Amnesty’s India work halt evokes memories of Indira Gandhi’s emergency

Published : 3 Oct 2020, 06:07 PM
Updated : 3 Oct 2020, 06:07 PM

News of the harassment over the last two years by Indian authorities of the work of Amnesty India culminating with the recent freezing of Amnesty's bank accounts reminds me of the draconian steps taken by Indira Gandhi's government in 1975 when an Emergency was declared.

The main reason for declaring the Emergency in 1975 was to thwart the anti-government movement which was inspired by the Gandhian leader, Jayaprakash Narayan (JP). The first arrests of Indira Gandhi's political rivals were made early in the morning of Jun 26, 1975. JP was arrested from the premises of the Gandhi Peace Foundation in New Delhi and taken to the Parliament Street police station. K.S. Radhakrishnan, Secretary of the Gandhi Peace Foundation followed to the police station and was able to obtain a comment from JP which translated is "When the moment of destruction is at hand reason abandons the mind."

In 1975 I was responsible for the funding and monitoring of organisations supported by Oxfam-UK in northern India and Nepal. Earlier, from 1968 to 1971, I had been working as an agricultural volunteer in an Oxfam funded programme in Bihar, India, known as the 'Oxfam Gramdan Action Programme' (OGAP) and it was through the Gandhi Peace Foundation that this village development programme, based at four Gandhian ashrams, was coordinated. The ashram where I had been based was Samanvaya Ashram in Bodh Gaya in Bihar which had been founded in the early 1950s by Acharya Vinoba Bhave. Another of the four ashrams was JP's ashram, Gram Nirman Mondal, near Nawada in Bihar.

Indian intelligence agencies decided that, as I was the only foreign link of OGAP days still in India, there was a possibility that Oxfam might be funding the anti-government movement that had been led by JP. All Oxfam projects in the area that I covered were raided and account books seized for scrutiny. In addition, intelligence personnel would open all my mail and an intelligence officer on a Vespa scooter would follow me whenever I left my home cum office in my Oxfam landrover. Sometimes, when I needed to go to the Gandhi Peace Foundation or any other sensitive location, I would arrange for a taxi to follow the landrover and the Vespa would also be following us. I would go to a 5-star hotel and manage to switch vehicles. Some hours later I would return to the hotel and use the landrover to return home. Sometimes I carried confidential reports about the human rights situation as a result of the Emergency for onward transmission to Amnesty International in London and would manage to send them courtesy of the Diplomatic Bag of the British High Commission in New Delhi.

Because of my link with the Gandhians going back to the time of OGAP, my name was put on a 'blacklist'. I was warned that if I left the country I might not be allowed back in again. I was told that the reason I had not been thrown out of the country already was that my wife was Indian and by that time our firstborn was only a few months old. When the Janata Government came to power in 1977, it was the renowned journalist, the late Kuldip Nayar, who made sure that the then Home Minister, Charan Singh, had my name removed from the 'blacklist'.

So these are the human rights-related memories which came to my mind when I learnt of the problems facing Amnesty in India.

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher