The heated public debate arising from Gita Sahgal’s departure from Amnesty reveals at least, in part, a nervousness to condemn and thereby weaken significant voices in civil society – especially those organisations that wield some clout with government. There is the fear of loss of public confidence and the consequent drop in donations. For some activists there is a sense of narrowing options: who else to turn to in the struggle for human rights especially under a government which likes sabre-rattling on the future of the Human Rights Act.
But there is also much to lose on the other side of the debate: we cannot afford the direct or indirect legitimisation of extremist religious forces especially by organisations claiming the progressive mantle. Oxfam and other NGOs have also been caught with their knickers around their ankles. Take the relief effort after the Kashmir earthquake in 2005. A relief agency, the Jamaat-ud Dawa (JuD) was first on the scene. Chetan Bhatt, an academic based at LSE, tracks the repackaging of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group that was involved in the Mumbai bombings and has clear links to Al Qaeda, to JuD shortly before it was put on the banned list by Musharraf. Extremist, religious groups involved in ‘terror’ at one level have developed enough political sophistication to know that welfare and humanitarian work takes you into the heart of a community. The JuD worked with a remarkably wide range of agencies, from the UNHCR, UNICEF, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the World Health Organization, the World Food Programme to Oxfam. Oxfam provided ‘various services such as water sanitation’ for the JuD. UNICEF funded new JuD primary schools in which youngsters were taught songs about being soldiers of Islam who should destroy those who refuse to convert.
These are the high profile cases. But the slippage is constant and must be guarded against. Much of this does not come to public attention. Oxfam has been the prime mover behind an innovative and, by some accounts, a highly effective program to end violence against women in South Asia through the We Can project. According to the website, ‘ The campaign’s model of change is unique.’ The aim is to run awareness raising sessions for large numbers of people who become Changemakers and, ‘actively encourage positive behaviour towards women within the communities they live and work’ in a ‘person-to-person chain reaction of change to attain a critical mass, so as to evolve an organised mass movement, and transform existing power relations in communities, institutions, and the society’. Currently, there are 2.7 million Changemakers across six countries in the South Asia region.
But who are the individuals at the helm of this structure? A shadow hangs over the co-ordinator of this programme in the state of Uttarakhand, India. For the last two years, a group of women’s organisations have been trying to raise their concerns with Oxfam about Meera Kaintura (aka Saklani), in a case with eerie parallels to Gita Sahgal’s concerns about Amnesty’s legitimisation of the human rights credentials of Cageprisoners and Moazzem Begg. While in post, Meera Kaintura, a member of the Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has been elected to the Panchayati Raj Institution (the local governance structure in India) at the district level and holds the post of Co-chairperson.
On behalf of these women’s organisations, Minnie Kumria, who lives in London and does voluntary work in Uttarakhand, asked Oxfam employees based in India and Oxfam UK to investigate Meera Kaintura’s BJP links as long ago as September 2008. Finally, in March 2009, Mona Mehta, Global Programme Adviser (EVAW) Oxfam GB responded by email to Minnie, ‘We respect everyone's right to have varied and different perspectives and also various political affiliations.’ This liberal love-in of all comers also infuses the interim Secretary General, Claudio Cordone’s defence of Amnesty International’s continued association with Moazzem Begg, ‘Sometimes the people whose rights we defend may not share each other's views…’.Mona Mehta promised to investigate if any breach of the principles of the alliance had occurred and to take action if necessary. However, nothing more was heard – until I got involved.
By June 2010, the Oxfam position had shifted. Rashmi Singh, the National Co-Ordinator of the We Can Campaign, India, denied that Meera Kaintura was a member of the BJP, ‘She was elected as an independent person not representing any political party’ , asking me to provide her with evidence to the contrary. Should we assume that Oxfam had a change of heart – embracing diversity of opinion was all very well but including the BJP with its appalling record of violence against Muslims, Christians and Dalits was a step too far, so best to deny it?
One would have thought that an individual’s party membership would be a matter of public record, and even pride. However, in India nothing is straightforward. At the Panchayat level, it is individuals who stand for election, supported informally by political party resources. The local population will be aware of the party affiliations of every candidate. Meera Kaintura’s membership of the BJP has been confirmed by a range of local individuals from journalists to members of local NGOs such as Kamala Pant of the Mahila Manch who witnessed Kaintura campaigning on a BJP platform; but the clincher was provided finally by a State Minister of the BJP government in Uttarakhand who claimed Kaintura as one of theirs. Many individuals did not want to be quoted for fear of retribution.
