Defending the ‘people’: the practice of allyship in India


‘National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) has to stand out as a unique force in people’s politics… It is imperative that we should truly bring about people’s sovereignty. We must fight the global imperialism and religious fundamentalism as the dual enemy that attacks people’s right to life and livelihood. NAPM welcomes you to be an ally of people’s movements, struggles and reconstruction, and be active contributors through your skills, knowledge, funds and other resources towards a collective people’s movement across India.’1 (emphasis added)

The above invocation of the ‘people’ is markedly different from ‘we the people’ found in the Preamble of the Constitution of India. The people of the Preamble are citizens; they are to transition from being passive colonized subjects to active members of a new democracy. They were to emerge out of the clutches of poverty, illiteracy, caste, and communalism into the sphere of modernity and secular democracy.

But the ‘people’ in people’s movements are the vast section that have been excluded and marginalized. They are the underclass who are often the targets of extrajudicial abuse of state power. These are the people who animate movement politics in India. It is common for activist groups to use ‘people’, jan, or lok in their names: People’s Union for Civil Liberties, People’s Union for Democratic Rights, Jan Jagran Shakti Sangathan, Jan Vikas Samiti, People’s Council for Social Justice, and Jan Swasthaya Abhiyaan to name only a few.

Why the preference for the term people’s movement? Why not a social movement? Manoranjan Mohanty, Partha Nath Mukherji, and Olle Tornquist, editors of the book entitled People’s Rights: Social Movements and the State in the Third World,2 explain their preference: people’s movement is a more powerful concept that carries with it the legacy of the anti-colonial movement. A social movement could be any trend or collective action, but a people’s movement is a progressive quest for freedom and equality. It captures the essence of class struggle, anti-colonial struggle, and anti-feudal struggle. Therefore, they write, it speaks to the constituencies of underclass, Dalits, tribal people, women’s movement, among others.

Alongside people’s movements, emerged their allies. Widespread unrest in the late 1960s and the 1970s led to the emergence of movements of various hues, for example, the Naxalite movement (1967), the rise of Dalit Panthers in Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu (1972), environmental movements like the Chipko (1973), as well as the student’s movement in Bihar (1974). The collective faith in the state and the government was shaken. The imposition of the state of internal emergency (1975-77) had exposed the fragility of the democratic rights of citizens. The movements that emerged in this period needed support to amplify their voices within the larger public sphere. In addition, there was a need to monitor state actions.

Around the same time, there was also a growing socio-political consciousness among sections of the urban, educated, salaried, middle classes in India (lawyers, journalists, doctors, and academics), who were alarmed to see vital democratic institutions such as parliament, judiciary, and the press become vulnerable. They set up the first civil rights groups in the 1970s which became the earliest organized and collective platforms that would serve as allies to various regional protesting groups.3 The social position of these sections of the middle classes was an asset, as it allowed them easier access to media, government offices, or the courts. Some relocated to rural areas, joined and provided leadership to various social movements, and others became allies from their metropolitan locations.

I outline here, the practice of allyship, i.e. people-to-people solidarity that was first forged in a collective and organized manner by civil rights groups such as the Association for Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR), People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) and People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR). This essay highlights an imagination of the ‘people’ as deployed within movement politics, distinct from the well known  normative, republican, constitutional vision of the people as sovereign.  I begin with a brief account of two activist organizations and the conditions that led to the emergence of these groups. I then present a profile of the activities undertaken to express this solidarity in its early decades and I conclude with the implications of allyship for Indian democracy.

The PUCL, PUDR and several groups like them have brought attention to the persecution of regional movement groups, activists, or trade unions by district authorities or police. They have presented an alternative narrative to mainstream media in the public domain by conducting investigative fact-findings and releasing reports to the press. They have provided financial and legal aid to the aggrieved members of various protesting groups. They do not accept any government, media, or corporate funding; instead, they depend on donations made by members and supporters.4

The initial campaigns undertaken by civil rights groups in the late 1960s were against police abuse and torture, illegal detentions, encounters, and for providing legal aid to the arrested Naxalite prisoners. Subsequently, civil rights groups were formally established in the early 1970s. In 1972, the Association for the Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR) was established in Calcutta (now Kolkata). In 1974, the Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee (APCLC) was established in Andhra Pradesh. In the same year, the Citizens for Democracy (CFD) was set up in Delhi.


