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A fundamental question for human rights groups

Sunday, 21 February 2010 - 1:23am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

Is it morally acceptable for a human rights organisation to work with those supposedly wronged by the establishment, even if the ‘victims’ espouse a violent ideology?

Gita Sahgal’s objection and subsequent suspension from Amnesty International for hob-nobbing with a Taliban-backer has raised a vital issue of our times: Is it morally acceptable for a human rights organisation to work with those supposedly wronged by the establishment, even if the ‘victims’ espouse a violent ideology? DNA talks to activists and groups in India which are faced with a similar dilemma.

In all the 49 years of its controversial existence Amnesty International has taken on some tough jackboots across the world. But it probably never had to deal with an opponent like Gita Sahgal.

Gita Sahgal is actually on the same side of the barbed wires Amnesty holds up as its logo. In her early years in Delhi she was part of a strong feminist network that fought against dowry and rape laws. In the UK, where she now lives, she was an active member of the Southall Black Sisters group that worked against domestic violence and bigotry. And in Amnesty, she was actually one of its leading voices against oppression of women till two weeks ago, when she was summarily sacked from her position as the head of its gender unit.

Hours before her expulsion, which has divided the human rights fraternity more sharply than ever before, she had spoken out in the media against Amnesty’s association with Moazzam Begg, a former Guantanamo detainee. Born and raised in the UK, he had moved to Kabul with this family to experience the ‘pure’ Islamic (read Taliban) way of life. After the allied attack on Kabul he was picked up from Islamabad on suspicions of being trained at an al Qaeda camp and joined the many prisoners held without trial that Amnesty tirelessly rallied around.

Over 500 of them including Begg were released last June. Thus far, there was no clash between Amnesty’s agenda and Gita’s principles. Begg then launched Cageprisoners, a London-based group that campaigns for the release and rehabilitation of other alleged jihadists. But the group’s support extends to pro-violence extremists such as Anwar Al Awlaki, who mentored Richard Reich the shoe bomber.

Amnesty, eager to use Begg’s experienced voice in its campaign against illegal detention, started working with Cageprisoners to demand the closure of Guantanamo Bay. It also hosted Begg’s European campaign tour seeking havens for other released detainees. This is where Gita’s decades of work on and against religious fundamentalism slammed into Amnesty’s somewhat morally blurred association with Begg.

“I believe the campaign fundamentally damages Amnesty International’s integrity and, more importantly, constitutes a threat to human rights...To be appearing on platforms with Britain’s most famous supporter of the Taliban, whom we treat as a human rights defender, is a gross error of judgment,” she said in an email to Amnesty.

Amnesty’s disciplinary action against Gita left its lay supporters stunned. An organisation known for backing the voice of dissent, which survived largely on the goodwill and contributions of millions, had clamped down on criticism with corporate ruthlessness.

The ensuing debate is particularly valid in India today where the armed Maoists have considerable support from the human rights organisations and the intellectual class. There are two questions here: is it morally acceptable for a human rights organisation to support those supposedly wronged by the establishment even if the ‘victims’ espouse a violent ideology? And should such organisations ignore voices that differ on their agenda?

No to both, say Indian feminists, many of who have shared the platform with Gita Sahgal back in the 70s and 80s. Yes and maybe, say those who are staunch human rights activists.
“What Gita was doing was raising very uncomfortable questions.Instead of responding to it they took a drastic step. She maintained that Begg deserved to be defended but then did they have to go that extra step and share a platform with him? Why ally with a man like that? And if you are gaining something out of it, why not tell us clearly what that is,” says feminist and founder of Zubaan Books, Urvashi Butalia. An integral part of the Delhi-based feminist network in the late 70s and 80s, she remembers Gita Sahgal as a ‘strongly political person’.

Radha Kumar, director of the Nelson Mandela Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution at the Jamia Millia Islamia, too was a part of the Stree Sangharsh campaign those days. Once connected, though loosely, with Amnesty India she says Gita had a very valid point. “I am rather surprised at Amnesty’s defensiveness. All she did was speak out against Amnesty sharing public space with a Taliban supporter. She went public with her reservations because Amnesty was not responding to criticism,” she says.

The other trenchant voice whose debut on the feminist scene goes back to the same era is commentator Madhu Kishwar. She believes that Amnesty needs to make very clear its guidelines as to who qualifies for its support. “If it is fighting for political prisoners and prisoners of conscience, then it cannot support terrorists. It cannot be seen as failing its own litmus test. It cannot hide behind fuzzy boundaries,” says Kishwar.

Human rights activists, who are very clear about their preoccupations, dismiss all this heartache as pointless. Colin Gonsalves, senior Supreme Court advocate who defended Afzal Guru, says there can be no lines at all in defending men and women who are denied human rights.

“Human rights can be violated of terrible people but they have to be supported no matter what. I am a leftist but if the pro-Godse play needed to defended I wouldn’t shirk it. Kasab has the right. I will say Taliban’s views are abhorrent and attack them but I will defend Begg’s rights. Where is the conflict of interest? In a democracy, freedoms are absolute. You tackle badness in some other way,” says Gonsalves.

But PUDR, India’s oldest human rights group, believes that there can be no such blanket support for violent movements and its followers. It had recently protested against home minister Chidambaram’s stance that Naxalites are bandits who follow no ideology. But it believes that not all violent movements can be clubbed under one umbrella and defended.

“Amnesty has to be mindful of who it supports. It can defend the rights of those who are being tortured, but Taliban is also the perpetrator of horrible crimes against women. How can it occupy the same forum as those who follow its ideology? Gita did not make this point for each and every group, only for this one case. To say that she is now gone over to the other side is trivialising her point,” says Gautam Navlakha, secretary, PUDR.

The problem, Navlakha believes, lies in the funding patterns in human rights groups. There are some who he alleges are funded like the corporate community, others like Amnesty collect from a variety of individuals. But once a cause becomes the source of a job, the dynamics of how the organisation functions and deals with its staff changes. “They can hold jobs of key people up as threats. The cause becomes a question of survival for the staff then,” he points out.

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