On Free Speech, AFSPA, Refugees & Extremism: TLI Exclusive With The Head Of Amnesty International India
“Only when the last prisoner of conscience has been freed, when the last torture chamber has been closed, when the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a reality for the world’s people, will our work be done.” – Peter Benenson, founder of Amnesty International.
Founded in 1961, Amnesty International began with the objective “to conduct research and generate action to prevent and end grave abuses of human rights, and to demand justice for those whose rights have been violated”. Today, Amnesty International works in over 150 countries and has over 7 million members.
For its work in the advancement of human rights, Amnesty International has been awarded numerous honours, including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977. It is one of the largest NGOs of our time and arguably the most recognised and respected human rights group in the world.
Amnesty International India is a network of over 65,000 grassroots activists, journalists, and volunteers. The first Amnesty office in India was first set up in India in Bihar in 1966. Since then, the nonpartisan organisation has campaigned against torture, the death penalty, and abusive laws, for women’s rights, corporate accountability, and free speech. It also seeks to promote human rights education in schools and colleges and describes itself as working to uphold rights guaranteed by the Constitution of India.
Be it in its vocal opposition to the Emergency, its stringent protests to bring the perpetrators of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots to justice, its criticism of capital punishment, its campaign for tribal rights, or in its condemnation of AFSPA, Amnesty International India has been at the forefront of the battle to preserve human rights in India for decades.
The Logical Indian recently interviewed Aakar Patel, the Executive Director of Amnesty International India. Aakar Patel is a Bengaluru-based writer and columnist who became Amnesty India’s head in June 2015. He is a former newspaper editor and has worked at publications across India. Besides his work in human rights, Mr Patel is also an accomplished linguist. He has translated many works of literature, from Saadat Hasan Manto’s non-fiction from Urdu to English to the writing of Prime Minister Narendra Modi from Gujarati.
There are many armed insurgent groups in central India, the Northeast, and Kashmir. Even Amnesty International’s recent annual report highlighted the violence perpetrated by Maoists, groups like the Jaish-E-Mohammed in Kashmir, and extremists in Assam, Manipur and Meghalaya. What can the government – both in the centre and the States – do to ensure that the influence of such groups wanes?
States across the world face major security challenges across the world from armed groups, including attacks on civilians. However, examples from across the world also show that a strong human rights regime – which includes accountability, better policing, and access to justice for abuses both by armed groups and security forces – can help reduce public distrust and cynicism and help build a more peaceful society.
On 7 January 2017, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) “found 16 women, prima facie victims of rape, sexual and physical assault by the State police personnel in Chhattisgarh”. The NHRC was investigating reports of human rights abuses by security forces in Chhattisgarh during an October 2015 operation against Maoists. It also found that almost all the victims in these incidents, covered under the three FIRs, are tribals. This is not the first attack on tribals by security forces. And while some argue that this is a question of police sensitisation, the atrocities have been too extreme. What do you think needs to be done to ensure that security personnel in sensitive areas like Bastar do not commit human rights abuses?
The October 2015 incident is only one of several serious allegations of human rights violations committed by security forces in Chhattisgarh. It is important that the Chhattisgarh government follow up on its commitment to zero tolerance against human rights abuses by ensuring a time-bound, impartial and effective investigation into these allegations, and bringing those responsible to justice. Security forces should be investigated and tried in civilian courts. Impunity for human rights abuses has a knock-on effect and emboldens perpetrators.
It is also important for the Chhattisgarh government to ensure access for the NHRC and support the work of civil society organisations who work closely with affected Adivasi communities to document these abuses and bring them to light. For the past few years, we have seen how local civil society, including activists and journalists, have faced severe problems in Chhattisgarh, including threats and intimidation, trumped up charges, and lack of protection from the state authorities. Journalists and lawyers providing legal aid were forced to leave the Bastar region in 2016. Journalists such as Santosh Yadav, Somaru Nag, Prabhat Singh, and Deepak Jaiswal have faced arrest in Chhattisgarh under politically motivated charges for doing their work.
An overhaul of the policing system is also important. This should include better training in protecting civilians in conflict areas. The authorities cannot be allowed to shirk their obligations. Their consistent reluctance or refusal to do so raises grave questions about state capacity and intent.
What is your opinion on press freedom in India today and how can it be improved?
The role of the press in any society includes holding the state to account for abuses of power and facilitating a free exchange of ideas. The Constitution of India recognises the right to freedom of speech and expression as a fundamental right. This includes the right of the media to freely comment on public issues, and also the corresponding right of the public to receive media outputs.
While India has a vibrant and strong media culture, journalists in rural areas and those working for small media organisations have faced serious challenges for many years. 2016 was a difficult year for journalists working in places such as Chhattisgarh (as stated above) and Jammu & Kashmir, where media outlets have been shut down on vague grounds.
Any restriction on the freedom of the press needs to be demonstrably necessary and proportionate to specified goals. As the Supreme Court has said, “liberty of thought and expression is paramount under the constitutional scheme”. The press should not be gagged for critical reporting. Laws on criminal defamation, which are often used by powerful interests to browbeat journalists, should be repealed.
In recent times, we have seen an increasing polarisation in the national debate. This has can also be seen in our Assemblies and Parliament, where bipartisanship is becoming rarer. Why do you think this has happened? How can citizens and the political class deal with this?
