Salil Shetty, Secretary General of the London-headquartered Amnesty International, is one of the most influential voices on human rights issues today. During his recent visit to India, The Hindu caught up with him for discussions on the rise of illiberal democracies, especially the plight of the country’s democratic institutions. Mr. Shetty has warned that India was headed towards heightened global scrutiny and possible repercussions over its selective crackdown on NGOs. Excerpts:
There is growing scrutiny of Indian democracy globally. What has been your own feedback from the global forums? Is it that India is firmly on the path to become an illiberal democracy in every sense?
It is a global phenomenon. We are having the same challenges in many countries. In Turkey, our director and chair are among those arrested recently. Hungary has really gone in the wrong direction, Egypt has gone the wrong way, and, of course [U.S. President Donald] Trump is the one who is reported most widely because in the U.S., there is serious resistance. I was at the G20 [summit] in Hamburg, that picture of G20 leaders’ group is a rather scary one. If you take out [French President Emmanuel] Macron, [Canadian PM Justin] Trudeau and [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel and the EU, which is one of the G20 members, and you look at the other 16, it is not a very encouraging picture right now. We are at that juncture in history where for a combination of reasons, we have a set of leaders who have come to power through elections.
Amnesty is historically familiar with unelected, illegitimate autocrats. Now you have elected dictators, this is a new phenomenon. We are still trying to figure out how to deal with this. We are familiar with Russia, China and Iran, Saudi Arabia. But when you have situation like in Turkey or Philippines, you need to think differently.
What about India?
India is an interesting situation. If you ask me how India is perceived internationally, you have seen the piece in Economist , it was quite scathing. But if you don’t include that piece, and generally speaking, I would say the general perception is not in line with what the reality is here in India. I think people are bit concerned, and one of the factors is that the leadership here doesn’t speak in the way that [Philippines President Rodrigo] Duterte or Trump speak or [Hungarian Prime Minister Victor] Orban. For example, Orban says the future is for illiberal democracies. I don’t think we have leaders talking so. We don’t have that kind of anti-democratic discourse.
In practice, all of these leaders are using a similar playbook. They start with silencing the media, they crush civil society, and kick up the entire de-legitimisation discourse, and systematically emasculate the judiciary. The three pillars of a democracy are systemically dismantled.
Anything different in India from Turkey?
You can’t really compare. Here, our Constitution is quite robust, laws are strong and you have a long history of institutions. It is not the same thing, it is not a pushover, , you cannot get away with doing whatever you feel like. But if you take the issue of civil society alone, the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act [FCRA], which bizarrely was created during the Emergency and I was here at that time, and we were fighting it. The government, members of which are so critical of the Indira Gandhi [era] and Emergency period, are now using it in the very same cynical way that the Congress was using it. We have not much to choose from.
In the last year, they have used it on 25 human rights advocacy NGOs, and, collectively, over 10,000 groups have been de-licensed. I am somebody who is strongly for NGOs and civil society organisations becoming more accountable to our own people. We at Amnesty are certainly pushing for raising money domestically, because raising money locally brings great accountability.
What they are doing is not an issue of accountability. Government after government use FCRA selectively, so if you are a pro-government NGO, you will not get targeted. Look at the list of those targeted — Lawyers Collective, Teesta [Setalvad] and others. The law itself is so broad, which is why whenever it goes to court, it gets stuck down. But how many people can afford to take it to court?
The FCRA issue is only part of the story, what we are seeing is general crackdown on anybody critical of the government.
You spoke about institutions. Does India have enough of them, outside the government, to uphold its democratic values. In the U.S., when the Trump administration issues travel restrictions, it is the members of the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] and others groups who are at the airports and other protest sites?
We do have social movements, if you look at environment, women’s movement, Dalit movement etc. It has its ebbs and flows — there are times when these movements are very powerful and times when they are not so. We do have a strong civil society.
The paradox, of course, is [what happened] at the Universal Periodic Review, which is the peer review that takes place at the Human Rights Council in Geneva, where India came up recently. Our government went there, taking great pride, saying we have a vibrant civil society. On the FCRA issue, five governments actually said India amended the law — U.S., Germany, even South Korea and the Czech Republic, they all said [so].
You talked about our leaders using softer language compared to others. But could it be a clever strategy — leaders have a soft tongue and supporters have the harsh ones?
For sure. Also, the other reality is that you have acts of omission and commission. In case of cow vigilantes, you know when the senior-most leaders of this country are silent when things like this happen. That is not acceptable. It is your [senior leaders’] responsibility to stop others from speaking up.
