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ASHOK JAHNAVI PRASAD | 17 AUGUST, 2016

Of Amnesty, Rights and the Media


NEW DELHI: I have been associated with the Amnesty International for close to four decades. Over this period, actively I have involved myself in several campaigns. The apartheid regime of South Africa was one country we worked tirelessly on in the 1970’s and 1980’s. It was largely through the efforts of Amnesty International that we came to know of the atrocities that were being perpetrated by that reprehensible regime. As a medical practitioner, the campaign to highlight the plight of Steve Biko, a medical student was of major interest to me.

We actively campaigned against the practices in the Soviet Union and other countries. Some of them had solid democratic infra-structures in place therefore their representatives resented our emphasis on the questionable practices which were taking place .

It was therefore very instructive to learn that a democratic edifice by itself is no insulation against abuse of human rights. The notable feature here was that most (perhaps all) of the countries we concentrated on were signatories to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which made this practice completely unacceptable and amoral.

And yes, on two occasions , I was involved in a campaign that painfully necessitated criticizing the Indian government on foreign soil. The first was of course during the Emergency when I felt it was the moral obligation of everyone who believed in democracy to take a stand. The second was when the Bihar policemen were found to have indulged in blinding of the undertrials.

Having been born in Bihar and having a number of relatives residing there, it was painful and demeaning to watch the level of human degradation by those mandated to uphold the Constitution. Upsetting it was to watch people of learning defend this practice-some of them even lawyers. While Indira Gandhi did make a public statement on the matter, her inability to force Jagannath Mishra’s resignation was evidence of the state abrogating its responsibilities. That was one instance of what a voluble news anchor today would describe as ‘plausible deniability’.

I was denied visas to three countries because of my involvement with the Amnesty campaigns . I have preserved the denial by Pinochet’s government in Chile as a token of achievement. I was involved in a campaigning against them for torturing Sheila Cassidy , a physician colleague from Britain. Her crime! She had treated a wounded patient who was a member of the left wing organization that was opposing Pinochet’s brutal authoritarianism.

It is not that I have always agreed with the positions taken by Amnesty. As an active volunteer, I have taken strong exceptions to some . I for instance supported Gita Sahgal’s opposition when she resigned from her executive position. But on the whole I sincerely believe that we are better off because of the campaigns that have been launched by Amnesty.

It was therefore specially painful to observe the mud-slinging that has been in evidence in the last few days. I must concede that Amnesty itself did not help matters when they put up a semi-coherent explanation when there was absolutely no reason for it. An organization cannot be automatically held culpable for the actions of a section of an audience in a public gathering unless it is convincingly demonstrates that they share their belief system; and there was no chance of that happening.

It was ironical therefore to watch the Arnab Goswami show last which degenerated into an ugly circus. Again the choice of Tushar Gandhi to speak on behalf of Amnesty was a blunder. He was inexplicably incoherent and therefore an easy target for Arnab and his lynch mob consisting of the very offensivelyill informed and egoistically arrogant BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra and the RSS ideologue Ratan Sharda. Patra even had the audacity to suggest that the country wanted to get rid of those who did not share his views ,in this case John Dayal and a Muslim intellectual. He never bothered to explain how he assumed the right to speak for the whole country and what was most worrying that Arnab Goswami allowed him more than his share of time to rank his views presumably because it tallied with his own.

It would be appropriate on my part to state where I stand I do say that I have a better commitment to the Constitution than Sambit Patra ,Ratan Sharda and dare I say Arnab Goswami. My immediate forbears and very close relatives spent a total of 63 years in British prisons for their role during the freedom struggle and I grew up listening first hand to the privations they were subjected to. Some of them had the misfortune of being incarcerated during Indira Gandhi’s infamous Emergency when I had grown of the age where I could and did participate in anti state activities against the authoritarian regime.

My own had a stellar role in the drafting of the Indian constitution and I would fiercely oppose any slight to the Constitution-more so than the likes of Sambit Patra who by all accounts has never expressed a view on one of his most vocal MP’s enjoying himself on the dias while a speaker ranted that it would be in order to dig out women from a particular community from their graves and rape them! The video is on Youtube. I wonder whether Adityanath has claimed ‘plausible deniability.

Contrary to a widely expressed view, I do confess I have met RSS people who object to this vulgarization of politics in India. But they seem to have dissipated for the time being and I am waiting for them to re-assert themselves.

Patra’s mendacious foray was in evidence when he resorted to half-truth by reading Gita Sehgal’s critique of Amnesty without expounding her views or her mother’s on a multitude of issues which do not tally with his own. He displayed his ignorance when he ranted on the Amnesty’s silence on the left wing terror in India-Amnesty’s mandate is mainly to ensure humane treatment by that instruments of state during imprisonment .

There are loads of people within Amnesty, myself included who have taken a very strong stand on Maoist terror as my own writings would reflect. There are many again myself included, who are revolted by the actions of the terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir as again my writing would reflect. And I have had close relatives who have been a part of the armed forces and paramilitary directly in the frontline. I am not sure how many of these pseudo-nationalists whose nationalism is limited to making sure of victories during elections and ranting and raving on the national media can claim to have had kith and kin who have sacrificed their lives for the country –mine have! In one of my last columns I had asked when was the last time you heard a neta’s kin serve in the armed forces.

And yes Sambit Patra I do feel a sense of shame that you share the noblest professor ever known with me. I love my country for the values it represents. And when I find those values wanting , I am entitled to express my opinion as per my own Constitution. I am a deep humanist and passionately believe that my country represents that.

That is what drove me to be a part of the medical relief teams in Sudan, Sierra Leone,Somalia and Haiti –Patra may or may not have read my book on my experiences in Haiti. What I am trying to state is that I value my chosen profession too much to ever consider a foray into the cesspool of Indian politics to act as a professional heckler. It is entirely possible that some of my colleagues may have even taught Patra and I think they would have been embarrassed by his performance as well.

And he and his supporters on the programme were way off the mark when they came to discussing the parameters of freedom of expression. It was a pathetic display of limited legal literacy . Sedition law is a total abomination in a civilized society and needs to be repealed. It is another matter that none of the political parties would commit themselves to do it as it serves their purpose. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why I would never have been able to sleep with a clear conscience if I had been in politics and been expected to take a three line whip from any of the political formations.

I was surprised though that the most respected judgement on the freedom of expression was not alluded to by any party in any of the debates. The landmark US Supreme Court judgement Texas vs Johnson should have been expounded in this context. Johnson was convicted of burning the US flag .He went upto the Supreme Court pleading constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression.

Justice Anthony Kennedy who came to the Supreme Court with a reputation of being a hard conservative but later developed into a pillar of judicial wisdom wrote a concurring note to the majority in which he expressed deep anguish at having been asked to rule on this issue where he had a lot of soul searching to do. But eventually he believed that his commitment to constitutional values should supercede any personal revulsion that he felt deeply at Mr.Johnson’s actions. He concluded by stating:

It is poignant though significant that the symbol (of state) should be seen to offer protection to those who hold it in contempt.

(The views expressed in this article are not necessarily held by The Citizen)

Dr.Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad is a senior medical academic also holding doctorates in philosophy and history and a qualified barrister.He now works full time as a philosopher humanist.

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