In 1975, the government imposed the state of internal emergency, the assaults on citizen rights and liberties occupied national centre stage, which gave a further fillip to civil rights activism once the Emergency was lifted. In 1976, the first national civil rights group, People’s Union for Civil Liberties and Democratic Rights (PUCLDR), was set up under the leadership of Gandhian leader and prominent politician Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) and the eminent jurist V.M. Tarkunde. JP envisaged an organization at a national scale, solely dedicated to defending people’s rights. In a speech in Kolkata, he said:

‘Most of these acts would not be committed if the public was a little vigilant and it there were some organization, the task of which was to bring such acts to light and put up a fight against them, through the law courts, the legislature, the press. It is therefore suggested that a non-political association should be formed, the business of which should be to defend the ordinary rights of citizenship – rights that are enjoyed by every member of any civilized society. This association should be formed not of political workers but of leading jurists of the country, eminent publicists and journalists, women workers, social workers like some of those of the Servants of India society and so on. It should collect facts, publish literature, organize legal defence, raise funds for sufferers, do foreign propaganda, cause questions to be asked or resolutions to be moved in the legislatures and so on.’5

Three ideological streams had converged within civil rights activism: nationalism, as represented by the anti-colonial movement, a Gandhian-socialist stream represented by JP, and a left legacy inspired by M.N. Roy’s thoughts, carried forward by Tarkunde. By the late 1970s, there was a lull in this activism due to the hopeful anticipation after the election of the first-ever non-Congress government. Except for a few active branches, the PUCLDR became practically defunct due to the loss of members.

The resurgence of civil rights activism in 1980s also accompanied a split in the PUCLDR, resulting in the establishment of PUCL and the PUDR. The latter was the Delhi chapter of the PUCLDR that decided to work autonomously. While the PUCL focused on campaigns to protect the rights already codified within the Constitution. PUDR, a more left-leaning section, used the term ‘democratic rights’ to mark their support for movement demands which were not yet codified.6 Splits along similar lines took place in civil rights groups elsewhere in India as well.7 Today, these groups continue to work separately but in close coordination with one another.

The defining and shared feature of these groups was that as a group they stood for, aided, and represented the people. Their members did not have a direct material stake in the conflict they spoke about. These activists were not going to personally benefit from the demands that they made. Most of them were motivated to undertake this activism based on a political commitment, not the personal experience of persecution. Keeping this distinct feature in mind, I have argued elsewhere8 that the work of civil rights groups such as the PUCL and the PUDR is better understood as ally activism instead of classifying it as yet another social movement group.

Globally, movement allies work with or on behalf of protesting groups. Daniel J. Myres9 considers movement allies as adherents or sympathizers of movements but who are ‘not direct beneficiaries of the movement they support.’  They may not wholly agree with the aims or methods of a protesting group/movement. They often negotiate for themselves an insider-outsider identity. If we look at the history of civil rights activism, it undertook allyship in two modes: the solidarity extended towards movement groups, and extended fraternally to fellow activists. Let me illustrate the two, respectively.

Civil rights groups organized events for, or alongside, aggrieved groups. For instance, in June 1974, prisoners from the Alipore Central Jail, Presidency Jail, and the Midnapore Jail in West Bengal went on a hunger strike to pressure the authorities to recognize their status as political prisoners and to demand the facilities that they were entitled to. The APDR started a solidarity hunger strike by family members, friends, and comrades of the prisoners in Esplanade East, Calcutta, and held a convention supporting the prisoners’ demands. Well known filmmakers like Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen and actor Soumitra Chattopadhyay attended and signed the charter of demands.

Civil rights groups conducted consultations with regional movement groups to determine what kind of support those groups needed. For example, in 1981, the PUCL and the Citizens for Democracy (CFD) attended a conference of activists in Hyderabad to understand local activists’ experiences and difficulties and ascertain how they could be assisted by those based in the national capital. A report on the conference states that, ‘They [local groups] made useful suggestions as to how we can render useful help in strengthening their work.’ In addition, the PUCL bulletin notes, ‘It was suggested that activists who need legal help either in the course of their movement or to fight the false cases in which they are implicated can be helped by PUCL and CFD etc.’10 This continues to be a common practice undertaken by these groups.

A unique initiative that Delhi-based academics took was to create a platform for members of various movement groups to enable them to speak to one another and share concerns, experiences, and strategies. In 1980, a section of the academic community at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) initiated Lokayan, a platform to foster ‘dialogue of the people.’ They conducted about 100 such dialogues. Though this initiative did not have any formal links with the civil rights groups, its founding members were activists in civil rights organizations, and it was set up in the same period as the PUCL and the PUDR.

