Amnesty's Avinash Kumar on challenges of heading human rights organisation

Avinash Kumar, Executive Director, Amnesty International India (Illustration: Binay Sinha)
Many would argue that 2019, the year that the government revoked the special status of a state, detained several human rights activists and journalists under a draconian Act and pushed through an amendment to the Citizenship Act that enables all irregular migrants and displaced people, except Muslims, to acquire Indian citizenship wasn’t perhaps the best time for anyone to take over the helm of Amnesty International India. Add to that Amnesty India’s ongoing troubles with the government (its Bengaluru and New Delhi offices were raided during an investigation into an alleged breach of foreign funding laws) and I’m left wondering what possessed Avinash Kumar to take on this role.

“I've often been asked this,” he laughs good-naturedly as I tell him so. “In fact, the day my name was announced as the head of Amnesty International India was when CBI walked into our offices!” For a relative newbie in the social sector (he was awarded a PhD in Modern History from Jawaharlal Nehru University, taught at the university in Wardha and was a researcher/editor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies before he joined Oxfam), the task must have seemed mammoth, but Kumar chose to dive in headlong. To all those who questioned his decision to join the Nobel Prize-winning Amnesty International, he says he posed a question in response: “If not now, then when?”

He’s had a busy week, Kumar says. Amnesty has been tirelessly advocating for the civil rights of the activists accused in the Bhima Koregaon case detained in Maharashtra since 2018. In June this year, they, in a collaborative project with the Citizen Lab, uncovered a coordinated spyware campaign targeting at least nine human rights defenders in India. While Amnesty has been able to raise awareness about the plight of the detained activists, many believe it hasn't managed to flatten the wave of public opinion against them. Even Home Minister Amit Shah has publicly said that India’s human rights policy should focus on the rights of civilians killed by extremists instead of applying them universally (even on those who have publicly challenged the ruling dispensation). Which is why I’m prompted to address the elephant in the room: why has human rights become such a dirty word today?

His young son flits in and out of the screen as Kumar answers, choosing his words carefully. “I think that somehow in our society, human rights has not been able to leave the public realm and enter into common practice,” he says. Amnesty has conducted several courses on human rights to help bridge this gap. “But now I think what we need to do is to create continuing conversations on the issue and find entry points into an increasingly polarised world,” he says.

His lunch, a simple menu of dal, rice and vegetables, is in front of him but Kumar is too busy talking to eat much. A reader of Hindi and Urdu literature (his PhD was on this), he quotes from an old favourite, Sri Lal Sukla’s Raag Durbari. A satirical Hindi novel published in 1968, Kumar believes it is apt for the times we live in. 

“We have some of the most progressive laws in the world but their actual implementation is flawed,” he says. “Until we’re able to bring the discussion on human rights out of the academic sphere into actual practice, changing this negative perception of human rights is going to be an uphill battle.”

Amnesty International India is, of course, certainly no stranger to uphill battles. “Since I’ve joined, I’ve found that the bulk of our work has been hampered by the series of charges levelled against us by the government in recent years,” he says. “These range from sedition (which was dismissed in court) to ongoing charges of everything from money laundering to FCRA [Foreign Contribution (regulation) Act] violations.”

How has this hampered their functioning, I ask? The biggest fallout has been on funding. “While we continue to have a group of committed small donors, our major donors (who’ve donated over Rs 5 lakh) have all backed out in the last two years.” Amnesty India’s major donor income has fallen from Rs 1.35 crore in 2018 to Rs 54 lakh in 2019. “It is nil as of now in 2020,” he says wryly. Some have shied away because of the nature of charges levelled against Amnesty, while others have been scared off after being questioned by investigating agencies, a dampener to say the least. “We still have a lot of goodwill, so that’s something,” he says.

In the coming months, this human rights crusader has several plans for Amnesty. “First, I’ve observed that human rights organisations tend to work in silos,” he says. “I’d like to initiate conversations, alliances and projects not only with them but also with other NGOs and civil society organisations.” He also believes that they need to start conversations on human rights with law enforcement agencies, especially the army and the police.

Kumar tells me he’s avoiding dessert; as for me, a plate of mangos, plucked not far from where I am in Mirzapur, Uttar Pradesh, has arrived. The Covid-19 pandemic has blurred geographies, making it possible for us to lunch together even though we’re 800-odd kilometres apart.

If he could peer into a crystal ball, what would the future of human rights in India look like, I ask in conclusion. Kumar is surprisingly optimistic. “India has always seen strong citizens’ movements, never more so than in the tumult of 2020,” he says. “Whether you consider the spontaneous uprising of sentiment against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act or you think of hundreds of thousands of ordinary people who came forward to feed migrant worker during the lockdown, the fact is that there is presently a huge popular awareness of human rights in the country.”

Organisations like Amnesty now need to sustain this momentum, even though they might have their backs to the wall. “That’s why I believe I’m fortunate to be in this space right now,” Kumar tells me in parting. “It’s the best of times, it’s the worst of times...”

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