Avinash Pandey alias Samar Anarya is a Human Rights Activist, currently working with Asian Human Rights Commission. In this interview he has talked about his childhood dream of becoming a pilot, studying and being an activist at Allahabad University and JNU, his job at Asian Human Rights Commission, skills required to become a human rights activist, among several other things. You can follow him on twitter at @Samar
How would you introduce yourself to our readers, who are mostly young students across India?
I, Avinash Pandey, am a Human Rights Activist working with an International Human Rights Organisation with General Consultative Status with the UN Human Rights Council. I come from a small kasba in Basti district of Uttar Pradesh where my father was head of department of political science in the local degree college. My mother was a principal in government primary school. Despite that, the kasba being very rural, there were nothing much to engage with.
Where did you go for your school education? What were your aspirations then?
I went to the local school, a Saraswati Shishu Mandir run after the RSS model of Shishu Mandirs but actually not affiliated with them. Thinking of aspirations in that school feels a little bizarre as it had students from as diverse backgrounds as it could get- right from people like us, middle class at least in the profession of parents and the living standard they could manage thanks to that to the children of poorest people around. Yet, it ended up becoming blessing for me at least. Had I not studied in that school with no infrastructure- we didn’t even have a playground of our own and one class had to sit on floor- I would not have come across kids with such diverse background up close and personal and become friends with them. It was there, perhaps, that the class boundaries the kids start internalizing as they grow up broke down for me, forever.
I did have an aspiration though, shaped by my parents and tutors teaching us in the evening to make up for the school. I had got fixated with every thing aviation from early on, and started to aspire of becoming an Indian Air Force Pilot. I later qualified NDA, that too in Air Force, but my parents did not allow me to join, My father was particularly hell went on that, being only and that too eldest son in 4 siblings, a career in Armed Forces was an absolute no for him. He refused to sign the indemnity bond, and tried convincing me that I should become an IAS instead. I fought back, threatening him with my decision of never ever appearing for any government job test, but he did not budge. I too kept my promise, never appeared for any government job recruitment.
You graduated from Allahabad University in Psychology and Political science. What motivated you to opt psychology?
As I wanted to become an Air Force Pilot, I appeared for, and cleared BSc entrance examination of University of Allahabad. By the end of the first year though, I had already cleared NDA entrance as well and parents had refused to sign the indemnity bond- thus quashing all my hopes of ever joining Airforce. Honestly speaking, I had no other motivation for continuing sciences so I told my family and quit. I still remember big fights I had with my parents over that as well! I had, however, made up my mind. Second hurdle was choosing subjects in social sciences, and securing enough entrance marks to get them. Now, psychology had always fascinated me as a subject- I even believed that psychologists could read others’ minds- ha ha, I was just 16 and a half! So I read more on psychology in the time between quitting BSc and entrance exam for BA and got glued to it. Sadly UA had no option for Honours otherwise I would have done psychology alone. As it only had BA Pass course, I picked up political science and modern history too.
Experiences of your internships? Any remarkable experience that shaped your career?
My ‘career’ is a little strange in the sense that I had hardly ever had any internships. Primary reason behind that was that I had joined Left Wing students movement almost as soon as I joined UA and started working among slums and even tribal communities living near Allahabad. By third year of my graduation, we were already running a school in a big slum near university. I had also started visiting and working with Kol tribal community in and around Shankargarh, a small kasba some 40 kms away from Allahabad. (I wrote my M Phil thesis in JNU on Kol tribals). Doing all this brought me close to various other organisations too, especially human rights ones. I had already become a member of Peoples Union for Civil Liberties, India’s biggest human rights organization, by then. So I worked a lot with these organisations but not really in the sense of internship. My only experience close to internship too came from there- it is during one such meetings that I met Basil Fernando, then Executive director of AHRC, and Bijo Francis (Then South Asia officer and now Executive director of AHRC). They liked my work and invited me to visit AHRC in Hong Kong. It was in 2006. I came to AHRC many times since, learnt many a things from interventions to international lobbying before I finally joined it as Right to Food programme coordinator in 2012.
After graduation you did masters in clinical psychology? Why did you feel need for masters? What was your career goal at that point of time?
Aah, this question I love. I had fallen in love with psychology despite she ditching me and telling me that no, it’s no magic. You cannot read people’s minds just like that. I kept that heartburn aside and kept studying and falling more and more in love with the subject. At that point of time I was looking to be a clinical psychologist and help people around and bring the subject without stigma to rural area where mental health issues are considered to be something to be hidden and kept a secret.
What persuaded you to study philosophy? How you landed in JNU? It is one of the few campus in India which is politically active. Your experiences there?
While doing my graduation in Allahabad, I had also gotten very active in left wing student movements and had joined one of the students groups with Marxist Leninist leanings. The experience took me to places near and far from campus to slums and finally to Kohl tribal hamlets some 50 km away from the town. While working with them I was getting increasingly pulled into activism and the politics of rights. This further led me to know JNU from a distance but something enigmatic, something with a great pull factor for all it was famous or notorious for. Going to JNU was sort of a passage of rite for the left activists in university of Allahabad and this brought me into a situation where my love for psychology and activism came into conflict and I could have picked only one. I finally made a hard choice of going to JNU which had no clinical psychology or staying back in Allahabad. What finally made me take the plunge though, was realizing that clinical psychology mostly leads to one to one interaction, while I always wanted to do something more mass based and I so decided to go to JNU.
