Aakar Patel On The State of Human Rights In India

Amnesty International India
27 January 2020 1:48 pm

On 30 November 2019, Aakar Patel stepped down as the Honourary Managing Trustee of  Amnesty International India. In his last conversation, Aakar talks about some of the most difficult and delightful moments from his tenure and what lies ahead for human rights in India.

Q1) What was your vision for Amnesty International India, when you joined?

When I entered, I was aware of the fact that I did not know enough about the role of civil society organisations (CSOs) and Amnesty International India. But, I found that the organisation already had a strong strategic direction, a vision and a pathway to reach there. All of us join Amnesty because we are aligned with its broad values. Our role is to push it along the road a little more. 

Especially, for Amnesty International India, I felt the objective was its survival. No matter the number and intensity of the crackdowns we faced, we should not be in a position where we spend another 10-15 years without a human rights organisation of this kind. 

Q2) From a fearless newspaper editor to leading Amnesty in India, what have been some of your takeaways?

I liked what Amnesty International India stood for and the possibilities for that kind of work in a country like India. I was amazed at the quality of people that not only the organisation but the sector seems to attract. I think people from the outside do not recognize the dedication of the people in CSOs who work for, what many would consider, modest sums of money as salaries. 

Q3) In the current state of human rights in India, what is Amnesty International India’s role?

Amnesty International India’s contribution to the human rights narrative of this country is simply its presence.

We are working on the most important issues of our time. If you are a human rights organisation in India, you cannot not work on Kashmir or Assam. That’s what Amnesty International India does. The fact that we stand here, despite the troubles we have faced, is very important. 

It would have been easy for us to say that we will try and build our membership base first and take on issues like Kashmir once we are self-sufficient. But that is not who we are. We might get in trouble, but that does not stop us from speaking up on gross human rights violations. 

We will wait to find out whether or not this work is meaningful in the longer run, but the very fact that we do it at all is the contribution we bring. 

Having said that, I hope that 4 years from now, the parameters are less modest than this. Our existence should not be our only meaning and survival should not be the only goal. 

Q4) Yours has been a challenging tenure, with the crackdown against Amnesty International India and many other CSOs. What kept you going?

Each of us has a different motivation for carrying on. For me the most enjoyable moments, retrospectively of course, were the difficult bits, when I had to think about how to rally the organisation internally, how to face the challenges with the government and how to make sure our supporters stay with us. 

These tough questions that we need to answer in the heat of the moment are the ones that really stay in the mind. It is unusual for people to have these kinds of moments in their professional lives. Often, in our professional lives, we don’t have enough stake in what we do. It is different here, there’s a sense of ownership.

Q5) Where can Amnesty International India improve?

Unfortunately, human rights groups and CSOs in India don’t have as strong a link with the state as in other countries. The fault here is of the state, that it doesn’t want to engage with us. It is suspicious of what it sees as ‘agendas’, that the groups bring. However, I think that this will change.

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I think there is no reason why the state, which is the largest agent of change, would not engage with the civil society.

Amnesty International India believes that it can bring about change not through revolution but through engaging with the law and policy process. And I think, in the next 5 to 10 years there will be change.

Q6) What would be your parting advice to the team at Amnesty International India?

I would listen to them rather than give them advice. I have more to learn from them than they do from me and the lesson I would take from them is – many heads are better than one. It is a good thing to operate with consensus. Process-driven, rules-based organisations, like ours, tend to do better in the long run. 

Q7) What would be your advice to the next Executive Director, Avinash Kumar?

In my 30 years of working, I have not learnt as much in any other job as I have learnt here. It is a phenomenal place to work with smart people who are highly motivated and dedicated. I doubt whether there is any other organisation in India that has faced the kind of challenges that we have in the last 4 years and may face even in the future. But, for me the best bits were trying to figure out the answers to the difficult questions that emerged during those times. And I hope he, and she after that, and I hope it is a she after he, enjoys it as much as I have.

Q8) What lies ahead for you?

I’ll go back to retirement. I’ll write, read, and take my dog for a walk. I will continue to be a supporter for Amnesty International India. I give a monthly contribution that I am very proud of and if I’m required in any other way, I’m here.

We, at Amnesty International India, thank Aakar for his fearless leadership that enabled us to continue our work in India, despite several challenges.