And like Begg and Cageprisoners, the BJP is chameleon-like when it comes to pinning down its true colours; it was behind the Gujarat massacre in 2004, in which at least 2000 Muslims were killed, and the destruction of a mosque, the Babri Masjid, in 1992 in which thousands died. Yet Nitin Gadkari, president of the BJP complains of ‘being caught in an image warp’ seeing no contradiction in the party’s attempt to reach out to Muslims while continuing to promote Hindutva, a philosophy which essentially constructs India as the homeland of Hindus. The BJP will also point to its handful of Muslims MPs and the appointment of a Muslim president, Abdul Kalam by a BJP led coalition in 2002, in response to any criticism of its anti-Muslim practices.
How can the representative of a political party with such an extremist agenda be given the post of co-ordinator of an important Oxfam campaign for an entire state? Does Oxfam believe that work on ending violence against women and the BJP politics of hate can be compartmentalised? Again it is very reminiscent of the defence of Moazzem Begg; Amnesty and vast chunks of the left have ignored his self-proclaimed Salafism, a highly sectarian strand of Islam which has much in common with Saudi Arabian Wahhabism. Followers of Salafism accuse all other Muslims of apostasy, believe there has been no pure Islamic state since the Ottoman empire and even that was flawed, and hold extremely authoritarian views on gender. Yet many people ask where is the evidence that Begg is opposed to women’s rights?
The BJP position on women is even more inconsistent and contradictory. It is driven by political expediency, where women’s rights are used as a weapon against Muslims. The BJP took up a long running feminist campaign for the implementation of the Uniform civil code as a way of sidelining Muslim personal laws; although that is what feminists had been campaigning for, the BJP espousal of the cause threw feminists into disarray, with some women even abandoning the demand for the Uniform Civil Code in the context of anti-Muslim hatred. Amrita Basu, an American academic, found that ‘BJP members often express condescension towards Muslims for practicing parda (female seclusion) and extol the greater freedom of Hindu than of Muslim women.” At the same time, the Ram Janmabhoomi movement which grew up around the desecration of the Babri masjid led to a flowering of literature on women’s roles and codes of conduct, encouraging them to adopt subservient roles to men in the domestic sphere, oppose abortion and eschew Western concepts of liberation.
It isn’t as if Oxfam staff do not have guidance on the issue of picking potential partners. Their policy document on partnerships says ‘whilst recognising and respecting differences, sufficient common ground in terms of shared values and beliefs must be found for our partnerships with others to be viable. We must share a desire to work towards a common position on important issues, including a commitment to gender-equality and respect for diverse identities…’ This principle surely precludes any alliance with BJP personnel. Amnesty had no structures, policies or procedures in place for vetting potential partners in a campaign. Alliances were often formed on the recommendations of staff members who might use a combination of instinct, experience and knowledge of the field in which they worked. Amnesty are now consulting internally and externally in order to put a system in place, a positive outcome of this furore. However, the Oxfam example does not inspire optimism.
The Oxfam document goes on to stress the importance of accountability and transparency of Oxfam GB in its relationships with partners. Yet those organisations in the We Can partnership in Uttarakhand which asked for accountability on issues such as budget were never given answers. When partners challenged the delivery of ever larger numbers of Changemakers at the expense of the quality of their training, they were quietly dropped and more compliant members taken on. The organisation, Garhwal Vikas Kendra (GVK) that Meera Kaintura ran with her husband, Parinder Saklani, holds a budget of approximately 22,00,000 INR (£32,000) on behalf of the campaign, a princely sum by Indian standards. Yet this figure was not disclosed nor an account of expenditure given to the alliance members until it was released in response to my request. If Meera Kaintura’s BJP membership can be so hard to establish, it’s not surprising that operational accountability gets glossed over.
Human rights organisations need to be more vigilant so that they do not provide a platform for religious and communalist forces, wittingly or unwittingly. Gita Sahgal’s attempts to expose the dangers of such associations was hijacked by right wing, illiberal voices who seized on this as an opportunity to attack Amnesty. But that does not invalidate her stand as many on the left have argued. Raising human rights concerns in the context of demonisation of minorities requires treading with care but tread we must. Just because the BJP creates smokescreens to hide its true agenda should not fool Oxfam into remaining in partnership with their representatives.