a dramatic crackdown by governments on civil society; accusing them of everything from serving foreign interests to jeopardizing national security. Vital organizations and institutions have been harassed or shuttered; journalists, human rights defenders, and other activists have been targeted. And of course the most egregious cases of this kind of action against civil society are occurring under the thumb of autocratic regimes – but we’ve also seen some democracies taking steps to shrink the space that civil society enjoys.

And I just want to use this podium here tonight to say now to all of you, who would agree with I think, which is that this cannot be how governments respond to criticism. Those of us in government must not only tolerate diverse voices and different opinions, we must welcome them and protect the organizations and individuals behind them. I used to be one of the organizations on the outside, and inside the government I can tell you it’s not very pleasant now to hear the things that are said about me and my beloved colleagues. [Laughter] But it is always helpful; there’s always something that we need to hear, there’s always some truth that – because of the bubble of government – we are inoculated from. And it is just so important. Even if I wish it would go away, there’s no question that our policies are better off for hearing the criticism and for engaging our critics, many of whom are also of course our friends.

President Obama has shown America’s commitment to support civil society organizations – particularly those under threat – by meeting with civil society groups wherever he goes. He launched an initiative called the Stand with Civil Society Agenda, which was created in September 2013. This includes something called Lifeline, which provides emergency financial assistance to groups under threat. We have the Legal Enabling Environment Program, which – nerdy though it sounds [Laughter] – actually helps local lawyers and civil society activists push back against the restrictive laws governments across the world are passing to close off space. And the need for this, I just want to underscore, is really urgent because since 2012, 60 countries have introduced or enacted laws restricting civil society organizations. This is a phenomenon.

Let me conclude. The people of the United States and India have so much in common, but I think the three short words that open both of our constitutions may well be the most important to come back to. “We the people:” it is in those words that we have always found our strength, it is those words that inspire and allow citizens to feel empowered to shape the destinies of their countries, to hold their governments accountable, to make their governments more effective. You will defend the poor, and give voice to the marginalized. You will produce new ideas, and challenge old assumptions. You will serve the public interest, and protect human rights. And in so doing, you will move your country ever closer to fulfilling the great promise of its founding ideals. India has come so far, it’s just remarkable – even since I was last here – to see the growth and the dynamism of this incredible civilization and people. And your voices and the voices of citizens across this country – you are going to take India to the next level. And we are so glad that we will get to be a partner along the way.

So let me raise a toast, if I could, to all of you in Indian civil society – for helping shape this great country’s destiny. Thank you.

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