When prime minister Narendra Modi reaches out for the best analysis of the unrest in Balochistan, his eye will likely fall on articles published by Amnesty International, whose detailed reports on human rights violations in the Pakistan province are widely acknowledged to be among the most comprehensive in the world.
Except, Amnesty India was recently charged by the Bengaluru police for several crimes. It was widely reported that the organisation has been charged with sedition. Based on a complaint filed by Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP)--the student wing of the RSS--the police allegedly filed an FIR, which charged Amnesty with Sec 124 A (sedition). However, according to a report published in the Hindu today, the Bengaluru police commissioner has now clarified that there is no evidence to charge Amnesty India with sedition. He is believed to have said that there is, 'no substantial evidence to proceed against Amnesty on sedition charges'.
On the other hand, the Union Home ministry is refusing to give Amnesty International permission to open a South Asia hub in India which would look after operations across the conflict-ridden region.
The Union Home ministry is refusing to give Amnesty International permission to open a South Asia hub in India which would look after operations across the conflict-ridden region.
To be sure, the Bengaluru police reports to the Congress-led government in Karnataka, the key opposition party to the BJP-led government at the Centre. Since none other than Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi has been a bitter critic of the BJP's attempts to muffle the voices of foreign NGOs, the crackdown against Amnesty on August 15 is also a big slap in the face of Congress' libertarian credentials.
So what happened? According to a complaint to the Bengaluru police filed by activists from the ABVP, participants at the Amnesty meeting on August 13 raised "anti-national slogans" demanding freedom for Kashmir, sang "anti-national songs" and "delivered anti-national speeches".
Interestingly, the Bengaluru police were present at the meeting, having been informed by Amnesty that they were holding an event at which three families from Jammu & Kashmir would share their trauma over losing loved ones at the hands of security forces. The police also videographed the event, which Amnesty encouraged them to do.
Aisha Begum and Showkat Ahmad Khan – the mother and brother, respectively, of Shahzad Ahmad Khan, who was killed in the infamous Machhil encounter of 2010 by security forces who wanted to boost numbers of "militants" they had "encountered" – spoke of the days that had changed their lives.
"These families were telling fellow Indians their stories of grievous trauma and loss. What is anti-national about that?"
Raja Begum spoke about the disappearance of her son, Manzoor Ahmad Mir, in 2003, when she found that the J&K police had filed charges of murder, kidnapping, evidence tampering and common intent against a Captain in the Army and two local informers.
The parents of Altaf Ahmad Shah, Mymoona Begun and Ali Mohammed Shah, also participated in the panel discussion. A painter, Altaf was arrested by Army personnel on June 17, 2002 from a house where he had been working and on June 22 handed over to the Beerwah police station in an injured condition. He was treated at a variety of hospitals but died on June 26.
According to Aakar Patel, direction of Amnesty India, "These families were telling fellow Indians their stories of grievous trauma and loss. What is anti-national about that? Give them justice. These are your people," he said.
Patel said Amnesty had conducted "pure research" on every single case filed under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) since it came into being in 1990 in J&K.
"Amnesty looked at every single case that the J&K police had investigated and filed a chargesheet and then sent to Delhi for further action. With the exception of those chargesheeted for the Machil encounter, we found that no one else had been prosecuted because the AFSPA protected the guilty," Patel said.
"But I also want to say that the Indian army is a disciplined force. It is not the brutal organisation it is being made out to be."
He said Amnesty gave all its information to the army as well as the central government last year, but had not heard from them since.
R K Mattoo, a Kashmiri Pandit who left the Kashmir valley during the troubles of the early 1990s and has since lived and worked in Bangalore as a journalist told Huffington Post India that since this was an occasion for Kashmiris to air their grievances, he asked Amnesty for time to talk about the sufferings of Kashmiri Pandits "tortured and butchered and who have been living like refugees in their own country".
He said he participated in the panel discussion, along with the three families of the disappeared Kashmiri Muslims. "My heart goes out to those who have lost their kith and kin. But I also want to say that the Indian army is a disciplined force. It is not the brutal organization it is being made out to be."