Lokayan started as a ‘forum for interaction between activists and concerned intellectuals through meetings, workshops, working groups and lectures.’ It was set up with the belief that ‘[B]eing preoccupied with the dynamics of survival… these [movement] groups have not linked up with each other or with the mainstream democratic processes, so Lokayan has sought to provide a forum for such exchanges.11

Another aspect of this activism was to invest in legal awareness and inform people of the rights they were entitled to. This was often done through circulating literature, typically entitled ‘Know Your Rights’, to share infor-mation on the constitutional rights and available redress. For example, in Kolkata, the APDR distributed booklets in rural areas on the rights the people were entitled to. They encouraged people to contact APDR if the local administration or the police violated their legal entitlements. The APDR also maintained a network of lawyers to deal with any reported conflict situations.

Most frequently, allyship took the form of fact-finding investigations, reports, jan sunvais, public hearings, and the setting up of people’s tribunals. Several fact-finding investigations were under-taken, both before and after the Emergency. During the pre-Emergency period, many fact-finding investigations were undertaken in the context of the counter-insurgency operations against the Naxalite movement in West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Punjab. For instance, in West Bengal, approximately 15 jail disturbances were reported between 1970 and 1975, and in these, 68 prisoners were killed.12 As the Bandi Mukti Aandolan gained momentum, several reports contested the police narratives of ‘encounters’ that had occurred in the supposed attempt to prevent ‘jail breaks’ by prisoners.13

Individuals and groups came together and conducted fact-finding investigations to expose police torture, conditions in prison, and instances of police firings. These enquiries were undertaken by groups that often kept their identity anonymous to avoid persecution or victimization of political prisoners by the police.

The second expression of a similar initiative was setting up people’s tribunals, mostly comprising retired judges and activists. It broadly followed the procedure that corresponded to a domestic court to establish and identify culprits in instances of state violence.
It mentioned the laws that were violated, named the guilty, and prescribed punishment under the relevant sections of the Indian Penal Code. An example of this was the Indian People’s Human Rights Commission (IPHRC), established in 1986. The commission consisted of Mrinal Sen, A.R. Desai, Romila Thapar, V.M. Tarkunde and Bhagwan Das among others.



In 1986, activists like P.A. Sebastian from the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights (CPDR), Mumbai, Nandita Haksar from the PUDR, Sujato Bhadra from the APDR, and K. Balagopal from the APCLC came together to set up the Indian People’s Human Rights Tribunal (IPHRT) within the IPHRC to adjudicate on cases of state violence. This initiative bore a close resemblance to the 1967 International War Crimes Tribunal. The decisions of the IPHRC did not have any legal  force, but the activists hoped that the tribunal would influence public opinion.

These were a few illustrations of the kinds of activities undertaken by allies in support of people’s movements or against instances of state violence. Predictably, this activism irked various state and central governments who prosecuted several activists using counter-terrorism charges, accusing them of conspiracy, and of defaming the country in the international arena. Such state action gave birth to a second kind of people-to-people solidarity that was extended towards fellow activists, which we may call fraternal solidarity.

Fraternal solidarity usually took the shape of defence committees that were set up as a one-off voluntary group that would work on a particular case. Activist groups also kept in touch with one another, which was particularly useful when the cases that civil rights groups were representing moved from the state high courts to the Supreme Court, or when Delhi-based groups needed to coordinate with regional groups located closer to the site. Such solidarity was also forged between global human rights activist organizations and Indian civil rights groups.

While there is a long history of setting up defence committees, the most well known recent instance of this was the setting up of defence committees for Binayak Sen. Sen was the national vice-president of the PUCL and had been sentenced to life imprisonment. Many individuals and organizations got involved in the campaign to release Binayak Sen in 2010. Protest meetings were held in all major Indian metropolitan cities that were organized by the PUCL, PUDR and the APDR. Defence committees for the release of Sen were formed in Delhi and Mumbai. These committees assisted with the court cases, pooled resources, and collected evidence. International networks were mobilized, and groups such as Amnesty and Human Rights Watch expressed support for the case.

Sen was an alumnus of Christian Medical College, Vellore. The college alumni wrote letters and petitions in an attempt to persuade the government. They even formed a group called Doctors in Defence of Binayak Sen. Though all this was focused on one individual, the more significant task was to speak out against the possible chilling effect this would have on other civil rights activists.

An early instance of a link forged between global and Indian rights groups was with the help of Mridula Sarabhai, a Gandhian leader who was a veteran of the national independence movement. In 1965, she was arrested in a conspiracy case. She was adopted as a ‘prisoner of conscience’ by Amnesty Inter-national, and later, in 1968, she was instrumental in setting up the Amnesty’s India branch. Sarabhai was a link between various civil rights groups and Amnesty. In 1971 when Amnesty decided to write a report on the conditions of Indian prisons, the APDR facilitated the study on the ground. They put Amnesty volunteers in touch with those who had been recently released from prison to set up interviews about prison conditions.

