Constraining critique: On Amnesty halting India operations

Amnesty’s decision to close shop in India is unfortunate

October 01, 2020 12:02 am | Updated October 02, 2020 12:02 am IST

The role played by human rights organisations in documenting and questioning state functioning and excesses is a necessary component of civil society activism, which enhances democracy by securing accountability. The fact that Amnesty International, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977 , had to halt operations in India because of the freezing of its bank accounts and intrusive scrutiny from state agencies is therefore unfortunate. The government’s response to Amnesty’s decision , that it will not allow “interference in domestic political debates by entities funded by foreign donations”, suggests that this denouement is linked to the group’s critical reporting of decisions such as the abrogation of special status for Jammu and Kashmir in 2019 . The group has maintained that it has raised financial resources lawfully. Amnesty has taken up human rights causes such as minority rights, ending torture, abolition of the death penalty and refugee rights, globally. Advocacy of these causes has led to the group being at loggerheads with regimes of various types — from the democratic to the authoritarian — across countries. India now joins the ranks of countries such as Russia where the group has stopped operations. There is no doubt that the pursuit of these objectives, even if it is not uniform across a lopsided world, has only enhanced and furthered the cause of human rights and their awareness for global citizens. Democratic regimes that are bound by constitutionalism should not consider critical activism by groups such as Amnesty as being adversarial, but instead view it as constructive critique of their functioning. If the critique is not reasoned, the state can rebut it through communiqués and responses, but should not restrict freedom of expression through intimidation or restraining actions.

Central governments in India have consistently registered discomfort with critical civil society organisations over the years, but the National Democratic Alliance-led government has taken steps to constrain groups even more, especially those that are trans-national in their functioning. This was exemplified in the monsoon session where amendments to the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Amendment Act drafted without consulting stakeholders were rushed through Parliament with little discussion. For India to aspire to become a developed and a just nation, it must build on its strengths such as its demographic dividend and the procedural institutions that have been built over decades. For it to reap benefits from these advantages, entrepreneurship, governmental actions and other economic tools would be necessary but not sufficient. The country needs to allow for a vibrant civil society that has spearheaded several reforms related to accountability (the Right to Information Act), welfare (the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act), privacy rights, gender equality and rights of sexual minorities, environmental activism among others. Non-governmental organisations will continue to have a role to play in this. It is to be hoped Amnesty’s decision to halt operations is therefore temporary and that it would be able to function within India’s regulatory framework.

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