The global human rights organisation Amnesty International might have been accused in the recent years of interfering in domestic matters by the ruling Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) led Central government, but there was a time when the letters by its supporters across the world gave “strength, confidence and hope” to political leaders like L.K. Advani and his friends. Advani in his book, A Prisoner’s Scrap-Book, essentially an account of his days in prison during the emergency (1975-77), records that the letters sent by the members or associates of Amnesty International gave “strength, confidence and hope to all of us engaged in the struggle.”
In his entry on January 18, 1977, Advani, who was then lodged at the Bangalore Central jail, wrote on what was his last day in the prison:
“When at 5:30 or so I returned to my room I found a heap of letters lying on my table. They are more than 600, all of them from abroad, sent by members or associates of Amnesty International. Most of them are Christmas or New Year’s greeting cards, but there is a line or two inscribed on each, which gave strength, confidence and hope to all us engaged against the struggle.”
During the emergency, thousands of political leaders, students and activists from across India were jailed by the Indira Gandhi government. This included several senior members of the RSS and the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, a precursor to the BJP. “Here is a sample—a Christmas greeting card from one Laurie Hendricks from Amsterdam in Holland,” noted Advani, adding that she wrote, “Freedom and hope don’t go hand in hand. They can steal your freedom but can’t take your hope.” As a matter of conclusion, he recorded, “Yes, they stole the freedom of 600 millions, they just could not destroy their hope!”
It can be noted that across the globe, Amnesty International often asks its supporters to send solidarity letters and messages to the victims of torture, prisoners of conscience, people facing the death penalty and others facing human rights violations. Ever since its formation in 1961, the Nobel Prize winning organisation has been doing this on a regular basis. Annually, they organise the ‘Write for Rights’ campaign, a letter-writing marathon that brings together thousands of Amnesty International supporters and activists around the world.
Amnesty International says that in the 2014 Write for Rights campaign, over 3 million actions were taken by hundreds of thousands of people in over 200 countries and territories around the world. These letters “help us to put pressure on authorities, and over the years has resulted in life-changing impacts for many,” notes the global human rights movement.
On Tuesday, the organisation’s India unit announced that it was shutting down after the Enforcement Directorate froze its bank accounts, blaming the Centre’s ‘reprisal’.
Support to political leaders across the spectrum
Over the years, Amnesty International has campaigned for the release of several activists and leaders, across the left, right and centre of the political spectrum. During the Emergency, it campaigned for the release of political leaders like Advani, Jayaprakash Narayan, Morarji Desai and their friends and comrades in the fight against the tyrannical rule of the day.
“My colleagues and I warmly recall the efforts made by Amnesty International for the restoration of fundamental freedoms and civil liberties,” Desai, who became the prime minister of the Janata Party-led government after Emergency, is reported to have said. Advani was the minister of information and broadcasting in Desai’s cabinet.
Not only did the organisation campaign against the Emergency, butalso sent its first-ever official delegation to India after the Emergency was lifted. The delegation visited different parts of the country between December 31, 1977 and January 18, 1978. It submitted a detailed report which was released in January 1979. The report covered six broad areas of concerns: The restoration of the rule of law and the protection of human rights; detention in Indian Law; the current position of political prisoners; torture of political prisoners and deaths in police custody; killings of political prisoners in “Encounters” and “while trying escape”; and prison conditions.
Noting that there have been serious allegations “over the past ten years that political prisoners have been killed by police forces ‘while trying to escape from prison’ or in ‘encounters with the police’,” Amnesty International in its report had said that it “considers torture and the killing of political prisoners by police forces to be the most serious violations of human rights”.
The report also said that “Amnesty International further believes that all persons arrested in connection with political activities – including those involving the deliberate use of violence – should always be granted all fundamental rights protecting the individual, particularly the right to life, freedom from torture and the right to a fair trial.”
A part of the report’s conclusion reads:
“Amnesty International believes that the right to life and personal liberty and the freedom from torture, guaranteed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Indian Constitution, should always be observed, whether by Government forces or opposition groups. Amnesty International totally opposes torture and execution, particularly when carried out in the name of a political cause and regardless of whether such acts are committed by Government forces or opposition groups such as the Naxalites.”
In the preface of the report, Thomas Hammarberg, the then chairman of the International Executive Committee of Amnesty International, wrote, “We hope that this report, and particularly the recommendations addressed to the government outlined in the memorandum, will make a contribution towards the current discussions about means to effectively protect and enforce fundamental rights guaranteed in the Indian Constitution, a discussion which Amnesty International considers to be most important.”
Disclosure: Mahtab Alam worked with Amnesty International India between March 2014 and June 2016, as a senior campaigner and coordinator of its Human Rights Defenders Project.