Amnesty International Should Break Its Public Silence On Christine Mehta’s Deportation
By Ramesh Gopalakrishnan
03 July, 2015
On Wednesday (1 July 2015), when the world’s premier human rights organization launched its latest report on Kashmir taking on the Government of India on the issue of impunity from prosecution for its armed forces personnel charged with human rights violations in the valley, ironically, it remained silent on a key related violation: the deportation of its former staffer and report’s lead researcher, Christine Mehta, to the United States more than six months ago.
This meticulously-researched report enumerates the systemic denial or blocking of official permission to prosecute armed forces or paramilitary personnel in 50-odd cases of human rights violations, including extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances and torture; it would be impossible for India’s Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) to deny the report’s details. The report rightly demands the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (Jammu and Kashmir), 1990, and calls for an international inquiry into these blocked cases.
Interestingly, Mehta, a United States’ national with A Person of Indian Origin (PIO) status, chose this very day of the report launch to publish her account of her deportation in The Hindu. Her chilling Kafka moment came on 8 November 2014 at the hands of the MHA. Typically, she was accosted by the MHA officials in Bangalore city and told to leave the country within 24 hours. She eventually left India for the US on 22 November 2014; her Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) card stands impounded; her passport has an exit stamp which renders her future visits to India impossible. Her contract with the organization she worked for also came to an abrupt end.
Mehta’s account has an uncanny parallel with Kafka’s novel, Der Prozess (The Trial) in which two officials accost the novel’s protagonist Joseph K. without rhyme or reason and try to induce guilt in him for a yet-unstated offence. From what she says, it becomes amply clear that Mehta’s induced guilt is about having carried out substantial research on the human rights situation in Kashmir for which she had visited the valley several times during 2012-2014.
However, there is a twist to Kafka’s tale: unlike Joseph K., an individual who just wants to be left alone in the modern world, Mehta worked for a modern organization. Joseph K. keeps wondering what his offence is. In Mehta’s case, this induced guilt becomes her own and the modern organization she had worked for does not appear to have any guilt about her current situation! One wonders if the modern organization’s mind is as opaque as that of the MHA which ordered her deportation!
Interestingly, this organization is not a right-wing one which issues routine ultra-nationalist tweets to justify human rights violations in Kashmir or elsewhere, but is the Indian national office of the world’s biggest human rights outfit, Amnesty International, which claims to have over seven million supporters standing up against the violations of the world’s governments and the abuses of corporate giants.
From where does Mehta’s induced guilt come? When she started work on Kashmir, there was no permission from the MHA for her, as a PIO status-holder, to visit the valley for business or work purposes. Such permission is deemed necessary as per India’s visa rules, but she admits that neither she nor Amnesty International’s Indian national office had sought this permission. This apparent mistake has now resulted in her apparent double punishment – at the hands of the MHA as well as Amnesty International.
Does it really matter that Mehta is a foreign national? No, it is amply clear that the violations in Kashmir or any other place remain the same whether or they are researched by an Indian or a foreign national who uses the framework of international human rights law. Under international human rights law, the elements of most of which are shared by India’s Constitution (but not by laws such as the AFSPA), a violation remains a violation regardless of who carries out this research. The Indian government is well aware of this, but it uses a technicality in its visa regulations to routinely block international requests for research, from bona fide scholars and organizations. And, in a global scenario where India covets the influx of international finance capital and wants to export its goods and services, this strategy of blocking serious research remains a hyper-nationalist anomaly!
Indeed, Amnesty International’s past requests for research visas for its staffers – who were foreign nationals - to visit the valley and a few other states always drew negative or nil responses from the MHA. The MHA cited visa rules and security reasons for such restrictions. Under these conditions, it became necessary to deploy a different set of strategies to carry out such research: this is what we as the India team at Amnesty International’s International Secretariat at London did: our team came up with the strategy of deploying Indian nationals living and working in the UK – one of who was myself – to visit Kashmir on research work.
This strategy paid off handsomely in 2010-2011 when a two-member team including myself travelled to Kashmir to research on the infamous Jammu & Kashmir Public Safety Act, 1977, under which over 20,000 persons had been detained over the last two decades. In March 2011, a three-member team including myself launched, in Srinagar, the report entitled PSA: A Lawless Law in Srinagar. No one asked us how we could travel to Kashmir. This report contained an overarching demand for the repeal of the PSA, but our team was also able to meet the Jammu & Kashmir chief minister, top officials, the Union Home Secretary and the three-member team of interlocutors appointed by the MHA to successfully advocate on certain amendments to the PSA. And as a countermeasure, our team decided that all human rights research on Kashmir would continue to be carried out by London-based Amnesty International staffers – so that the issue continues to receive the international attention and advocacy it deserves and resonates with similar issues worldwide – as sought by human rights activists based in Kashmir.
Inexplicably, this situation was overturned in late 2012 when Amnesty International Secretary-General Salil Shetty decided to set up an Indian national office at his home city of Bangalore as part of his project of “moving the organization closer to the ground” across the world. As a consequence, he decided to abolish the India team at London and hand over all research to the Indian national office. Nevertheless, our plea that the research on Kashmir should be done by Indian nationals fell on deaf ears. When Amnesty International’s India national office inducted Mehta to this position, it ticked off our warning that her visa status could be jeopardized and sent her to Kashmir several times for research work. As a consequence, she has had to face deportation; she is now unable to visit India even to meet her family and friends.
Curiously, both Amnesty International’s International Secretariat and Indian national office remain silent on Mehta’s deportation even after she published her account. Not a word has emanated from its managers and staffers on Mehta! This is very unlike Greenpeace India, which has consistently raised the issue of sudden travel bans on its local staffer Priya Pillai (who was attempting to visit the UK for advocacy purposes) or an international staffer (who was attempting to visit India with proper visas) over the last six months.
Having left the Amnesty International’s International Secretariat in April 2014, I have had no way of finding out why the organization remains tightlipped about Mehta’s deportation. This silence certainly leaves the organization open to the charge of failure in their “duty of care” for one of its staffers and put its credibility as a “voice of the voiceless” at stake – especially when they had been promptly warned of this consequence by people like me.
It is well known that the struggle for justice and human rights in India is going to be a very long one, especially given the ongoing hostility of the ruling BJP and its assorted ultra-nationalist supporters to the language of international human rights law and international human rights organizations. And if Amnesty International is serious about this struggle and is ready to engage with the most serious human rights issues of the day; it needs to pay attention to the details of its research strategy which includes its tactics of response to the rules and regulations which curb the human rights of researchers. It should think of ensuring a meaningful level of duty of care for its staffers who visit places such as Kashmir. It certainly needs to avoid deportations in future and, if and when the government takes such measures it needs to be able to fight them – legally and politically. That and not mere silence will be the hallmark of a serious human rights organization.
As for Christine Mehta’s deportation, Amnesty International clearly owes her a public apology. Since she lost her job in AI India, Mr Salil Shetty should reinstate her in a suitable research position in the organization’s offices in the US; and among the open letters he would be writing to the Indian government, there should be one letter which urges the authorities to reinstate Mehta’s OCI status. These are the least things which should be done now.
The MHA’s response to Mehta’s eloquent account of her deportation is more sheer silence. It certainly runs along the narrative of Kafka’s prophetic novel. What is most disconcerting here that this silence is being shared by the world’s premier human rights organization.
If Amnesty International fails to break its silence on Christine Mehta, its managers are certain to face the charge of calculating her deportation as “mere collateral damage” in the process of producing a report on Kashmir and building a local brand for itself. And worse, the organization it will run the risk of being clubbed along with the MHA and the burgeoning corporatized bureaucracy of our era which Kafka’s novels a century ago foresaw coming – that will be a chilling thought for all ardent supporters of human rights across the world.
Ramesh Gopalakrishnan, a product of Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai, abandoned a career in corporate technology in the early 1980s to become a committed journalist. In 2005, he ended his more than two decade-long career in media organizations when he quit a senior journalistic position at the BBC World Service at London. After working for eight years as the India Researcher and a year as a Business and Human Rights researcher, he left Amnesty International's International Secretariat at London in April 2014. Currently an independent researcher based both in London and Chennai/Kerala, he is also a visiting faculty at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai, where he conducts an elective on human rights in a topsy-turvy world.
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