Civil rights groups maintain fraternal relations with international organizations concerned with human rights, such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, World Organization Against Torture, Netherlands Institute of Human Rights, The UN Centre for Human Rights, Lawasia, Article 19, and Asian Human Rights Commission. They share reports and studies, organize seminars, and use these links for wider dissemination of the issues they raise.

In the interviews I conducted with civil rights activists, several spoke of a model ally. Often this was a person who had participated in the anti-colonial movement and was either a Gandhian socialist or a Marxist. For example, activists from Kolkata spoke of Dadu, whom they called ‘a keeper of conscience.’ He was a figure of moral authority who had an active sense of public service and an apparent lack of self-interest. Similarly, in Delhi, activists mentioned Palda, a Marxist who did not join any political party but played the role of a mentor, organizer, and motivator. Several activists described Tarkunde as a man of high moral sense and idealism, full of concern for the ‘people’. Younger activists looked up to these figures as morally uncompromising persons who carried significant symbolic value for the subsequent generations.

These figures came to stand for the values of an ideal ally: a person of goodwill, conscience and courage who fought for what was right and allied with popular movements in the country without any immediate personal material stake.

This shared need to intervene on behalf of movements resulted in a distinct kind of political intervention and a new instrument of political action. Allyship, undertaken as a collective group, first appeared in its first semi-organized forms in the ’60s and has existed in Indian social movement politics for over 50 years now. Over the years, allies have helped numerous social movements in the country by deploying state-guaranteed rights against state abuse of power.

Allyship constitutes a direct challenge to the attempts of the state and several governments to dominate the narrative in the public sphere. Most importantly, through this practice, we see not just the vertical relationship between the people and the state, but a horizontal relationship between various sections of the people. At the same time, allyship does not come without its challenges. There are tensions between the ally and beneficiary segments of a movement group. The ally identity is constantly renegotiated, renewed, and revised.

All of this notwithstanding, the practice of allyship has created a space within the national public sphere to articulate a critique of the impunity with which state officials and agencies might act. This space is shrinking at an alarming rate today. Allyship in contemporary India invites state persecution at a larger scale than before. There must be freedom to ally, and freedom after having allied with movements.


1. NAPM, About Us, 2022. Accessed 20 May 2022.

2. Manoranjan Mohanty, Partha Nath Mukherji, and Olle Tornquist, People’s Rights: Social Movements and the State in the Third World. Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, 1998.

3. Ankita Pandey, ‘Movement Allies: Towards an Analytical Re-classification of Civil Rights Groups in India’, Oxford Development Studies 50(2), 2021, pp. 1-12.

4. Aswini Ray, ‘Civil Rights Movement and Social Struggle in India’, Economic and Political Weekly 21(28), 12 July 1986, pp. 1202-1205.

5. Mathew George, ‘Jayaprakash Narayan and the Civil Liberties Movement’, in Jayaprakash Narayan: A Centenary Volume. Mittal Publications, Delhi, 2005, p. 260.

6. Nilanjana Dutta, ‘From Subjects to Citizens: Towards a History of the Indian Civil Rights Movement’, in Michael Anderson and Sumit Guha (eds.), Changing Concepts of Rights and Justice in South Asia. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2000, pp. 275-288.

7. Ajay Gudavarthy, Politics of Post-Civil Society: Contemporary History of Political Movements in India. Sage India, 2013.

8. Ankita Pandey, 2021, op. cit.

9. Daniel J. Myers, ‘Ally Identity: The Politically Gay’, in Jo Reger, Danial J. Myers and Rachel L. Einwohner (eds.), Identity Work in Social Movements. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2008, pp. 176-187.

10. PUCL, Report of Activities Undertaken. PUCL 4(5), November 1981, p. 7.

11. Lokayan, Right Livelihood Award Foundation, 1985. Accessed 20 May 2022.

12. Sivadas Banerjee, ‘Bengal’s Jails’, in A.R. Desai (ed.), Violation of Democratic Rights in India. Popular Prakashan, Bombay, 1986.

13. Several reports of police torture in the jails were published in the journal Frontier as reports by correspondents. See ‘Behrampur Jail Killing’, in Samar Sen, Debabrata Panda and Ashish Lahiri (eds.), Naxalbari and After: A Frontier Anthology. Kathashilpa, Calcutta, 1978, pp. 82-84. ‘Dum Dum Jail Massacre: A Case Study’, in ibid., pp. 144-147. ‘Study of a Jail’, in ibid., p. 173.

14. Bernard D Mello, ‘Democratic Rights: Indian People’s Human Rights Commission’, Economic and Political Weekly 22(4), 24 January 1987. Accessed 20 June 2022.