Amnesty International in India: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow – Part 2

Amnesty International India
25 April 2015 10:39 am

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

(This is the second and concluding part of our previous blog “Amnesty International in India: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow”. The first part was published on 5 November 2014)

As part of Amnesty International’s movement-wide shift towards a distributed presence to ‘move closer to the ground’, we wanted to set up a national office in India which would be truly Indian in spirit, which was shaped by our supporters in India, and would eventually be funded entirely by contributions made by Indians. This approach is novel to the global Amnesty movement and there is quite a vigorous internal discussion on how best to combine this very “rooted in the country” approach with the fundamental tenet of Internationalism and International solidarity between citizens.

In 2012, when Amnesty International resumed operations in India, the goal over the 5-7 year period was very clear and there was tremendous confidence that this rooted presence could be achieved. The challenges though were in thinking through the few obvious questions that would set up the path to that goal.

1. What work should we choose to focus on, the issues that we should take up that will be meaningful in our Indian context, which would also leverage Amnesty International’s core capacities and track record as a global campaigning organization?

2. How could we bring change in the lives of Indians by defending and protecting their human rights enshrined in the Indian Constitution and in accordance with India’s obligations under international law? How best to focus without losing sight of the enormous variety of challenges that our society faces?

3. How would we reach out to/attract Indians who care about the issues of human rights and invite them to become part of the movement by contributing both with their voice and their wallet?

4. How do we get the financial resources needed to operate in this period?

5. Finally, how could Indians and India become human rights champions, leaders and global advocates of human rights across the world?

Out of this thought process evolved the programme of work, whose range and early impact this website has chronicled. People have responded very enthusiastically and literally millions have taken action and given voice in support of Amnesty International’s campaigns(including on international issues). Of the people that have taken action, about 65,000 Indians have made a financial contribution to the organization.

We had to think hard on the question of getting the financial resources that we needed in the next 5-7 years. How do we set ourselves up so that we access the financial support that was available from Amnesty International in a stable and predictable way in this period? How do we effectively and in the shortest possible time grow the financial support from people in our country?

Indians are among the most charitable in the world and more and more Indians both in the big middle class and in the burgeoning category of the wealthy are giving in support of causes close to them. Our approach to raising financial resources is two-fold. Approach the ‘person on the street’ with a request to extend their support for Amnesty International India through a small but regular contribution. Approach those with more wealth with a request to become a Friend and Patron of Amnesty International India and give us a “leg-up” in this phase. In the last two years, more than 65,000 Indians have generously contributed over 5 crore rupees. We are extremely proud of the fact our supporters represent a wide range of our society, from auto drivers to millionaires, who have found value in what we do and have made financial contributions.

Nevertheless it is a fact that without support from Amnesty International, Amnesty India could not have gotten off the ground nor can it sustain itself yet. And this is but natural and normal. The issue of “foreign funding” of Indian NGOs has always been controversial. Starting with Dr Manmohan’s Singh’s attack on NGOs in 2012 to Mr Modi’s recent comments on five-star activists, the issue has acquired new heat, witnessed noisy debates, sensational headlines and has been the cause of significant polarization in public opinion.

Back in 2012, when we had to think about the question of how to access the financial support that was available from Amnesty International in this period, we had to design the structures and legal entities in such a way that it combined the functional requirements of stability with predictability, the principled requirement for transparency and complete legal and statutory compliance with what was standard best practice in Amnesty International.

The FCRA was, and is, a much-abused law, and NGOs have experienced the unfairness of it both in the bureaucratic sense of inordinate delays (especially for those that seek prior permissions) and in the more overt sense of it being used too often to curb the freedom of expression of NGOs especially those that work on issues that hold up the mirror and demand accountability from the powers that be. Recent actions on Greenpeace India are an extreme example of this long standing tendency.

In several countries around the world, Amnesty operates through a combination of two structures, a tax-exempt organization regulated by charity laws and a taxable entity that is regulated by company laws. Therefore, in India as well, Amnesty International India operates through two entities. A charitable Trust which helps us reach out to our supporters to help build a broad-based human rights movement. A second entity, which is a tax-paying private limited company, that undertakes human rights research projects, technological product development, consultancy etc. on a contractual basis. The largest clients being different entities of the global Amnesty International movement. (Read earlier blog HERE)

All relevant authorities in the Government of India are fully aware and updated about Amnesty International India’s two entities. We always knew that any attempts to receive prior permissions under the FCRA would face severe delays and the organizations would need access to some sort of credit facility to help pay the bills while the permission process plays out. The trust decided to secure overdraft facilities from Indian banks to meet this need. With the deteriorating environment for NGOs and the increasing use of FCRA to curb the freedom of expression of NGOs we decided very soon after we started that we would not pursue the FCRA prior permission route at all. And we would rely on the overdraft facilities to tide us over till enough resources were available domestically to cover the budgets of the charity. We intend to reach the stage where the charity does not draw further on the overdraft by the end of the current financial year. In other words, the charity is expected to receive as much Indian donation income as it spends. This year we hope to receive between 35% and 40% of the full budget (that covers our entire operations) from Indian donations.

The taxable entity has received and executed several different types of assignments covering a range of topics. Ranging from field research and documentation (for example, on the plight of abused Indian migrant workers in the Gulf region) to building supporter relationship platforms in order to systematically engage with our supporter community to developing and testing of innovative ideas (for example on using voice rather than text to communicate human rights messages on mobile phones as a strategy to reach out to people not comfortable with reading). We are proud of the fact that the global Amnesty movement has begun to progressively leverage the capacities of Amnesty India especially on innovative use of technology in defending and protecting Human Rights for supporting Amnesty International in countries of the global south. The taxable entity is also providing support to a few local NGOs at little or no cost on leveraging technology for social impact.

Like every other Amnesty office around the world, we do not accept money from governments or companies for our human rights research, campaigning and advocacy. We accept contributions from carefully-vetted businesses for our human rights education work especially in support of a dedicated Human Rights Education Centre that we hope to set up.

Our goal has always been simple and consistent—To be an independent, effective, deep rooted organization in India working to protect the Rights of all Indians especially the vulnerable, marginalized, the victims of human rights abuses and those that stand up to defend those rights. Our goal also is to help Indians raise their voices on human rights issues overseas and on global human rights issues, as befitting their status as citizens of the world’s largest democracy. It has been our intention to work together with a variety of civil society and community based organisations ranging from schools, to media houses, to other civil society organizations. We are equally comfortable in collaborating with people and Institutions of the state and holding up the mirror and speaking ‘truth to power’.

We have worked to protect the rights of those who face serious human rights abuses across India: Adivasis in Chhattisgarh whose 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 pre-trial detention, women in Bangalore who want to report incidents of sexual violence to the police, 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. We have run campaigns to hold other powerful countries to account.

With the continued, sustained and long term support of Indians from all walks of life, Amnesty International India will grow from strength to strength and make an important contribution to the dream of transforming India into a Rights Respecting Society.