Around 8:30 pm, when Mattoo was leaving the event, he said he heard slogans from inside the hall, shouting, "Hum kya chahte? Azaadi ! (We want freedom!") He and his followers then decided to respond with cries of 'Vande Mataram" and "Bharat mata ki jai !"
Soon enough, ABVP students had gathered at the site. Their complaint to the police, interestingly, doesn't name Amnesty. On August 15, though, the police reportedly charged Amnesty India with sedition - a move that the police seems to be having second thoughts about now. It is not clear if the police has dropped the sedition charges against the organisation, but, it anyway doesn't legally hold water. Sedition can only be applied against individuals, not organisations – as well as rioting, unlawful assembly and promoting enmity against the country.
Biraj Patnaik, civil rights activist and member of the Amnesty India board pointed out that the FIR filed by Benguluru police is a "poor application of a bad law as Amnesty had fully cooperated with the police. They were present at the event. If someone made a complaint, they could have conducted a preliminary enquiry."
Patnaik pointed out that the charge of sedition, under Section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code, dates back to the colonial era, as long back as 1898, when the British Raj introduced it to combat activities of freedom fighters.
"The Constitution of India guarantees free speech and expression. But if you're living in Kashmir or the North-East, you will think you are living in a police state. Now this pattern of harassment is spreading to all parts of the country and being done deliberately to damage the reputation of credible institutions," Patnaik said.
"Nikhil De of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghathan (MKSS) pointed out, the charge of sedition has been invoked by Congress-led governments in the past as well."
But as Nikhil De of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghathan (MKSS) pointed out, the charge of sedition has been invoked by Congress-led governments in the past as well, for example, when several hundred people protesting the Kudamkulam civil nuclear plant in Tamil Nadu were charged with sedition in 2012.
"You can only charge someone with sedition when his actions incite violence or lead to violence. The Amnesty event in Bengaluru did no such thing. The point is that if people's human rights have been violated, they need platforms where they can speak. Where is the sedition in that?" De said.
But as Patnaik points out, sedition has become an increasingly popular tool in the hands of the establishment in recent years. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, 58 people were charged with sedition in 2014. In the first three months of 2016, 11 cases had already been filed – including those against Kanhaiya Kumar at Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University and Tamil folk singer S Kovan for singing songs critical of Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa and her liquor policy.
Activists have been saying for some time now that the offending Section, 124-A, should be deleted from the penal code, especially because the clause of "disaffection" includes disloyalty as well as all feelings of enmity.
Certainly, feelings of irritation have been heightened under the Modi dispensation against foreign NGOs as well as Indian NGOs also funded from abroad. Greenpeace was the first to fall afoul, followed by Ford Foundation. It is now being said that the Congress government in Karnataka may consider removing the charge of sedition against Amnesty, not only because the general secretary in charge of Karnataka Digvijaya Singh believes the Siddharamiah government was wrong in doing what it did, but also because the police has looked closely at the video of the event and now says there was nothing as drastic as initially believed.
So whodunit ? And why? Intelligence officials in Karnataka say, off the record, that there was "enormous pressure" on the police force in Bengaluru from the Union home ministry in Delhi to charge Amnesty with something serious. It is not clear why the Bengaluru police succumbed, especially as the government is of a different political persuasion.
Ironically, the climate of suspicion against the so-called "foreign hand" is growing under prime minister Modi's watch – a prime minister who is so keen to build bridges with foreign leaders.
What is even more confounding is why the Home ministry has turned down an application for Amnesty to open its South Asia hub in India – and with it, the opportunity for access to information on all the conflict spots of the region.
Amnesty's contacts with Brahumdagh Bugti and Naela Baloch and several other Tibetan activists that India now wants to promote as it considers upgrading its "eye-for-an-eye" strategy with Pakistan and China, are impeccable. But instead of making use of these contacts, the Indian government is shunning Amnesty and other foreign NGOs under the garb of foreign exchange violations.
Certainly, the Amnesty case offers Modi and India another opportunity to look at its instinctive rejection of Western NGOs. Modi has tried hard to end the hangover of the East India Company by expanding India's influence abroad. Perhaps he now needs to tell his own people that they must change their ways too.