Dr. B Karthik Navayan
I have bigger things to say about Aakar Patel and Amnesty International India, but my dispute with them is sub judice before the court. Therefore, I am waiting for the court to decide. I will write about it after the court decision.
Without mentioning the issue that is sub judice before the court, I would like to express my views about six things that Aakar Patel learned about in NGOs, as he wrote in his article that was published on 31 March 2019 in Outlook. Here is the link – https://www.outlookindia.com/blog/story/india-news-6-things-i-learned-about-ngos-in-india-by-heading-one/4064
Aakar Patel’s article reminded me of four things – one, it reminded me of an essay on the cow by an eighth class student, that the cow has a tail; it also has four legs, etc. Two, It reminded me of aliens writing about humans on earth. Three, it reminded me of a joke on the functioning of SBI. Four, it reminded me of a quatrain by16 century Telugu poet, Vemana, who said,
Putthadi galavani pundu Badayu Guda Vasudha Lona Chala Vatha Kekku
Peda Vadi Intilo Pendli Ayina Yerugaru – Vishwadabhirama Vinura Vema
The essence (not translation) of the above saying by Vemana is that the people with privileges will get all attention and approval of larger society for whatever they have and say, but the unprivileged will be suspected and rejected.
People like Aakar Patel can present their assumptions as learnings and romanticise the NGO sector as a sincere committed space for the betterment of society and democracy because the NGO sector is filled with the people of his own class, those who can share his ideas and understandings and so it becomes his duty to praise it and promote it. He also said that the people in the NGO sector are working with lower salaries. This is again a fancy statement to make – because, the salaries may be less when compared with the corporate sector, but they are certainly higher when compared with government salaries, private sector salaries and much higher than the unorganised sector salaries. To make it more clear, Aakar Patel and his colleagues’ salaries are not less than 30+ Lakhs per year, so you can understand, how many people have access to such highly paid jobs in this country and is it justified to say that people in NGOs are working with lower salaries?
When a friend of mine argued with a jail officer about the terrible conditions and low-quality food in the jails, the jail officer said this, “Look, the facilities and food that we are providing to the inmates of jails are according to our country’s standards. What kind of facilities, food do you expect for prisoners in a country, where 50% of the population do not know the taste of the apple (fruit) and 50% population do not know about a train journey?” Let us apply this statement by a jail officer to the views of Aakar Patel. We can easily say, Aakar Patel’s salary is equal to the earnings of 30 BPL families in this country and yet he can write that he and his colleagues in NGOs are working for low salaries.
In Aakar Patel’s article, the six things he learned about NGOs reflect the settled ideas and understandings, the readymade sensibilities of people with caste-class privileges. He actually was addressing his own caste-class people in the NGOs, who are happy to share his ideas, as the propagation of such ideas will benefit them.
Let me tell a joke here. A teenager asks his mother whether he can go out with friends on a weekend. Mother tells him to consult his father. He approaches his father with the same question, the father tells him to consult his mother. Getting irritated, the teenager shouts. “Is this a home or SBI (State Bank of India) counters?” Some of us laugh at this joke and enjoy it for a moment. Because we know the functioning of SBI and can easily relate to it and find it funny. However, those who do not know the functioning of SBI or have access to the bank will not understand this joke.
Therefore, the point or a question to Aakar Patel is: who is he addressing, when he mentions “WE” in this article up to seven times. Who are that “WE”? I think that “WE” are not the people who are beneficiaries of NGOs. He is addressing the people of his caste-class position. I am asking this question because, if he has some learnings from working as the head of an NGO, he might have learned something regarding the functioning of an NGO, and he would have addressed it to the NGOs. I wish to read his learning on the functioning of an NGO because he talked about the lack of social diversity in NGOs in the beginning days of his tenure in Amnesty International India. I think that he really did something different than most of the NGOs in the country. That is, he not only spoke about social diversity in NGOs but also tried to bring in people from marginalised communities into NGOs and I think he has learnings about it, but he did not write about it. Why? He fears that he would have to go on accusing the marginalised communities if he has to talk about it.
Therefore, Aakar Patel has made chapatis without flour, the six points he mentioned as his learnings hold no water as they are far from the truth. This article makes clear who he represents before the marginalised, unprivileged communities.
