Amnesty in the eye of storm, again

During the Emergency, when Bharatiya Janata Party leader L  K Advani, then part of the Jan Sangh, was arrested, Amnesty International named him a “Prisoner of Conscience”, a label it assigns to people detained for exercising their freedom of expression.

Four decades later, the non-government organisation (NGO) that fights for human rights issues, is facing severe criticism and violent protests for its alleged anti-India activities. Leading from the front is the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), a students’ organisation affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

An ABVP representative has filed a case of sedition against the NGO for, among other things, allegedly raising “azadi” slogans at an event on Kashmir, it organised last week in Bengaluru. There are also reports of the Ministry of Home Affairs probing a four-year-old foreign funding case of the NGO.

While Amnesty has denied these charges, a probe by the Bengaluru police is on.

Business Standard could not reach executive director of the NGO Aakar Patel, a former journalist, who is currently abroad.

A former country head of another NGO, which faced government action in the recent past, said, “This is perhaps the trend — the crackdown on NGOs. I am watching with great interest. I believe the law should take its own course. All democratic institutions, including NGOs, should be allowed their space. They should be allowed to do whatever is legally tenable.”

Amnesty, by its own admission, is not registered under the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA), which its activists said was often abused to harass and persecute NGOs. Its stated aim was to raise funds within the country to ensure that such a permission never became necessary. It claimed to have 64,599 unique members in India and had provision to accept one-time donations of “Rs 1,000, Rs 3,000 or any other amount.” As of 2014, it had raised Rs 5 crore in India through such donations.

According to posts on its website, Amnesty operates through two entities in India — a charitable trust (registered under Sections 12A and 80G of the Income Tax Act), which carries out its human rights education work and reaches out to members, donors and supporters to help build a broad-based human rights movement; and a private limited company, which provides research consultancy and technological services to other organisations in the social sector. The trust has access to secure overdraft facilities to tide over any financial gaps, the Amnesty website said. The company undertakes human rights research projects, technological product development, etc, on a contractual basis

Amnesty International India was incorporated in 2013 in Bengaluru. According to MCA documents, it has a paid-up capital of Rs 1 lakh and lists Minar Pimple, Nandini Basappa and Shoba Mathai as directors. Although it has few smaller NGOs as clients, its largest client is the Amnesty International movement worldwide. Amnesty International India’s research, campaigning and advocacy work are undertaken by staff employed by the company.

Allegations of siding with anti-national groups and hostilities from the government of the day are not new to Amnesty. The human rights group, in its 50th year in the country, has taken up several causes from illegal detentions in West Bengal in the 1970s to the Gujarat riots of 2002. And, governments have shown their displeasure in various ways in the past.

The NGO has also had its share of internal issues, including funding. In a 2014 post, the group’s then chief executive G Anantha Padmanabhan said, “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).”

Amnesty claims it does not accept money from governments or companies for its human rights work to ensure that it can be genuinely free and fair. “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,” Padmanabhan said in his post.

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