July 24, 2021
Hello and welcome to All Indians Matter. I am Ashraf Engineer.
Over the past few days, as the media blew the lid off the Pegasus internal surveillance operation, the Bharatiya Janata Party government scrambled to deflect focus off itself. It came up with a, well, let’s call it unusual, ploy. Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, who hails from the BJP, blamed human rights body Amnesty International for the allegations and demanded a total ban on it. Let me quickly recap the Pegasus expose for those of you who are unfamiliar with it. It has come to light that there was unauthorised surveillance of the mobile phones of at least 300 Indian politicians, journalists, activists and others. This was done using technology from the Israeli vendor, the NSO Group. This is a grossly criminal act and it naturally sparked off a firestorm with most people pointing a finger at the government. Under fire in India and abroad, the BJP responded with its familiar, unimaginative line: this is a “well-designed international conspiracy to defame Prime Minister Narendra Modi”. Sarma said: “Amnesty International is a partner in this investigation. Now we all know the role of Amnesty. They are encouraging left wing-terrorism in India… working overnight to defame the country.” He went on to say that the organisation would go “to any extent to defame India’s democratic fabric.” While this is a lame effort to shrug off blame, this is not the first time the government has targeted Amnesty. Last year, it was forced to shut operations in India after the government froze its bank accounts. Why exactly is Amnesty in the government’s sights?
In September last year, there was a wave of outrage across the globe as Amnesty International halted work in India after the Indian government froze its bank accounts.
This was part of a wide crackdown on critics of the government and those working to protect fundamental rights, said an alliance of human rights organisations that included the likes of the International Commission of Jurists, International Federation for Human Rights, CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, Front Line Defenders, Human Rights Watch, International Service for Human Rights, South Asians for Human Rights and the World Organisation Against Torture.
The BJP said Amnesty India had violated laws on foreign funding, an allegation the rights body said was politically motivated and is activated when anyone challenges the government.
The BJP government has consistently cracked down on people critical of it, even using laws related to terrorism and sedition. Its targets include human rights activists, academicians, students and even journalists. The so-called crimes range from protesting against a controversial citizenship law to simply trying to cover the gangrape and murder of a Dalit woman in BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh.
These are not the actions of a democratic regime. They are those of an authoritarian one hell bent on suppressing dissent and tolerant of only one view – its own.
Despite that, voices opposing the government’s policies keep rising. Take the farmers’ protests or the those against the abolition of Article 370 that gave special status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir, and the subsequent splitting of the state.
In fact, it was Amnesty’s two reports on the situation in Jammu and Kashmir and the riots in Delhi that served as the flashpoint with the government last year. On August 5, 2020, the first anniversary of the dilution of Article 370, Amnesty released an update on human rights in Jammu and Kashmir. Earlier, it had called for the release of all political detainees and the resumption of high-speed internet services in the region.
On August 28, it released the findings of an investigation into the complicity of the Delhi police in the violence in Delhi, which killed at least 53, mostly Muslims, after protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act.
These two reports, Amnesty claimed, “provided fresh impetus to the establishment to harass and intimidate” it.
The reports weren’t the only thorns in the government’s side. In 2019, Amnesty testified before the US Foreign Affairs Committee during a hearing on human rights in South Asia, highlighting arbitrary detentions and the use of torture in Kashmir.
Earlier, in October 2018, its offices in Bangalore were raided by the Enforcement Directorate for alleged financial crimes. At that time, too, its accounts were frozen but Amnesty was able to access them after a court intervention. In early 2019, Amnesty alleged that many of its donors were sent letters by the Income-Tax Department and its offices were raided again, this time by the Central Bureau of Investigation.
Rajat Khosla, Amnesty’s senior director of research, advocacy and policy, told the BBC: “Amnesty International India has been facing an onslaught of attacks, bullying and harassment by the government in a very systematic manner. This is all down to the human rights work that we were doing and the government not wanting to answer questions we raised.”
It’s almost as if the authorities believe in shooting the messenger rather than dealing with the implications of the message.
The proverbial tip of the spear in the government’s charge against Amnesty has been the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, better known as FCRA, a law broadly condemned for violating international human rights law to target vocal groups. Even United Nations experts have urged the government to repeal the law, saying it is “being used more and more to silence organisations involved in advocating civil, political, economic, social, environmental or cultural priorities, which may differ from those backed by the government”.
Yet, the government only added more teeth to the law, including further oversight, regulations, certification processes, and other operational requirements that could restrict access to foreign funding for non-governmental organisations.
It must be noted that there was pressure on outspoken groups even before the BJP came to power in 2014. What’s changed is the focus and intensity of the pressure. Shailesh Rai, who was policy director at Amnesty International India until 2019, was quoted as saying: “What’s changed after 2014 is the sharpening of the attack. These are far more brazen and frequent. Because the government is confident in its majority, it sees it fit to go after activists. There are troll armies used to build pressure and delegitimise (dissent). Many more media organisations (are) toeing the government line too.”
Amitabh Behar, who was CEO of Oxfam India, was quoted as saying: “Every successive government has had a deep suspicion and distrust of the civil society organisation. Earlier, the relationship was that (the state says) you survive and we will try to monitor, regulate and sometimes use the bureaucracy and the state apparatus against you. Now it’s more like, fall in line or we won’t let you exist.”
The government says it is insisting on transparency in the NGO sector, but this hypocritical. The fact is that such organisations have oversight in the form of the Charity Commissioner, the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Income-Tax Department, etc, while there is no transparency around funds like PM-CARES and electoral bonds.
If we want to live in a democracy, then it means there will be civil society acting as the watchdog. It’s part of the checks and balances needed to hold government accountable. Without it, our freedoms would be under serious threat – as they are now.
As for the BJP’s attempt to shield itself from the Pegasus expose by blaming Amnesty, it’s unlikely to work. The expose is making international waves and it isn’t going away anytime soon. As citizens, knowing the truth behind it is our right. And we shouldn’t stop demanding it.
Thank you all for listening. Please visit allindiansmatter.in for more columns and audio podcasts. You can follow me on Twitter at @AshrafEngineer and @AllIndiansCount. Search for the All Indians Matter page on Facebook. On Instagram, the handle is @AllIndiansMatter. Email me at email@example.com. Catch you again soon.