To raise funds, Indian rights groups must emulate the country’s newest political party

Elsewhere in openGlobalRights, authors have written about the worldwide dependence of local human rights groups on foreign donors. A noted Indian human rights activist, moreover,  explains  how his government uses this dependence to manipulate civil society (see also herehere and here).

 So, can Indian human rights organizations really raise funds at home, and reduce their dependence on foreign donors?

Yes, they can. As evidence, witness the millions of Indian rupees pouring into the coffers of the new Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) –the “Common Man’s Party” - following its astonishing performance in the December 4, 2013 Delhi Assembly election. The AAP, which now governs Delhi in coalition with the Congress Party, has become a focal point for India’s burgeoning anti-corruption crusade. 

The AAP’s success in raising money from ordinary Indians should bolster the hopes of those who believe it is possible to finance Indian civil liberties and human rights groups through voluntary domestic contributions.

Indeed, were readers to skim through the list of donors displayed on the AAP’s website, they would feel positively sanguine. Not only are middle class Indians sending in money, but so are those of much more modest means, including some who can spare no more than a few rupees. 

The AAP’s fund raising success suggests the emergence of a “new Indian,” politically conscious, engaged, and willing to contribute financially to worthy endeavors.

For human rights groups, the important lesson is that the AAP has successfully sought citizen donations to liberate itself from the corporate sector’s undue influence over Indian politics, typically exercised through lavish contributions to political parties.

This kind of liberation is also the avowed principle of Indian rights groups, although in their case, the largest donors are typically international funders, rather than Indian businesses.

Rights groups seeking to raise funds at home should look to the AAP model, rather than to that of Indian organizations such as Child Rights and You(CRY), a  well-financed Indian NGO. 

Although some openGlobalRights authors cite CRY as an example to emulate, they ignore a fundamental difference between CRY and most Indian rights groups. Although the two share a nobility of intent, CRY does not directly challenge the state, and provides tangible benefits for children. Most Indian rights groups, by contrast, are highly critical of the state, and provide the kind of intangible benefits that are a much harder sell.

Religion also plays a key role in helping groups like CRY, since all of the country’s major religions extoll charitable donations: daan for Hindus, zakat for Muslims, and charity for Christians. These and other traditions laud charitable donors as virtuous people.

CRY’s work on behalf of underprivileged children nicely dovetails with these religiously-motivated notions, an affinity the group magnifies through slick marketing. The work of most Indian human rights groups, by contrast, would most likely not qualify as “charitable donations” in the eyes of religious authorities, regardless of theological spin.

To get a sense of how CRY raised its money, consider its annual report for 2012-2013. That year, the group raised an impressive Rs 48.53 crore ($7.83 million USD) in donations, only Rs 2.678 crore ($0.43 million USD) of which came from Indian businesses. Individual donors gave the rest, suggesting the group engaged in a massive and quite effective outreach campaign.

Further evidence of this advertising effort comes from the Rs 4.10 crore ($0.66 million USD) CRY spent on personnel, the Rs 4.33 crore ($0.70 million USD) it spent on general administration, and the whopping Rs 4.09 crore ($0.66 million USD) it spent on “telecalling and mailing.”

For the curious and the skeptical donor, CRY can provide statistics on the number of children it helped enroll in schools, the infrastructure it helped build, and the immunization targets it met. This allays the suspicions of those who fear their contributions could be salted away, wasted, or misused. 

The peculiar nature of the Indian philanthropic spirit can be gleaned from another example. Despite popular perceptions of the federal government as being slothful, Indians have dipped into their pockets to contribute to the Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund (PMNRF).  

In 2004-05, Indian citizens donated Rs 925.98 crore ($150 million USD) to the Fund, due in large part to the tsunami and other disasters, such as the Kashmir earthquake. The devastation caused by these and other natural phenomena are heart-rending, inspiring ordinary Indians to help the needy, and enabling the religiously inclined to perform a divinely mandated charitable task. 

Although Indian human rights groups could potentially attract some of these funds, it is far easier for groups such as CRY, the Prime Minister’s relief fund, or even HelpAge, a voluntary organization working on behalf of the elderly. The public perceives these groups as ideologically and politically neutral, bent either on augmenting the State’s efforts, or on compensating for the State’s unfortunate absence.

Human rights groups, by contrast, have a more adversarial relationship with the State, only highlighting and opposing its transgressions, and interrogating its ideological composition. 

This is deeply unsettling for the Indian middle and upper classes, on whose altruism Indian NGOs often depend for donations, and in whose image the Indian State has been fashioned.

Most middle and upper class citizens believe the Indian State occupies a position of neutrality among contending interests, negotiating with competing claims and undertaking policy measures in the nation’s overall best interest.

In reality, however, the middle and upper classes wield disproportionate influence over the State, leading it to adopt policies that are anathema to some regions and groups. This goads those groups into opposition that the State then represses, typically with the middle class’ support.

In this arena of bloody contests, where no mercy is shown and no quarter given, Indian human rights groups occupy a promontory from which the critiquing of the State is inevitable, not the least because of the latter’s superior arsenal and ideological domination.

The human rights critique alienates many Indians, however, who perceive these activists as unabashedly “political,” rather than “charitable.” They are right; human rights work is political.

It is from this perspective that the AAP’s success in mobilizing funds from ordinary people should offer hope to Indian rights groups. The AAP is also “political,” but unlike human rights groups, it seeks change through elections, and by trying to replace the current crop of political managers.

It is difficult to judge, as of now, whether or not the AAP will really succeed in transforming the State’s ideological makeup. The party, a political fledgling, did seem rattled by the  criticism leveled against its leader, Prashant Bhushan, when he declared that the Armed Forces Special Powers Act should be cancelled.

Yet the AAP has attracted an impressive amount of funding from ordinary people because it has persuaded them that changes in State behavior will help the country as a whole, and them in particular.

To emulate the AAP’s success, Indian human rights groups should consider linking their work to a broader narrative of socio political transformation; this may prove more effective than addressing violations piecemeal.

This will be hard for Indian rights groups, however, as they do not participate in elections. Instead, they could analyze the agenda, sensitivity, and past record of Indian political parties on human rights issues, and declare which party should be the people’s electoral choice.

The bottom line is this. To attract funding from ordinary Indians, human rights groups must offer citizens hope that they can transform politics. This is what the AAP is doing, and their achievement is one that Indian rights groups must emulate.