What happens when a young Muslim Woman Human Rights Defender questions the structural issues that are plaguing the development sector that she is a part of? She is forced to return to her ghetto, unable to pay her bills, after struggling for 10 years to come out of this Ghetto.
It has been three months since I publicly wrote about the discrimination and human rights violations at Amnesty International India, only partly exposing the system. Each day of these three months has taught me something new, has taken from me a lot of energy, and has also given me experiences that have humbled me. There have been efforts to vilify me, but at the same time there have been voices that have stood up for me, and by me and many others who have been anonymous well wishers. But have I been able to do what I set out to do, putting my career and my livelihood at risk? Have those in the system questioned their privilege, and taken a stand against the injustice, the discrimination, and the hollowness of mere words and tweets, as opposed to actions on human rights violations?
Amnesty Internationalâs sham committee
I wrote to Kumi Naidoo, the Secretary General of Amnesty International, appealing to his conscience, knowing how active he has been in movements, telling him details about how the Amnesty India management heads have used unparliamentary language in their daily interactions with the staff. I told him of threatening phone calls being made by the top management to a celebrated female journalist when she was unable to compere a report release; a threatening phone call I got earlier this year from a senior manager when I questioned due process in choosing friends from amongst staff to be sent to international conferences; about how they were protected by the other management heads; and their impunity never questioned. He wrote back to me, but did he act like he expects governments of the world to, when he writes to them addressing injustice? May be he should answer that question for me.
Meanwhile Over thirty concerned civil society organisations and activists from across the country also wrote Kumi Naidoo, demanding the following, among other things: The international Secretariat should establish an external enquiry independent of AII board and management, into the allegations of discrimination raised.
The inquiry should undertake a review of salary scales and promotion assessment criteria and processes, and note, if any, reasons for absence of Dalits and Muslims at higher grade scales and in senior leadership position as well the high attrition rate of such staff.
Transparency on partnership: Amnesty International India needs to officially make public, their policy on campaign membership/numbers...organisations that Amnesty partners with need to be told that one of their mandates is to get more phone numbers and email addresses as representative of getting more members on board.
AII is also using campaigns such as its âready to reportâ campaign to raise funds. This campaign was closed in 2017 however is still used by fundraising teams to mobilise funds. This unethical use of womenâs rights work to raise funds needs to be addressed and immediately stopped.
The result? I received an email from the Amnesty India board informing me of a committee being set up, members of which â despite my request and the demand above â constituted of present and past Amnesty India Board.
Why does that affect me? Because three weeks back, one of those who withdrew support from Amnesty India called me and told me how he was approached by a staff member of one of the AI board memberâs organisation, acting as a liaison and asking him to mend relations with Amnesty because âMariya is not even a Dalitâ among other arguments.
I wrote to the board saying I refuse to be part of any enquiry committee which has members associated with Amnesty India, in the interest of a fair process. Am I wrong in doing this?
Isnât Amnesty worried about losing support of marginalised community leaders?
Radhika Vemula, mother of late Rohith Vemula, took her support back from Amnesty in light of the discrimination against Muslims and Dalits and their causes at Amnesty India. Did they reach out to her directly and apologise for causing her disappointment? No.
Chandrashekhar Azad withdrew his support and asked Amnesty to stop campaigning for him for their number targets. He chose to be on the side of the oppressed and asked Amnesty openly, in his withdrawal message, the percentage of Muslims and Dalits in the higher ranks; Amnesty Campaigners proudly shared overall diversity numbers with him.
âIs it not true that the enquiry committee that Amnesty is talking about setting up to look into the complaints, has past and present Amnesty Board Members?â he wrote to the organisation. He also demanded that till an external committee is set up by the organisation with a member from the Bhim Army to look into the allegations being made a part of it, and appropriate action taken against the casteist management, he withdraws his support from the organisation.
A Dalit cartoonist made a series of cartoons on the management, based on my article. None of this has changed anything at Amnesty, however.
How are those who support me from within the organisation paying the price? Junior colleagues from Amnesty messaged me saying they are all rooting for me, but are not courageous enough to say it in the open.
Under the garb of downsizing, the only Dalit woman at Amnesty programs team, my PhD friend Ashwini KP, who has been part of my struggle throughout, has been asked to resign because the organisation has a fund crunch. Others with much less experience and academic qualification, retained. I wrote to the organisation last week, as a media request, the justification for âthrowingâ Ashwini out and retaining others. The reply I received read: âFor reasons of privacy and confidentiality, we do not publicly share information related to employment decisions about specific staff members.â
Both Ashwini, who had raised a caste based discrimination complaint against the programs director at Amnesty India, and I, know that raising questions has its consequences. December will be her last working month, if not January. My young Savarna feminist colleagues, who toe the line of the management and have been retained by it are busy posting videos on Facebook about how human rights are Universal and they hate the word âselectiveâ while my comments on these videos questioning their privilege have been deleted by the organisation, which otherwise fights governments on the right of activists and others to dissent.
At a staff meeting held to discuss my allegations, the Executive Director Aakaar Patel told a room full of staff that my âblogâ was not to be taken too seriously, because he hardly had any media house running after him, calling him names. I want to tell him, that did not happen because I repeatedly refused to give bytes and comments to a number of media houses with humongous TRPs, happy to rip Amnesty apart. My intention was, and still remains, to question and change how many INGOs function in the country today because they are plagued by upper caste, BMW owning, entitled men like him, who refuse to acknowledge and address the discrimination they perpetuate by surrounding themselves with their likes, and taking the mic and the platform away from those they supposedly represent.
Donât mix up ED raids with genuine concerns
The ED raid at Amnesty and the freezing of funds is condemnable, but so is their using this as an opportunity to get rid of those staff who do not shy away from questioning privilege and discrimination within the organisation. The top management may have taken pay cuts or decided to work without any for a while, but they must also remember that their salaries for years have been ten or perhaps twenty times more that the Dalit women who have been cleaning after them at the organisation.
On this Human Rights day, while I am taking photos of my home appliances that I will need to sell before I move back to Calcutta, to my family home in Zakaria street, my ghetto and a food haven for the elite who take heritage walks around here, all I hope is that I have been able to make some people uncomfortable and question the privilege that they enjoy. I hope I have been able to atleast make an inroad into questioning those for whom Human Rights is more about funding, than about those under whose names these funds are raised.
A version of this blog was published on TwoCircles.net
(The opinions in this piece are the author's own).