CHENNAI: Human rights activist Henri Tiphagne has become the first Indian to receive the human rights award from the Amnesty International. Tiphagne, known more as the founder of People’s Watch, says his activism began when in his youth he was stopped from doing flood relief work, because the villagers did not know if he was from a ‘pure’ caste or not.
Q: What does this award mean to you?
A: I think this award is not for me as an individual, but for all those who do good work and go unrecognised. This award highlights the shrinking civil society space globally.
Q: With more than 30 years of active participation in human rights cases, what was the first case that drove you to this phase?
A: It started in 1977, when human rights was not known in the country. We would call it a fight for social justice. In the same year, in November at Vedasandur, a panchayat in Dindigul, a group of volunteers including me went for doing flood relief work as the Alagapuri dam in Vedasandur had broken. But when we started work, we were prevented by the so-called ‘upper caste’ of the village from cleaning a particular well. They said it in good interest. We were supposed to clean only pure well, considering us to be pure people. Only then, I understood the concept of impure well and pure well. They did not know our caste. So they did not allow us to go to the impure well. But we refused to do it, and I think it is that refusal that turned a life of refusal for me and taught me many things.
Q: You are an advocate as well. What made you take up law?
A: To support the poor, you also have to be competent in terms of being a lawyer. That is what forced me to take up law in 1980. But we could not study law in the college, as it taught us how to prepare ourselves for breaking law. So my study of law was study of street law in the streets of Madurai intervening in the lives of several people.
Q: Do you think independent institutions in India can work or survive?
A: Of course, we have the best example of the Election Commission. Though it has drawbacks it still controls the entire nation during elections. They conduct peaceful elections and all States follow their instructions. The reason is most of the people in it are vigilant. We have gone one step ahead. The commission does not only conduct election but also conducts campaign to attain 100 per cent Voting. So if independent institutions work better and are vigilant, that could make a difference.
Q: Things that need to be implemented for betterment of the country.
A: We have to ensure that human rights education is taught in schools so that it functions as an antidote to challenge inequality in this country. Protection should be given to defenders. All persons defending the good are attacked and they should be protected. Institutions should be focused and should be made to work.