(FULL DISCLOSURE: Mahtab Alam worked with Amnesty International India from March 2014 to June 2016, as Coordinator, Human Rights Defenders Project.)
Earlier this month in Bengaluru, Amnesty International India organised an event titled Broken Families, which was about the denial of justices in the cases of forced disappearance in Kashmir. Could anyone have predicted that this would place the organisation in line of fire from the Hindutva brigade? Organisations such as the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) and the Bajrang Dal, along with some Kashmiri Pandits have gone hammer and tongs at Amnesty India, going so far as to accuse it of sedition.
Reports came in on August 15 that a case had been registered against the organisation and two of its staff members, based on a complaint by the city secretary of ABVP. While the investigation is still going on, Amnesty has issued a point by point rebuttal to the complaint, explaining its position on the issue of Kashmir as well as what had transpired that evening. Moreover, according to media reports citing senior police officials of Karnataka, there is hardly any case against Amnesty; let alone that of sedition. In fact, the Karnataka Home Minister has said this on record that, “Amnesty has not indulged in (any) anti-national activities”.
Let’s talk about Kashmiri Pandits
Admittedly, Amnesty has not worked extensively on the plight of Kashmiri Pandits, but attributing this to some sort of bias against the community would be incorrect. It must be noted that the trials of Kashmiri Pandits is not the only one Amnesty India is yet to comprehensively take up. It hasn’t worked on many other important issues, including communal violence, Dalit atrocities, violence against Adivasis in Central India and extra-judicial killings in North East, for example.
One reason for this is a resource crunch and lack of expertise. To extrapolate from this that the organisation does not care would be wrong. As far as I remember, it was never a taboo to take up the issues of Kashmiri Pandits. Had this not been the case, surely the organisers would not have invited a representative of the Kashmiri Pandit community on stage that evening.
Also, consider this statement by Amnesty, released in June 2014 (just after the change in power at the centre). It welcomes the then recent moves made to rehabilitate the families of Kashmiri Pandits who were forced to flee Kashmir in the wake of the militancy outbreak. The statement, though briefly, also answers several questions about Amnesty and its approach about various issues related to Kashmir. The reason Kashmiri Pandits were not asked to speak at the Broken Families event, was that it was pegged on a report. Titled, “Denied: Failures in accountability for human rights violations by security force personnel in Jammu and Kashmir”, the report was published last year and the recent Bengaluru event invited only family members of the victims mentioned in the report to speak.
Show Me The Money
Another allegation that has been doing the rounds is that Amnesty is driven by foreign agenda and funds. While there is no denying that Amnesty is an international organisation with global linkages and foreign counterparts, this certainly does not mean that it is driven by foreign money or agenda.
All the projects on which the organisation works are decided locally, independent of the international secretariat in London. The international secretariat has no role to play in decision making here, expect to maybe provide guidelines and an international human rights perspective. As far as Times Now’s speculation that Amnesty works in tandem with the United States of America’s Department of State – at the risk of puncturing the extraordinary imagination of The Newshour’s research team – this allegation is not only baseless, it’s also inexplicable since Amnesty is headquartered in London.
As far as funding is concerned, Amnesty India does not have Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) license, which means that it does not and cannot rely on foreign funding. For a non-governmental organisation to receive foreign funding, it needs this. Amnesty India has been raising funds for its operations locally ever since it restarted its projects in 2012.
In 2009, Amnesty had to close down its operations in India, owing to the cancellation of its FCRA license. And, mind you, this was done by the then Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), which now seems to be supporting the organisation in the wake of the recent attack. From 2012, the organisation has had a new beginning.
The majority of Amnesty India’s staff belong to the fund raising team, which includes tele-callers, face-to-face fundraisers and those who raise funds from high network individuals. This is not to suggest that Amnesty does not receive any ‘foreign funds’. However, what we need to understand is that the money received is part of the contractual work which Amnesty does as a private limited company.
Information about this has always been available in the public domain, on Amnesty’s website here and here. As Amnesty notes, “All relevant authorities in the Government of India are fully aware and updated about the two entities” of Amnesty International India – the Trust and the Private Limited Company.