Unfortunately, the space for critical debate – not just in politics, but also in spaces like universities – has shrunk. This is partly due to an increasing tendency among those in power to demonise certain groups of people and resort to a dangerous “us versus them” rhetoric. This demonisation only makes people more vulnerable to hostility, discrimination, and violence.
To combat this trend, it is important that people are not targeted for being critical of a party or government. Dissent is very much a part of the right to freedom of expression.
The Logical Indian is an online media platform. As India advances, internet penetration will increase and the population of social media users will increase. But the conversation we have on social media is very different from the one we have in real life. It tends to be more divisive, more disruptive, more prone to misinformation. How would you advise India’s online population so that the level of debate is increased? How can we – citizens – combat troll behaviour and cyber-bullying?
Social media is a powerful tool for civil society to mobilise people and build social movements beyond borders. It has also provided an opportunity to activists to build momentum on issues which are ignored in mainstream debates.
However, social media can also be used as a tool of harassment. While the right to freedom of speech covers expression that is offensive in nature, it does not extend to threats, intimidation, or advocacy of hatred. A global study on cyber-bullying conducted by Microsoft in 2014 put India at the third position out of 25 countries and said that over 53% of teens in India reported having been bullied online at some point in their lives. Women, children, and LGBTI persons also face a disproportionate amount of cyber-bullying.
The social acceptance of bullying as part of growing up exacerbates the problem. As part of our Human Rights Education program, Amnesty International India launched an anti-bullying campaign last year. We believe that interventions regarding various forms of bullying are required at the school level so that such behaviour is not normalised. Authorities must take steps to bring to book those suspected of cyber-bullying.
I would be remiss if I did not ask you about Kashmir. In 2016, Kashmir experienced increasing instability. Some argue that this animosity – not just in 2016 but in general – stems from the excesses of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA). Amnesty has been one of the most vocal critics of AFSPA. In your opinion, how can AFSPA be amended/repealed? Would a Kashmir without AFSPA be safer?
It has been Amnesty International India’s long-standing demand that the AFSPA be repealed. The AFSPA is inconsistent with India’s national and international human rights obligations to respect and protect the rights to life, liberty, and security, to freedom from torture and other ill-treatment, and to an effective remedy. Several Indian and international human rights experts have called for its repeal.
Our research has shown that AFSPA facilitates impunity for human rights violations. For instance, Section 7 of the AFSPA, 1990, which is in force in J&K, grants virtual immunity to members of the security forces from prosecution for alleged human rights violations. It says that security forces operating under AFSPA cannot be prosecuted in civilian courts without prior sanction from the Union government. But in the 27 years since the AFSPA was introduced in J&K, not once has sanction been granted, and as a result, not a single member of the armed forces has been tried for a human rights violation in a civilian court. This lack of accountability has, in turn, facilitated other serious abuses.
One of the most evergreen debates queries of our time: how free should free speech be? As Amnesty wrote in its report, “Regressive laws continued to be used to persecute people who legitimately exercised their right to freedom of expression.” Amnesty took issue with the sedition law (Section 124A of the IPC) in particular. How can free speech (and, thus, democracy) advance in India?
Freedom of expression is not absolute and can be – rightly – subjected to certain restrictions. However, these restrictions need to be towards a legitimate aim such as national security or public order. And they need to be the least restrictive measures available to achieve the specified purpose. For instance, the Supreme Court has ruled that restrictions relying on the ground of public order are valid only when there is a close connection between the speech and public disorder, and there is an imminent threat of lawlessness.
Of late, unfortunately, the country is witnessing a crackdown on people’s right to freedom of expression. Branding people ‘anti-national’ merely for expressing opposing views, and using the draconian sedition law – which is too vague and broad to constitute a reasonable restriction – to tackle dissent is a clear violation of the right itself. India takes pride in being the largest democracy in the world, but lately, our intolerance towards dissent has been discouraging. The only way in which free speech can be advanced in India is if the government respects the constitutional right to free speech and only restricts it in exceptional cases.
India has a large refugee population – at least 2 lakh (and counting). One can say that India has been largely humane in its treatment of refugees. The current UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, said once that India’s treatment of refugees is an “example for other countries”. However, India has not signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and lacks a coherent refugee policy. In many cases, the UNHCR directly administers the needs of the refugees in India. Do you think India should formulate its own refugee policy, and if so how would you suggest this go about?
India has a long tradition of supporting refugees. Over the decades, a large number of refugees have entered India, with every major conflict in the subcontinent setting off a fresh wave of migration. Be it Tibetans, Chakmas from Bangladesh, Burmese during the military rule or civilians fleeing Sri Lanka’s civil war, people fleeing conflict have often found refuge in various parts of the country.
However since India does not have a robust refugee policy, the fate of refugees in India is often dependent on the goodwill of bureaucrats and politicians. The rights and entitlements afforded to refugees have remained inconsistent, with some groups getting priority over others. Recent reports that the government is planning to deport Rohingya refugees are a worrying example of this problem.
What is needed is a legal framework on refugees that does not discriminate, and respects the rights of asylum-seekers and refugees. Although attempts have been made in the past to introduce a refugee policy, it has yet to see the light of the day. The Asylum Bill 2015, while it has gaps which need deliberation, is a positive step. India should also sign and ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.