Aakar patel is the Executive Director of Amnesty International India. He is a renowned journalist and writer, known for his noted writings in the form of ‘India: Low Trust Society’ (2015) and ‘Rights and Wrongs’, a report on the 2002 Gujarat riots which he co-authored.
Please tell us about your educational journey? What were your aspirations then?
I have a diploma in textile technology from MS University in Baroda. I began working at the age of 19 and did not have any particular aspirations.
What motivated you to pursue a career in mass com?
The textiles business I was working in collapsed in the early 1990s and I had to find work. Journalism did not require any educational qualifications for it (then) and I was absolutely delighted to be accepted as a trainee reporter.
How did you get your first job in journalism?
I was on the local train in Bombay reading a newspaper when I saw a small classified. It went something like this: “Aardwolf: An animal that works in the night and is enterprising” etc. It invited applications from would-be reporters for a new paper called Above Par. I applied and was given the job (nobody else applied). This was in February 1995.
You were elevated from trainee sub editor to editor of Mumbai edition in a year? What played a major role in this sudden change of designation?
I was a trainee sub in May 1995 at The Asian Age. I was made editor in April 1996. How did this happen? I was a reporter but I would ask for more work after I had filed my daily stories. This continued till additional responsibility was given to me and at some point I began doing the role of the editor.
You have worked with several leading media organizations. How was your overall experience in the field? What do you thing is the condition of Indian journalism today?
I learnt a few things. English newspapers are liberal, particularly those papers in the large cities. They are edited by individuals who are more liberal than the reader. This is not the case with non-English papers, which are more conservative on social issues. Indian journalism is vast: bigger than anything anywhere in the world. Hundreds of daily newspapers in a dozen languages. Dozens of news channels, including more in English than in the United States. Some of this is good, some indifferent and some bad.
Several journalist lower down the rung quit journalism routinely. What do you think its reasons are? Why did you choose activism instead of continuing with journalism?
Newspapers are losing readers and technology means fewer journalists are needed. I had retired and was reading and writing full time from home for a few years when I was asked if I would like to apply for the activism job. I had no intention of going back to full-time work but this assignment interested me very much.
What are the main role and responsibilities of an established Human Rights organization? To report the human rights abuses? To speak against it? Or to prevent it from happening?
It is two main things. First: research and campaigning on human rights violations, such as the rights of under trials, justice for the survivors of communal violence and sexual violence, survivors and victims of laws like AFSPA and so on. Second: raising money so that the above activities can be made possible.
How much impact do you think the human rights organizations has made, in safeguarding the human rights of people in India; especially in conflicted areas like South Chhattisgarh and Kashmir? What are the role and responsibilities of Amnesty in these areas?
Unfortunately the reality is that the violations are continuing at the same level of intensity so it is not possible to conclude that much impact has been made, though this has not been for lack of effort. In Chhattisgarh, we are campaigning for Adivasi rights and for their meaningful consent to be taken and adequate compensation received when their lands are taken. In Jammu and Kashmir we are campaigning for justice for victims and survivors of AFSPA.
On what skills, a student willing to take human rights activism as his career, should focus on?
The most important is legal skills in research, and innovation and energy in activism. Focus should be on doing it. Whether as volunteer or employee.
What are the major differences in being a journalist and an activist? If any.
Journalism is about evidence gathering and then letting go. Activism is about evidence gathering and then working towards change.
What are the major challenges Amnesty India has faced during your tenure?
The biggest ones are bringing about change in a part of the world where human rights are very often not respected, and raising money. A sedition case filed against Amnesty India was also challenging.
Social media is considered very useful in terms of connecting and reaching out to the people. Why did you left social media?
I find it is a very attractive tool. Useful and entertaining. I don’t think I can stay away from it because it is addictive. I would waste far too much time on it.
What would be your message to students who are willing to take human rights activism as their career and who are confused between Human Rights Activism or journalism?
Both are great careers and many people in activism come from journalism. However I know of nobody who has done the reverse. Those conflicted can choose to do journalism first and see how they like it before they consider activism.
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