This country has so many serious human rights issues — attacks on Dalits, women, Adivasis, which are ongoing historic issues, and nothing to do with the BJP rule. Why don’t they focus on those issues? Why are they creating these new unnecessary ones?
Are these issues now gaining more global attention?
We have had 10 deaths since April [by way] of lynchings or public killings. I think the Junaid Khan killing was a kind of tipping point, it has hit the international media more. This is a government that came to power with a massive popular majority, with all sorts of promises. They should focus on the right things.
Internationally, slowly, eyebrows are being raised. I think they have managed the international narrative for now, but you cannot do it forever.
Is the Indian government headed towards a bigger global scrutiny and embarrassment over its tough stand on NGOs?
I think it will happen. People will look more into it in the wake of the Geneva review. The interesting case of India is, because of the economic importance of the country, just like China, it had been given a free pass. But that can only sustain for a while. There will be a point after which people will say “of course we want the economics”, but they have their own public to manage too.
What happens when there is an illiberal narrative, academic and otherwise, of a certain partisan nature dominating? What happens when dissent is suppressed? What does it do to human aspirations, scientific thinking, breakthrough innovations etc.?
You may have some short-term gains by suppressing human rights, but on a sustained basis, you cannot crush the human spirit. People have been tried in so many places [countries], even in China, which is centrally so dominated, and, at the local levels, there are eruptions all the time. When you suppress human rights, you are crushing innovations and economic growth.
This government came to power on the promise of a strong economic growth. People will be hesitant to invest when the rule of law is under question. If you create such social and communal issues, it definitely will put off the investor.
Even in campuses, academics are very nervous to speak their mind. They have to look over their shoulders. It is very easy to create this kind of a paranoia in the society, it has a kind of chilling effect. I don’t want to speculate about the full impact of it, but it is not a healthy sign.
In your 2016 annual report, you spoke about the world becoming a dark place. Is it getting brighter now?
We are not in a good situation. We have had human rights defenders being killed in 22 countries. These are people who peacefully raised their voices for genuine legitimate concerns. In over 60 countries, there have been systemic efforts at de-legitimising NGOs. Look at NGO laws alone, in country after country, some kind of regressive steps [are taken] — Russia brought in the foreign agents Bill, China has got a very repressive legislation, which is coming now, and then there is Egypt, Hungary, Ethiopia etc.
I worked in the UN for six years. There, people say the problem lies with the capacity-building of the government. I always say no government needs capacity-building when it comes to wrongdoing. They learn very quickly from each other, and are very capable of equipping themselves. You can see the speed of learning on this front from the NGO Bills.
What do you see about the media scene here?
It is very worrying, very worrying. You will have to split the electronic and the print [media] for an assessment. Electronic media is looking much worse than print. The media is deeply divided, [and it is] very hard to get objective news. The ones who are raising credible questions are becoming fewer and fewer. It is not as if the government is going around asking people not to ask questions. But it is the chilling effect, people start doing self-censorship. You start thinking twice before you say something. We are all doing it now, even the NGOs. That is not the India we want, that is not the India we want to be proud of.
How is the Kashmir issue looking like? Does that tell you something about the state of politics?
The Kashmir issue certainly cuts across all governments. Since April last year, we have had more than 90 protesters, including juveniles, being killed. We have had the public safety act being slapped on juveniles, which is a no-no. The use of pellet guns, which is in violation of all international norms, it is not used anywhere else in the country... The underlying issue is the use of AFSPA, which enables human rights violations. It has now been used for over 20 years in Kashmir, and since 1950s in the northeast.
The killing of Amarnath pilgrims is a no-no. It is true that security agencies have been under attack, and it is their duty to protect civilians. But the whole thing is very disproportionate. The government cannot say it is following international standards. What we see are arbitrary detentions, disproportionate use of force, and, norms of managing protests are not being followed.
There has been a very significant ratcheting up of the situation in Kashmir in the last few years.
How does the situation look like for the marginalised — women, Dalits, tribals among others in rest of the country?
If we look at the reported cases, there are over 3,00,000 cases of atrocities against Dalits, tribals, women etc and cases under the SC/ST in the last one year. More than 30,000 rape cases too were reported. Look at the situation in the jails — 67% of them are under-trials. These are mostly poor people. Most of the people in prison are Advasis, Dalits, minorities. I would think these are the things that the government should focus on. We are wasting a lot of energy on discussing [issues such as] demonetisation, beef etc.