Why Amnesty Has Irked Indian Govts & Why It Is Hard To Remove

28 Jul 2021 6 min read  Share

Over the last five years, Amnesty International faced a sedition case, government raids and frozen bank accounts. In 2020 it halted India operations. As it partners the Pegasus phone-hack expose globally, some in the ruling party now accuse it of an ‘anti-India’ agenda and threaten a ban. Its chair explains why Amnesty irked the government, despite working with its departments, and why it is hard to remove.


Bangalore: The citation for the Nobel Peace Prize for 1977 opens with this paragraph: “Amnesty International is a worldwide human-rights organization run by its members. It is independent of all governments and all financial players. It is also independent of political convictions and religious faiths.”

The independence bit refers to Amnesty’s policy of accepting no funding from governments or corporations. The bit about political convictions refers to Amnesty’s desire to engage on human rights with all governments even if they are despotic.

The thing that is less understood about Amnesty is the first line. That it is a movement run by members. The ownership of Amnesty International is not with any fixed set of individuals or even with a parent organisation. It is floating ownership that resides in millions of individuals around the world. 

The members elect boards at the national and global level that are empowered to recruit the executive and the bureaucracy (composed of expert professionals, such as researchers, advocates and so on) who do the evidence-gathering that is at the core of Amnesty International’s work. The members are investors in the human rights space. 

Because of this unusual structure, Amnesty’s presence in countries can often itself be fluid. In India, the organisation has been represented over the decades by several disconnected groups. It began five decades ago, about a decade after Amnesty International had been set up, when George Fernandes was a member. 

When that set of members either passed away or dispersed, another set came. Sometimes there was a gap of years when this happened. Over the decades, several different groups have come together in India to set up an Amnesty International structure. 

At times, they would have the resources to also establish the executive and bureaucracy. The writer Mukul Sharma was the director of Amnesty under one such structure a decade and a half or so ago. Others have come and gone before him. 

No Indian Government Wanted Amnesty Around

Another reason why the Amnesty organisation was fluid was that no government wanted it to be around. During the Emergency, Lal Krishna Advani was an Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience and the organisation campaigned globally for his release and that of others, such as Jayprakash Narayan, from jail.

This is why Indian governments have always sought to shut the organisation and stop its work. 

To illustrate what sort of actions governments take, let us consider what has happened under this government. On 15 August 2016, a sedition case was filed against Amnesty India by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the youth wing of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. 

This happened at an event where Kashmiri women were talking about justice for their missing and killed children. The sedition case was tossed out by a court in 2019 after police found no evidence and the complainant did not show up even once.

On 25 October 2018, the organisation was subjected to a search and seizure (‘raid’) by the Enforcement Directorate. 

Amnesty’s accounts were frozen and it was accused of offences under the Foreign Exchange Management Act, 1999. A writ was moved in high court seeking relief on the grounds that the freezing was unlawful. This was granted and the accounts could be accessed. 

On 15 November 2019, the Central Bureau of Investigation conducted a search and seizure (‘raid’) at the Amnesty office.

The accusation was fraud under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, 2010. On 10 September 2020, the Enforcement Directorate again froze Amnesty’s accounts, alleging an offence under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act. 

Once again, the high court was moved on the grounds that the freeze was unlawful. Once again relief was granted

The Enforcement Directorate now ‘attached' the accounts, making legal relief difficult. 

News in 2020 of Amnesty International halting its operations in India because of government action must be seen from this perspective. Amnesty International India said that it was unable to establish organisational continuity given that its accounts had been frozen without a trial or conviction. It had no access to resources to defend itself in court or to pay salaries and statutory liabilities.

A Record Of Working With Government

The ban would mean two things. First, that about 160 or so employees would be out of work immediately. Second, that there would be a halt to the lines of human-rights work that Amnesty India had been invested in. 

These lines of work included some pieces where the State engaged with the human rights body, such as on gender-based violence. Amnesty India had programmes where it associated with the police forces in Karnataka and Maharashtra to try and improve the reporting of sexual violence. It had also for several years been working with Western Railways on the same issue. 

It had a programme of human-rights education, in which it was working with schools and governments around India, and part of that dealt with sexual violence against children. This has now ended. 

On other issues the State did not engage with Amnesty India. On Kashmir the organisation produced research reports (usually long pieces of on-ground evidence gathering with lots of data) on human rights violations concerning the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958, the use of pump-action shotguns as a method of crowd control and the preventive detention law, the Public Safety Act, 1978. 

In Chhattisgarh, it researched freedom of expression and the misuse of laws curbing the freedom of journalists by often jailing them. In the recent past it had reports out on the National Register of Citizens in Assam and on the riots in Delhi after the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 protests were violently broken up. 

Amnesty’s research reports are often used as the basis for international action. For example, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights at the United Nations for the first time put out two reports on Kashmir in 2018 and 2019.

Why Amnesty Will Probably Return

A large part of the findings on these reports, which were put out under two different high commissioners including the current office holder Michelle Bachelet, the former president of Chile, are based on Amnesty India’s findings. There are about four dozen references to Amnesty India in the first report alone. This is the reason why, especially in Kashmir, the government of India does not want Amnesty to operate. Even meeting journalists publicly in Srinagar was forbidden to Amnesty India staffers. 

The US State department’s 2020 report on human rights in India, the recent United States Commission on International Religious Freedom’s report which marks India as a ‘country of particular concern’, the European Union’s members of parliament’s motion on India and United Nations Special Rapporteurs’ frequent interventions on India all make reference to material gathered by Amnesty. 

This may be seen as a reflection of the organisation’s credibility and may also be seen as a reason why a government might want it to be shut down. Today when the organisation is in the news for being a part of the expose on Pegasus and being accused of having an “anti-India” agenda and being threatened with a ban it would be instructive to know its history and the motivation of the people who have been part of it. 

Amnesty International is best understood as being something akin to the United Nations. There is a Secretary General and a head office. But the individual units that make up the UN (nations) are independent and their governments elected by voters (members in the case of Amnesty) keep changing. 

So long as there are individuals in India who believe in the sort of things that Amnesty stands for globally—individual freedoms and liberties based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which India is a signatory—there will be an Amnesty presence. It has been shut down for now as it has been often in the past. But given its history it will probably return again and soon.  

(Aakar Patel is Chair of Amnesty International India.)