Amnesty International in India: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow – Part 1

Amnesty International India
5 November 2014 3:33 pm

By G. Ananthapadmanabhan (Chief Executive, Amnesty International India)

Pop quiz: what is common to L K Advani, Jayaprakash Narayan, Soni Sori and Irom Sharmila?

The answer, as those familiar with Amnesty International’s work in India may know, is that they have all been at some point Amnesty International ‘Prisoners of Conscience’ – people detained only for peacefully exercising their right to free expression. Amnesty campaigned for the release of L K Advani and Jayaprakash Narayan when they were arrested during the Emergency, and continues to call for charges against Soni Sori and Irom Sharmila to be dropped.

Amnesty International has a long history in India – our first office was established in 1966 in Bihar, only five years after the organization came into being. We have campaigned on issues ranging from the detention of political prisoners in West Bengal in 1973, to extrajudicial executions in Punjab in 1985, the arrests of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in 1991, custodial torture in Jammu and Kashmir in 1995 and the illegal detention of Muslims in Gujarat in 2003. And we have never had to look far to explain why these issues are important: Amnesty’s fundamental values – liberty, justice, equality and dignity – also explicitly lie at the core of India’s Constitution.

Over the years, we have had our share of appreciation (mostly from those who defend human rights) and criticism (mostly from governments). One rare compliment from a ruling dispensation did come after the end of the Emergency in 1977, when the new Prime Minister Morarji Desai, from the Janata Party, said, “My colleagues and I warmly recall the efforts made by Amnesty International for the restoration of fundamental freedoms and civil liberties.”

We have of course had our share of issues, which has led to internal conflicts, rifts with other activist groups, and closure of offices (even as our work on human rights issues in India continued). In 2009, our office in New Delhi had to close down, partly due to problems with receiving funding from the Amnesty International global movement (which is funded mainly by small donations and membership fees from millions of ordinary people across the world).

In July 2012, another attempt to establish Amnesty International in India, as part of a global Amnesty mission to distribute the organization’s presence and establish bigger offices in developing countries, led to an office being set up – the largest and most autonomous one yet – in Bangalore.

Our ambition from the beginning was to make this office different: one that would have all its functions – research, campaigns, advocacy, human rights education – rooted in India, one that would make all its own decisions, and one that over time would be funded entirely by contributions from ordinary Indians.

And we are getting there. In a little over two years, we have been fortunate enough to have had over 50,000 Indians donate small sums of money to us, and over 25,00,000 Indians support one of our human rights actions. A number of prominent Indians have also made larger contributions to our office. In the last two years, we have raised over 5 crore rupees from Indians.

Amnesty India works, among other issues, to protect the rights of Adivasis, especially their rights to free prior and informed consent when their land is sought by mining corporations; victims of rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir unable to access justice; undertrials in Karnataka and Delhi subjected to excessive pretrial detention; and low-paid migrant workers in Kerala headed for the Gulf who face deception and exploitation during their recruitment.

We have engaged with the National Human Rights Commission, various state governments, and central Ministries in our efforts. We have reached over 25,000 students as part of our education programme to make schools take human rights more seriously and integrate them into their everyday culture, environment and the curriculum.

At Amnesty International India, we also do our bit to hold other powerful countries to account – we have run campaigns seeking accountability from the US government for alleged war crimes in Afghanistan, the release of activists arrested in China for supporting pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, and an end to Saudi Arabia’s muzzling of civil society dissent.

Like some Amnesty offices in other countries, Amnesty International India operates through two entities – a charitable trust (which is registered under sections 12A and 80G of the Income Tax Act), which carries out our human rights education work and reaches out to members, donors and supporters to help build a broad-based human rights movement; and a tax-paying private limited company, which provides research consultancy and technological services to other organisations in the social sector.

The trust also has access to secure overdraft facilities to tide over any financial gaps. The company undertakes human rights research projects, technological product development, etc. on a contractual basis. Although the company has a few smaller NGOs as its clients, its largest client by far is the rest of the Amnesty International movement worldwide. Amnesty International India’s research, campaigning and advocacy work are undertaken by staff employed by the company.

This diversity of financial sources – and our insistence that we will not accept money from governments or companies for our human rights work – ensures that we can be genuinely free and fair in everything we do.

At Amnesty India, we take pride in being able to say that we are fully compliant with all statutory requirements under Indian law and are meticulous in our reporting to all statutory and government authorities, be they income tax authorities, the Reserve Bank of India, the Company Law Board or the Registrar of Companies.

We are not registered under the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act, a law often abused to harass and persecute NGOs working to improve people’s lives. And while Amnesty International India is not there yet, we are confident that within the next five years, we would be fully supported by contributions from Indians, and this will eventually ensure that we will never need FCRA permission either.

Our vision is for Amnesty International India to be an organization that is truly Indian in spirit, whose direction is shaped by our members and activists. Join us, and let’s work together towards an India that we can all be proud of!

Continue reading part 2 here.