Aakar Patel has worn a lot of hats in his time. Editor, publishing salesman, columnist, media agency director, podcaster and from today, Executive Director of Amnesty International India. The renowned journalist, who is known for being more than forthright with his views, is set to take charge of the non-governmental organisation at a time when the government has made it clear that it isn't very favourably disposed towards activists of the human rights' tribe.

"We are delighted that Aakar Patel will be joining us. Amnesty International India is one of the movement's three national offices, set up to increase our impact in countries with growing global influence which continue to face human rights challenges.  Aakar's commitment to human rights in his journalism and writing positions him perfectly to take on this important role," said Minar Pimple, Senior Director of Global Operations at Amnesty International in a release. (Disclosure: Patel writes a regular column for Scroll.in.)

Amnesty is one of the world's most recognised advocacy groups, beginning in London in 1961, but quickly spreading to the rest of the world. Since 2010, Amnesty International's general secretary happens to be Salil Shetty, an Indian human rights activist who has set about working to decentralise the organisation in an effort to ensure it can respond quicker to issues on the ground and to attack the notion that this sort of advocacy is purely a Western imposition.

Although the move has received some pushback, Shetty has always insisted that the organisation is "starting to build our strategies and approaches in a more ground-up manner ‒ working directly with those whose rights are being violated, and combining this with international solidarity and leverage, where appropriate."

NGOs in India

Part of this effort involves building a bigger presence in India, where it already claims to have over 65,000 members, which is where Patel comes in. The writer and columnist takes over from Minar Pimple, who was heading the organisation in the interim. Before that, G Ananthapadmanabhan held the top post, until he was hired last year by the Wipro founder Azim Premji to run a philanthropic grants organisation. Another journalist-turned-activist Mukul Sharma, has also been director of the organisation.

Patel takes over at a time when the government has been taking on foreign-funded NGOs that push what a "Western" Human Rights Agenda. Greenpeace India and the Ford Foundation have faced the brunt of this, but across the board NGOs have had to be concerned about their sources of funding and the freedom of their activists in traveling in, out and through the country.

"Aakar Patel will head Amnesty International India’s operations and its efforts to end human rights abuses in India and worldwide. As the organisation’s chief political advisor, strategist and spokesperson, he will give direction to its goal of being an independent, effective, and deep-rooted organisation in India," a release from the organisation said.

As it happens, Patel – likely the most prominent voice Human Rights advocacy will now have in India – wrote about this only earlier this year, criticising the government for going after Greenpeace and the Ford Foundation. "What sort of government is threatened by this agenda? The sort of government that assumes, rightly, that it can stuff any lie wrapped in 'national interest' down the throat of a mostly pliant media and mostly moribund population," he wrote.

"It is a fact that Indians will tolerate the slandering of Greenpeace and the Ford Foundation by our government because looking at the issues is too much effort. We would rather accept the reduction, preferably portrayed in 'for us/against us' terms. The harassment of the Ford Foundation is an instance of the Hindi adage 'apne pair pe kulhadi marna [bringing the axe down on your own foot]'. Damaging ourselves in the most serious way possible, harming our friends and in the long term, ourselves."

One of the chief challenges for Patel, in many ways connected to this scrutiny of foreign funding, will be attempting to expand the organisation's reach by convincing Indians to be more philanthropic. Ananthapadmanabhan, a former chief executive of the NGO spelled out these problems in an interview with Mint a last year.

"Organisations that are trying to influence the policy space are facing this challenge of being seen as foreign or supported by foreign money," he said. "There is important work that organisations are doing but the ability to seek support is diminishing and Indian philanthropy is not stepping up."