When you work in human rights, you see a lot of sad faces. A ten-year-old girl describing when she was raped. A father explaining that his son was murdered. A torture victim detailing sadistic acts meted out by police. I’ve learned to expect the sadness, and I try not to let it break my heart every time. But there are certain people I don’t expect to cry. Like my fire-spitting boss, who has been chased by police, charged with false criminal cases, and threatened with death for his activism. He is the picture of courage. But at the recent staff meeting, his eyes got soft and his voice quivered.
We all knew the meeting was going to be a tough one. The Indian Government has decided that People’s Watch needs to be shut down, apparently in retaliation for its outspoken criticism. The proverbial last straw came in 2011, when People’s Watch embarrassed India in the international arena by sharply (and accurately) criticizing India’s National Human Rights Commission, nearly getting its accreditation demoted from “A-status” to “B.”
As a result, the government is no longer content to just raid the office or file baseless criminal cases against my boss. Knowing that People’s Watch receives the majority of its funding from abroad, the Ministry of Home Affairs suspended our registration under the Foreign Contribution Registration Act (FCRA) and froze all our bank accounts containing foreign funds. At the time of the staff meeting, the staff hadn’t been paid in eight months and we were equally behind on the office rent. The meeting was convened to discuss what further cuts would be necessary.
The news was worse than expected—electricity rationing (many would have to work from home), staff layoffs (even the people that had been coming in without pay), and selling off certain property (including vehicles). Most poignantly, the Rehabilitation Center for Torture Victims, which has functioned as a safe house since 1997, would have to be closed. This refuge, where victims had rebuilt their lives and raised their children, would have to be shut down. The warrior shed a tear.
I could talk at length about how People’s Watch has continued to fight, has continued its advocacy, even in these difficult times, but there is a larger story here. Well, a larger question really—will the Indian government allow activists to do their work, or will it protect and shield the abusers? Will the government provide remedies for victims of discrimination and police torture, or will it shut down organizations fighting for such remedies? It’s probably too early to tell for sure, but I don’t like the answer I see unfolding around me.
Will People’s Watch survive? I don’t know. This is the worst crisis the organization has faced. But it’s not yet time to give up. Crises require strong leadership, and People’s Watch has Henri Tiphagne. If anyone can weather this storm, it’s him.