Space for civil society and dissent is shrinking: Amnesty International India Executive Director

This is a Q&A that the Hindustan Times conducted with Aakar Patel, Amnesty International India’s Executive Director

Police filed an FIR under various sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), including section 124A – sedition, against Amnesty International India on Monday for alleged raising of “anti-India” slogans at an event held by the organisation in Bengaluru.

The alleged sloganeering at the event — held to highlight human rights abuses in Jammu and Kashmir – earned the ire of right-wing students group Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP).

In an email interview with HT, the organisation’s executive director, Aakar Patel, rejects the charges and says the government needs to uphold the freedom of expression.

Q : What was the nature of the event in Bengaluru and what exactly happened there that resulted in the FIR? Have you organised such events about Human Rights violations in Kashmir before? If yes, have you faced any problems with the authority before this?

A: The event was held [on Saturday, August 13] as part of a campaign based on the report “Denied: Failures in accountability for human rights violations by security force personnel in Jammu and Kashmir”, published in July 2015, and publicly available.

We had planned to organise events in three cities– Bangalore, Mumbai and Delhi this August. At these events, families from Jammu and Kashmir who had suffered rights violations were to share their personal stories of grief and loss with the people.

The event began with a welcome address by Tara Rao, programmes director, followed by the screening of three short videos profiling the cases of the three families who had been invited. This was followed by an enactment by a theatre group of the alleged extra-judicial execution of a 21-year-old Kashmiri man Altaf Ahmad Shah, based on the testimony of his father Ali Mohammad Shah.

Senior journalist Seema Mustafa then moderated a discussion with members of two other families from Kashmir and RK Mattoo, who Amnesty International India invited to speak about violations faced by the Kashmiri Pandit community. The event ended with a performance by rapper Roushan Illahi.

Towards the end of the event, some of those who attended raised slogans, some of which referred to calls for ‘Azaadi’ (freedom).

In July 2015, we held a press conference at the Constitutional Club, New Delhi to release a report titled “‘Denied’: Failures in accountability for human rights violations by security force personnel in Jammu and Kashmir.” We did not face any problems with authorities on that occasion.

The report documented the obstacles to justice faced in several cases of human rights violations believed to have been committed by Indian security force personnel in Jammu and Kashmir. It focused particularly on Section 7 of the Armed Forces (Jammu and Kashmir) Special Powers Act, 1990 (Afspa), which grants virtual immunity to members of the security forces from prosecution in civilian courts for alleged human rights violations.

The report was based on in-depth research in Jammu and Kashmir, including interviews with family members of victims, Right to Information applications, examination of police and court records, and interviews with civil society groups, lawyers, and government officials.

Q: Last year, on the occasion of 25 years of Afspa in Kashmir, Amnesty released a report on human rights violations in Kashmir during the years of Afspa. Were there any attempts to stop the publication of the report then? If not, why do you now think has this sedition charge been made against Amnesty now? Do you think the authorities are especially touchy about Kashmir at present owing to the situation there?

A: There were no attempts to stop the publication. Amnesty International India sent a copy of the report to authorities in the ministry of home affairs and the ministry of defence. No response was received. The report’s recommendations were welcomed by the People’s Democratic Party.

The allegations mentioned in the ABVP complaint against Amnesty International India are without any substance. We would not want to guess at why the sedition case has been filed on the basis of such a flimsy complaint. However it is true that the space for civil society and dissent in India has been shrinking.

Q: How did you come to know about the sedition charge? Has a copy of the FIR been sent to you?

A: We initially came to know about the case through media reports. We received a copy of the FIR on the evening of 16 August.

Q: Conservative groups have in the past made allegations against human rights workers. But the fact that the police has registered an FIR in this case, what does it say about our current social and political scenario? And how difficult does it become for human rights workers to work in such conditions?

A: Various state governments have used the sedition law to clamp down on activists who are critical of government policies. The government needs to respect the rights of these individuals and organizations to freedom of expression and association.

Q: While there are human rights violations elsewhere in the country too, the Northeast for example, do you think the authorities are especially defensive about the situation in Kashmir? Please elaborate.

A: The armed forces and successive central governments have resisted attempts to amend or repeal the Afspa both in Jammu and Kashmir and in states in the Northeast. Despite various Indian and international bodies recommending the repeal of the law, it has continued to enable impunity for decades.

Q: Will this FIR change Amnesty’s working pattern in India in any way? Also, if the sedition charge is not withdrawn, how does Amnesty intend to defend itself? Do you fear a possibility of Amnesty being barred from working in Kashmir or the rest of India?

A: Amnesty International is and will continue to be committed to working on and highlighting human rights abuses in India and around the world. The allegations made against us are baseless, and will be proved to be so.