The Jihad Problem
Another allegation that has gained prominence is of Amnesty being a supporter of jihadist ideology and Islamist forces. In 2010, Gita Sehgal, the former head of Gender Unit at Amnesty International, said in a statement that, “I felt that Amnesty International was risking its reputation by associating itself with [Moazzam] Begg, who heads an organization, Cageprisoners, that actively promotes Islamic Right ideas and individuals.” Sehgal’s contention lay in her belief that Begg was “Britain’s most famous supporter of the Taliban”. Hence, ‘collaborating’ with his organisation undermined “every aspect of the work we have done on discrimination against minorities,” in Sehgal’s words. “I cannot underestimate the level of horror expressed throughout the global women’s movement,” she was reported to have said.
Amnesty replied to this: “Begg speaks powerfully from personal experience about the abuses there. He advocates effectively the detainees’ rights to due process, and does so within the same framework of universal human rights standards that we are promoting.” In its statement, Amnesty also added, “If any evidence emerges that Moazzam Begg or Cageprisoners have promoted views antithetical to human rights, or have been involved in even more sinister activities, Amnesty International would disown its joint advocacy.”
And this is exactly what Amnesty International did in 2015, when it discontinued its tie-up with Begg and Cageprisoners. The organisational statement on the breakaway read:
“Amnesty no longer considers it appropriate to share a public platform with Cage and will not engage in coalitions of which Cage is a member. Recent comments made by Cage’s representatives have been completely unacceptable, at odds with human rights principles and serve to undermine the work of NGOs, including Amnesty International”.
The statement also acknowledged Sehgal’s point of view and again explained its stand:
“Gita’s view was that it was inappropriate for Amnesty International to share a platform with individuals and organisations whose religious or political views were inconsistent with the full range of rights and women’s rights in particular. Amnesty International has never questioned the integrity of this view or the sincerity with which Gita held it. However, it is not uncommon for NGOs to enter into coalitions with other organisations or groups on one specific issue despite their disagreement on others.”
Read the current debate and discussion around Amnesty, and it would seem as though Sehgal’s contentions were totally right and Amnesty has nothing to say by way of response. Worse, articles and editorial with headings such as “Amnesty International’s Jihad Problem” – with selective and out-of-context quotes – were published in no less than The Wall Street Journal.
Now, in the wake of the recent controversy, the right wing groups and the people associated with them are citing and circulating this to be gospel truth. Yet when Sehgal recently condemned the sedition charges against Amnesty India (while maintaining her previous stand), her condemnation did not make the headlines. “Nehru kin & Amnesty ex-top gun slams support to terror outfits,” reported The Times of India while Firstpost’s headline was “Former Amnesty International gender head Gita Sehgal accuses it of supporting terror groups”.
The State of Affairs
As the Karnataka Home Minister has observed, Amnesty India is not new to either India or Bengaluru. It’s been closely working with no less than the Karnataka police (especially in Bengaluru) on the issues of violence against women. Amnesty’s work has been twofold in this regard: to help the Police become more sensitive towards cases and victims of sexual harassment and violence, as well as to help the victims of sexual violence/harassment to report/file their cases. Its campaign Ready to Report was well received by the state as well as the public at large.
However, all this was hardly sufficient to deter the complainants and their political allies from spreading misinformation about the organisation and demanding its immediate ban. Why? Because Amnesty is driven by foreign funds and the organisation supports ‘jihadist’ projects that are biased towards Hindus, while ignoring human rights violations by non-state actors. From which we are supposed to conclude that Amnesty India is anti-Indian government and anti-national.
While the sedition charge against Amnesty India holds no water, we would do well to recognise that the humanitarian crises that we’re battling in our part of the world are complex and multifaceted. Amnesty India is too small an organisation to address and deal with all aspects of even one problem, like that of those who are victims of Kashmir’s history of violence. We require hundreds of organisations that will not pitch one community against another, but rather work towards redressing the wrongs people have suffered. Amnesty India is just one of them, and bringing their work to a standstill achieves nothing.