In India, civil society and the NGO sector are both occupied by Brahmin Savarnas, who claim expertise on every issue that concerns the people: be it human rights, environment, poverty alleviation, women’s empowerment, child rights, Dalit rights, Adivasi rights or HIV AIDs, etc. You take any issue, you will have a Brahmin-Savarna expert on it. When Aakar Patel wrote that there are brightest of Indians in NGOs, he failed to differentiate between the people who have dedicated their lives to the cause and those who are running NGOs for the cause. He misunderstood a person like Bezwada Wilson, who works on eradication of manual scavenging, as an NGO or so-called civil society person. But Wilson was a community activist, who later associated with NGOs, but did not become an NGO. Aakar Patel also confuses Organisations like MKSS, which is behind the campaign for the Rights to Information as an NGO. Hello, Aakar, MKSS is a mass organisation, it is not NGO. That is why his article reminded me of aliens writing about humans on earth.
Therefore, the first thing that Aakar Patel wrote: that there are brightest minds in NGOs who work for low salaries is untrue. Actually, present day NGOs are filled with Brahmin Savarna with privileges who claim to be working for Dalit Adivasis with somewhat fat salaries.
The second thing Aakar Patel learned is that, there are experts in NGOs; they are absent elsewhere including in the government. This is untrue. Whichever experts on different subjects that Aakar Patel got introduced or exposed to in his tenure as an Executive Director of Amnesty International India are the ones who emerged from grassroots social movements and not funded NGOs. He has mistaken them to be NGOs.
The third point he writes is that the Governments do not respect the expert individuals in NGOs who are working with low salaries, unlike in Europe. It is a partial truth as many NGOs collude with the Government and are working with hidden agendas on many issues. There is respect in Europe for the work of activists, and it is same with Brahmin Savarna activists who are respected, awarded for their work on various causes, ranging from the environment to Dalit Adivasi and animal protection. The only truth is: Adivasis are not respected if they are working for Adivasis, Dalits are not respected if they are working for Dalits. This is the mindset of caste society and state.
Aakar Patel’s fourth learning is that the activists (those experts, who are working with low salaries in NGOs) and NGOs bring value when government engages with them. He assumed that most of the people in the National Advisory Council, which was set up by UPA, were activists and NGO-wallahs. However, they are not, you can see the list of members here – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Advisory_Council. Most of them are from academics, government, non-funded social organisations, they are not from funded NGOs.
The fifth learning of Aakar Patel is that the members of the middle class, like activists and NGOs have personal and sustained contact with non-middle class issues, like farmer suicides and agrarian crisis. Farmer suicides and agrarian crisis is a result of the failure of land reforms. Most of the farmers who are forced to commit suicides are from marginalised SC ST OBC communities. No NGO activist speaks about this social reality but keeps on talking in the superficial language of agrarian crisis. Those who talk about farmer suicides without talking about land reforms are actually covering up the real problem.
The sixth thing Aakar Patel learned is that people like him receive limited and one-sided information on Adivasi rights or Dalit rights or Kashmir, or understanding of violence in the Northeast and its causes. He says the activists and the NGOs have engaged with this at much deeper levels than most of us.
Let us make this clear here. Aakar Patel conveniently mixed NGOs with activists, whatever good happened because of some activists; he credited it to funded NGOs. There are activists in the county who emerged from social movements, there are bureaucrats who are more sensitive than NGOs. It is not that the activists and NGOs are the same entity. Some activists may associate with some NGOs at some point in time, but Aakar Patel should not conclude that those activists are part of NGOs.
Aakar Patel tried to portray the NGO sector as more progressive than the government by linking it with some activists and crediting the NGO sector with the work of some activists who are not part of NGOs. In reality, this NGO sector is not different from the casteist state and casteist society. This NGO sector is an extension of the caste society and it is as casteist as the Indian society. With such confusions and misunderstandings, Aakar Patel has been leading Amnesty International India as an executive director for the last four years.
I will come back again after the court decision on my disputes with Amnesty International India.
Also read related articles, by the same author:
Dr. B Karthik Navayan is a human rights activist.