In 2012, when I joined Amnesty India, Manmohan Singh was prime minister, Barack Obama was US President and Sachin Tendulkar was still playing cricket.
On a leafy avenue in Bengaluru, in an office smelling of fresh paint, a dozen of us debated the issues the organisation would work on. Some of them were already the stuff of newspaper headlines: The crackdown on anti-nuclear protesters in Koodankulam, the violence against civilians by Maoist groups and security forces in Chhattisgarh.
But we were also eager to expose human rights violations that were too mundane or unpopular for mainstream media: How big mining companies were gobbling up Adivasi land in central India, why so many undertrials languished in India’s jails, the everyday atrocities that people faced in Kashmir.
Amnesty International had worked on human rights in India for decades, and had even earlier set up offices in the country. Where we would be different, we thought, was that our work would eventually be funded by ordinary Indians who cared about their country.
A few months after the office was set up, Ajmal Kasab was hanged. Amnesty was among the few groups to oppose the execution. I remember the messages that came our way from well-meaning friends: “Why are you sticking your necks out so early, and on this topic?”, “Why don’t you work with the government instead of opposing it?”. The answer was obvious, of course (the death penalty is the ultimate violation of the right to life), but I still remember the nervousness I felt making that point in a TV interview. On Twitter, I was called an anti-national for the first time.
Slowly, Amnesty India grew in size and scope. The effort was always to be as rigorous in research as we were robust in our campaigning. We worked with some of the most respected rights groups around: People’s Union for Civil Liberties, Human Rights Law Network, People’s Watch, Jammu-Kashmir Coalition for Civil Society.
But we also learned valuable lessons inside our offices. A free-seating arrangement meant that a researcher like me would often sit across the desk from a fundraiser whose work paid for my salary. It was a humbling, and abiding, reminder that the most idealistic work draws on the generosity of ordinary people.
Our fundraisers – colleagues who spent long days talking on the phone or on the street to people across the country, telling them about human rights issues, asking them to sign a petition or donate some money – were often as passionate as researchers and campaigners. When our campaign seeking justice for war crimes in Sri Lanka seemed to flag, the fundraisers were the first to remind campaigners to pull up their socks. Today, they all lost their jobs.
All the while, the smears kept coming, and faster after 2014. We were accused of being “anti-development” for questioning destructive coal mining, “Western-funded” for defending free speech, and “anti-Hindu” for condemning communal attacks.
Many of our campaigns actually focused on seemingly uncontroversial topics: Making police stations safer spaces for women to report sexual violence, exposing the exploitation of Indian migrant workers in Gulf countries, seeking justice for the 1984 Sikh massacre. And Amnesty’s international presence meant that we also demanded equality and accountability in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the USA (three countries we were frequently accused of ignoring).
Yet the whataboutery and vitriol continued. Slowly I learnt that they revealed where the government’s anxieties lay.
The loudest howls were always about Kashmir. As a global campaigning organisation, one of Amnesty’s strengths is its ability to draw international attention to human rights violations. And it was the advocacy on abuses by security forces in Kashmir that seemed to really annoy the government and its supporters.
A statement or press release from Amnesty on any of the myriad horrors that Kashmiris routinely face would invite the most bizarre reactions. Once, when seven Amarnath pilgrims were killed in a militant attack on a bus, Amnesty published a statement saying that the attack showed “utter contempt for human life”, and that the government needed to guard against reprisal attacks on Kashmiris. Republic TV sent a reporter to the office, demanding that we apologise for the statement because it spoke about reprisals.
Wins for human rights groups tend to be rare, and therefore memorable. I remember the day when we learned with jubilation that a special investigation team had been formed to re-investigate the anti-Sikh massacre of 1984. Suddenly all the years of effort by our campaigners and other groups seemed worth it.
I remember also welling up when Sheetal Sathe, a theatre activist arrested on fake charges, told us that she had not been tortured in prison probably because of the hundreds of letters that Amnesty supporters had sent to the jail in her support.
Like charity, human rights also begin at home. And Amnesty India was not perfect by any means. To correct the over-representation of people from dominant castes and religions in the office, we began an annual diversity census and tried to change our hiring practices. Was that enough? Of course not.
The most distressing time for me and many others at Amnesty came not when we were threatened with arrest or shutdown, but when our own colleagues said they had faced discrimination and humiliation within the office. An enquiry that found ‘discrimination by default’ in the workplace showed how pervasive caste privilege can get. Amnesty and all international NGOs in India have to dig deep to fix problems of systemic bias.
Why was Amnesty Important?
Its long history and the quality of its research gives Amnesty a seat at various international forums. It can hound the Indian government about its record on torture at the UN Human Rights Council. It can bring up compensation claims for survivors of the Bhopal gas leak at the US Senate. It can rally a protest about Delhi’s crackdown on dissent outside the Indian High Commission in London. It is this voice that the government needed silenced.
At a time when human rights stalwarts like Sudha Bhardwaj remain in jail, the forced shutdown of Amnesty India may seem only par for the course. It may make no difference to most people that Narendra Modi will join an infamous club of autocrats who have forced out Amnesty from their countries. But there is now one less powerful voice to speak globally for besieged Indians.
Yet, one thing I’ve learned from my time with the organisation is that Amnesty has always been about its supporters, and there are millions of them in India and the world. The flame has been rekindled before, and it will burn again.
(Shailesh Rai worked in Amnesty India from 2012 to 2019.)