Former women from Amnesty India share horrifying details of casteism
Amnesty India is under fire for discrimination and harassment against employees of marginalized communities. Months into their statement that an investigation was on, there is little that’s changed on the ground. Four women, former employees, allege Amnesty played pretend on many critical issues simply boost their social image. They also say the organisation strategically nudged them out of work. SheThePeople speaks to these women, some of who are speaking up for the first time, and also gets Amnesty to react to the allegations.
- “When Section 377 was decriminalized, Amnesty India unfurled a beautiful pride flag from the top floor of the office building and not even one person in the gathering was invited from the transgender community”- Mariya Salim
- “How they would categorize job applications was—‘Dalit, but economically well-off’ and applications from dominant caste groups saying ‘economically poor’”- Sylvia Karpagam
- “Program Director is a typical casteist Savarna woman who equated Adivasis to animals on record”- Anonymous
- “There is an environment in the organization where a certain class of people were given numerous privileges and freedom even in choosing the campaigns that they would like to do”- Anonymous
Mariya Salim, worked at Amnesty for one-and-a-half years from 2016 to September 2018—initially as a consultant and then joined as Senior Campaign Officer from December 2017. She shares landmark issues, alleges horrifying cases were simply put on the back burner. Mariya mentions the Muzaffarnagar rape case where 34 minor girls were sexually abused at a shelter home.
“The Muzaffarpur (Bihar) shelter home case happened, and I said that we need to go on ground and do fact-finding. I said it will be possible for me to get a collaboration with Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) who were the ones who did all the ground research but I was told that the issue is from last week, it won’t get media traction so let’s just tweet it out. I am someone who has worked on women’s issues for over a decade now, on ground work as well as advocacy, and for me merely tweeting is not an answer to addressing any issue as serious as this… When Section 377 was decriminalised, Amnesty India unfurled a beautiful pride flag from the top floor of the office building and not even one person in the gathering was invited from the transgender community. It’s all about posting fancy photos and videos towards getting more phone numbers and email addresses to fulfil the ‘new membership’ criterion set by the international office.”
Amnesty India unfurled a beautiful pride flag from the top floor of the office building and not even one person in the gathering was invited from the transgender community.
She alleges that her comments from Amnesty posts on social media criticising their resistance to any form of dissent from marginalized staff were deleted, “while the organisation proudly proclaims to be working to ensure that people have a right to dissent.”
Sylvia Karpagam, worked with Amnesty for nine months between 2016-2017, is from the intercaste religious community. She joined them to work on the issue of manual scavenging but left after Amnesty said this issue ‘didn’t fit their human rights violation criteria.’ Here’s her account to SheThePeople:
“First of all, the people from other than dominant caste groups in the organisation were treated differently. Both the HR persons are from upper caste—who use various ways to sabotage applications from lower caste persons. How they would categorize job applications was—‘Dalit, but economically well-off’ and applications from dominant caste groups saying ‘economically poor’. She said that the HR should have been sensitive and taken pro-affirmative actions to create a diverse employee structure in the organization.”
Neglecting Dalits has been a pattern with the organization – Woman who recently left Amnesty
Sylvia further recounts, how “their whole focus towards issues is which project could get more donations and bring the middle-class to open their pockets and give money. My reason to join Amnesty was because I was very concerned about the issue of manual scavenging and I really wanted Amnesty to take it up, but when I raised it in the meeting, the Program Director said that it does not fit our human rights violation criteria.”
There’s the account of a girl who wants to stay anonymous. She worked at Amnesty from January 2017-18. She represents the Dalit community and says she was laid off citing a fund crunch in the organisation. She says she was the last Dalit woman working at the programs team. Listen to the account of this PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Neglecting Dalits and other marginalised communities has been a pattern with the organization where it has resorted to missing applications of those from marginalized communities during recruitments and others exclusionary practices. Amnesty has a very elite, extremely upper class and upper caste environment where majority of them have least understanding of the marginalized or even human rights.
She filed a sexual harassment complaint against her manager. She says, ‘the manner in which it was dealt,’ because of the insensitive approach of the ICC and the senior management, left her depressed and mentally traumatized. It wasn’t until she filed a police complaint outside the organization that the manager was finally terminated, said the PhD holder.
She alleged that projects concerning the Adivasi community was often targeted with an intention to close the project. She (Program Director) comes with caste privilege with no understanding of marginalization or exclusion and who equated Adivasis with that of animals. This was because we were recruiting for a member to join the team of Adivasi project. Out of the four finalized candidates, one was a student from Hyderabad Central University who belonged to a tribal community. My team member suggested that because we are working on a project concerning Adivasis, it would be good to take up an Adivasi candidate because apparently he was also from Chhattisgarh. She said that it is not mandatory to take an Adivasi candidate just like we don’t take animals when we work on animal rights projects, she added.
Another girl who wants to stay nameless, worked at Amnesty India. She is muslim and accused Amnesty of unfairly removing her. While the team remains, she says she was the only key team member laid off recently.
Certain class of people were given numerous privileges and freedom even in choosing the campaigns that they would like to do. If you see people from two different castes or communities, when they work in a campaign, the kind of applause and recognition that people from dominant caste groups would get is higher than those from marginalized group members, said the ex-employee from Muslim community.
Radhika Vemula Withdraws Support
In October, 2018, late Rohith Vemula’s mother, Radhika Vemula, withdrew her support and requested Amnesty India to stop telecasting her videos until necessary action was taken against those in the organisation who allegedly discriminated against Dalits and Muslims.
“I withdraw my support to Amnesty. The injustice against Dalit and Muslims is intolerable. I extend my solidarity to Mariya Salim and others who faced discrimination,” she said in a video.
Amnesty to SheThePeople
We also reached out to Amnesty India for their response to the allegations. Aakar Patel, Head of Amnesty India said “We take allegations of harassment and discrimination very seriously, and investigate all formal complaints. Mariya Salim’s complaint was investigated in accordance with our internal grievance procedures; the allegations in her complaint were found to be without any foundation. Following the publication of Mariya Salim’s article, the Amnesty India board constituted a committee chaired by an independent expert (Dr Syeda Hameed) to examine organizational practices, procedures and policies, including reviewing existing human resources processes to deal with employee complaints about discrimination. The committee has submitted its report to the Board, which is reviewing it at the moment. We would be happy to share these findings with you as soon as the report is available.”
In response to Radhika Vemula withdrawing support from the organization, Patel said, “Following Mariya Salim’s allegations, some organizations and individuals who we’ve worked with expressed reservations in continuing to partner with us. Though we were deeply troubled by these decisions, we respect their point of view.”
Patel also recognized the fact that employees from marginalized communities did leave the organization as “they may have felt unsupported or unheard during their time at Amnesty. This is extremely unfortunate, since we strive to actively foster an atmosphere where different opinions can be voiced and respected.”
He assured, “We will implement the recommendations made by the Syeda Hameed Committee and make any changes required to ensure that we adequately support all our staff and their well-being.”
The accounts of all these women – whose notes and recordings are with SheThePeople – point to inherent bias in an institution that wants to uphold human rights. 2019, Amnesty has a lot to think about when it comes to its mission and its internal processes.