Unlike many of the JNU-ites, I did not become a left wing activist in JNU, I was already a known and established left wing student leader so it was more like continuing what I was doing in Allahabad and trying to contribute to the left politics in JNU. My experiences are mostly the same as many of the north Indian activists coming from the rural background including engaging with theoretical questions, brushing upon English to interact with comrades from non Hindi heartland and of course repeated confrontations with the administration. Contrary to current perceptions, we had no less confrontations with the then regime, the then congress led UPA regime than it is made out to be nowadays. I still remember that I was one of the three students labeled as disrupters of then PM Man Mohan Singh’s meeting in JNU and put under tremendous pressure to apologize or face legal proceedings and all that.
Meanwhile, studying in JNU did definitely expand my horizons and got me in touch with various movements including the non left ones like the Right to Food movement and the struggle to right to employment that ended up in bringing out MNREGA. I would travel to distant places, will go and conduct workshops, participate in grass root struggles from Rajasthan to Chhattisgarh to Jharkhand to Tamil Nadu. Those were definitely one of the most enlightening years of my activism.
When you started working? How did you get your first job?
As I mentioned earlier, the shift from studies to work wasn’t really been a shift. I met AHRC leaders on one of the stints on the grass roots in Sonbhadra, Uttar Pradesh. They liked my work, I liked theirs’. Before that I have already had a lot of experience in documentation, conducting workshops and trainings- the core skills needed in Human Rights work.
You studied subjects of social science which is generally not considered to have great future. A lot of people believe that it acts as a hindrance in success. Has that been a point in your case?
Not really, as I have mentioned above. I was studying sciences with a definite career goal in Air Force and had shifted to social sciences once that became impossibility. However, even if I hadn’t, I have not really seen this myth of ‘better job prospects in sciences’ turning into reality on the ground. Look at our times itself, some of the best of jobs are in Business administration, journalism and other forms of creative writing and so on.
What inspired you to choose Human Rights as your profession? How did you come to work with AHRC?
That was one of the most logical progression after having been a student activist fighting for rights for more than a decade- right from undergrad days to Ph.D. It was like doing what you love also for earning.
I had known AHRC for a while- have ‘interned’ with it- though more in the sense of working on my research interests while being based here than the literal meaning of the word. So when AHRC advertised the opening for the post of Programme Coordinator for its Right to Food programme I applied. It was a tough process with screening and all with many competent competitors- though I think my long experience on the grass roots worked in my favour.
How would you describe your present job at Asian Human Rights Commission? Role, experience and working environment.
Well, considering what all one has to deal with job at any Human Rights organization is best summed in one word: ironic. You start your day with news of some arbitrary arrest here, some extra judicial execution there, some crackdown somewhere else. Further, governments might be different, even at loggerheads with one another at times, but one common thread among them is not liking human rights people in particular.
Having said that, this is exactly what that brings a unique camaraderie to people in the sector. So it is in our organization with people from 12 different nationalities working together and bringing quite a unique multicultural perspective on table. It further helps to look at things from different angles and at times realizing that things are not that bleak going by experiences in other countries and calming you down. On the other hand, it also enables one to see the deteriorating situations with the same perspective- thinking about countries where it went that way and collapsed and thus helps being little more alert.
As a program coordinator, what does a typical working day looks like for you?
A general working day begins with scanning the newspapers from different countries to look at any news connected with food security in particular and deciding if the AHRC needs to make any immediate intervention in any form- statement, press release, urgent alert or so on. Then it progresses into checking mails from partner organisations across countries and responding to them- strategizing interventions, lobbying with governments and multilateral bodies, taking cases to appropriate UN fora like offices of UN Special Rapporteurs, UNHCR and so on.
Did you have a mentor or guide during the formative years of your career?
Quite a few- I learnt a lot from Professor Lal Bahadur Verma, famous historian from University of Allahabad, Anshu Malwiya- a poet and activist, Prof Jean Dreze, noted economist. I was fortunate to get to work with all three of them early on, during my graduation in Allahabad. Later on, Basil Fernando, then executive director of AHRC, have had a great influence on me.
What are the key attributes that one must develop in order to excel as a Human right defender?
An understanding of rights as against doles, capacity to document violations vis-à-vis entitlements under both national and international instruments, articulating your stand in a way legit to both experts and lay persons are definitely the qualities one must have to become a human rights defender in international sector.
You are working for AHRC in Hong-Kong since 2012. How did you managed with the political set-up and cultural shift between North-India and Hong-Kong?
Hong Kong is a lovely cosmopolitan city with very strong rule of law foundations, and that is why the AHRC is based here, so I did not have much of a problem in that sense. It was, though, lonely indeed personally in the beginning, more so for a student activist. Culturally, JNU being a microcosm of India, it trains you in that sense too, so cultural differences did not play much of a role in shifting.
What would you say to our readers who contemplate making a career in the field of Human Rights?
Those contemplating to make a career in Human Rights must keep an eye on situation of rights in the country, and if possible beyond. They should familiarize themselves with the both- legal system of the country, basic understanding of Rule of Law and also international human rights instruments. Further, they must try working on their writing skills as documentation often becomes core to the long drawn struggle for human rights.
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