Amnesty International India (AII) is in the spotlight after its event in Bengaluru on August 13 titled ‘Broken Families’ — as part of a multi-city campaign to seek justice for victims of human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir — attracted a charge of sedition. With some members of the audience shouting ‘Azadi’ slogans and the police registering an FIR upon a complaint by Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) activists, AII Executive Director Aakar Patel insists that his organisation is neither confrontational nor biased and believes in working with the government. Excerpts from an interview:
Are there fears about Amnesty’s functioning in India following the Bengaluru brouhaha? Where does it leave its Kashmir human rights campaign?
I think it will change the way the campaign was planned; a series of events were planned in Bengaluru, Mumbai and Delhi. The one in Mumbai was to be held last week and obviously that didn’t happen as planned. We have to figure out how to take this forward. We are not going to stop the campaign. We just need to recalibrate the strategy to put the evidence we have gathered forward.
AII has pointed out that none of its employees raised any slogans or comments, but what is its position on the raising of “Azadi” slogans by Kashmiri youth?
The statements on our employees were in response to specific comments and questions raised in the complaint by the ABVP. The Constitution guarantees free speech to Indian citizens, and on the question of sedition I think the law is quite settled. I don’t believe the issue is one of how and what sentiment was expressed, the issue is of whether it was seditious. The Supreme Court itself has recognised that for speech to amount to sedition, it needs to involve incitement to violence. And I don’t think anybody has made that allegation and so it doesn’t amount to sedition. This is a debate we need to move away from.
So, to be clear, Amnesty defends the right of the youth to have raised slogans and takes full responsibility for all that was said at the event?
The Supreme Court defends the right of those youth to say what it is they want to say without incitement to violence. It’s not Amnesty’s right to give or take that right.
Amnesty’s credibility has been questioned after allegations of supporting groups linked to ‘jihadis’ in the U.K., allegations that were made by a former senior employee. That raises serious doubts over whether you are unbiased in raising issues…
I would ask people who have read these stories to see the five-decade track record of Amnesty and the work it has done on human rights, particularly the ones on ‘armed groups’. We have done work on the Taliban, on Balochistan, on ISI [Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence]. It would be incorrect to say that the image of the organisation has suffered because of some allegations. When you deal with things like torture, there will be certain difficult issues or individuals one has to deal with. But I don’t think anyone who looks at Amnesty’s track record, neutrally and in detail, will find what you are saying to be true.
But don’t you take strong ideological positions and an extremely confrontational approach? Doesn’t that destroy the scope for a dialogue?
That is a question of perception and a wrong one. The way in which we function is through evidence-based research. For instance, our report on Kashmir was based on three years of research. It found that the J&K police have been filing FIRs since 1989 for crimes they claimed were committed by the armed forces. Charges were filed and sent to the Centre so it may lift Section 7 of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act for these individuals to be tried in a civilian court. But our research shows that whether it is Congress or the BJP, not even in one instance was this approved. It was incumbent on us to put these facts forward and we do it in a non-confrontational way.
A section of the polity, however, seems to have declared you as having taken sides and being biased.
I wish they would relook that. Our aim is to help a society look at issues that we have researched in great depth and see if it agrees with what we have come up with.
Such events are not new to Amnesty. Was there a mistake in the way the event in Bengaluru was planned? Was it wise, given the emotive nature of the issue, to have such a platform with two diametrically opposite groups, youth from the Valley and those from Jammu?
The focus of the event was on the impunity that surrounds human rights violations in Kashmir. The alienation in the Valley is linked in part to this impunity, so it is important to talk about these issues and address them, particularly given the situation in Kashmir right now.
What purpose do these events have in the context of the conflict? Do you really believe they make a difference?
In all our work, whether on 1984 [the anti-Sikh riots] or on the demand for justice in Kashmir, I believe it is incumbent on human rights organisations to take it to the people, whether through the media or public events. Through these events, we had hoped that people in other cities in India would be able to hear first-hand from families in Kashmir who’ve suffered human rights violations, and be inspired to take action to demand justice.
Would you say that it has become impossible to have a tempered debate on Kashmir? And such debates could inevitably lead to comments construed as “anti-national”?
My personal view — and not the organisation’s view — is that it has become difficult in the recent past to speak about certain issues without being labelled.
The term ‘anti-national’ is a much abused one, and has been used often in recent times to attack legitimate expression. It is undoubtedly difficult to have a tempered debate on Kashmir, but we have to continue to keep trying if we hope to make any progress.
The BJP president has given a public call to “isolate” those making “anti-national statements”, though there was no specific reference to Amnesty. Would that mean that there is no scope for a constructive engagement with the Government of India?
I hope those comments were not for us as he didn’t mention us. Our work succeeds when we work with the state and we offer well-researched reports on the basis of which they could take action. Some of the BJP’s intellectual icons, such as Syama Prasad Mookerjee, were ardent advocates of freedom of expression. All our political parties need to be less fearful of dialogue around difficult issues. A country which aspires to be a global superpower must recognise the importance of the role that civil society plays, even when it raises difficult and uncomfortable questions.
The sedition charge against Amnesty in the FIR has raised serious questions. Have you or will you take up the matter with the political leadership in the State, given that the Congress party took a strong stand against such charges in the JNU case?
There have already been some welcome statements from leaders at the Central and State level which appear to recognise that the sedition case should not have been filed. We are cooperating with the ongoing investigation.
You have pointed out that the original complaint did not mention Amnesty, but the FIR does. Is there a fear that individuals associated with the Amnesty event may be targeted?
Amnesty will stand by everyone who faces criminal action for legitimately exercising their right to freedom of expression.
You have clarified that foreign funding issue is not for AII, but is of relevance for Amnesty South Asia and the two are different entities. How would Amnesty see these events from a global point of view?
Unfortunately the tightening of restrictions on civil society is a phenomenon that can be seen in many countries around the world. Top UN experts have said that the FCRA [Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act] violates international human rights standards on freedom of association. India must not be seen as regressing on its commitment to fundamental rights.
Read this opinion at : ‘Kashmir’s alienation linked to impunity’
Source: The Hindu – Interviews