Amnesty’s exit erodes Indian democracy

By Karan Thapar

Do you recall the pride with which Narendra Modi used to refer to India as the world’s largest democracy? He said it frequently in his early years as prime minister. No one could refute the adjective. It’s indisputably correct. The noun, however, can be questioned. India holds regular elections and frequently changes governments. We believe we have an independent judiciary and parts of the press are free and fearless. But these are the outward trappings of democracy. At its heart is respect for human rights.

A lot has happened in the last six years to question our government’s respect for this democratic core. Amnesty was often the loudest voice to speak out. Not just the crackdown in Jammu and Kashmir or the police handling of the February riots in Delhi, Amnesty also raised its voice against abuses by the security forces, the anti-terror and sedition laws often used to suppress dissent, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, the Sikh massacre of 1984 and, of course, for freedom of speech. It was a thorn in the side of the government and proud of it. But it was also the champion of the people and, therefore, won our gratitude.

Now I can’t comment on the veracity of the charges brought against Amnesty. It’s accused of circumventing India’s laws and receiving money under dubious justifications. Amnesty has strenuously denied this. The Modi government says even its Manmohan Singh-led predecessor was forced to act against Amnesty. That proves this is not partisan or political. Amnesty is guilty of deliberate defiance of India’s laws. But Amnesty says this is a vendetta. The government is infuriated by Amnesty’s exposures and wants to get rid of it.

Now I have a simple point to make. Even if, for argument’s sake, you accept Amnesty is in the wrong, a wise democracy would think carefully about what steps it should take. Why? Because any action that forces Amnesty to shut shop and leave “the world’s largest democracy” can only be to our detriment and, indeed, our ultimate shame. Amnesty may need to be admonished but the punishment should never shut the door on the invaluable, actually, irreplaceable, work it does.

It’s no tribute to India that Amnesty has decided to withdraw from “the world’s largest democracy”. This places India in the dubious company of countries where Amnesty cannot function like Pakistan and China. Now we appear no better than them.

At this point, let’s return to the boast about being the world’s largest democracy. It’s not something we say to ourselves. Many of us are gullible enough to believe it. It’s said to the rest of the world in the hope of convincing them. But does the world believe we’ve treated Amnesty fairly and properly? Or do they accept Amnesty has been punished for repeatedly exposing the increasing hollowness of India’s democracy?

On the issue of human rights, Amnesty’s standing is far higher than that of the Government of India. I’m not just referring to the Modi government but all its predecessors and, in particular, that of Indira Gandhi. I concede that Amnesty has its flaws. After all, its founder, Peter Benenson, resigned from the organisation claiming in 1966 it had been infiltrated by the British Foreign Office and MI-6. But few believed him and in 1977 Amnesty won the Nobel Peace Prize. The citation called it “A light in the darkness”. For tens of thousands of prisoners of conscience, this was the truth.

Now that light is going out of our lives. The first time this happened was in 1948. Gandhi’s assassination deprived newly-independent India of its conscience. Amnesty’s departure would mean a voice that reminds us how frequently we fall short of our values will be silenced. It was often an irritating voice, but always a necessary one. The fact it could be heard was reassuring proof our democracy, though at times limping, was moving forward. If we no longer hear it, will the silence comfort “the world’s largest democracy”?

(The opinion piece appeared in The Hindustan Times)

Image courtesy of (File photo)

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