Gita Sahgal
Born Template:Birth based on age as of date
Bombay, India
Residence England
Nationality British Indian
Ethnicity Kashmiri
Alma mater School of Oriental and African Studies[1]
Occupation Writer, journalist, film director, human rights activist.
Known for Suspended by Amnesty International as head of its Gender Unit, after criticizing AI for its links with Moazzam Begg
Religion Atheist[2]
Parents Nayantara Sahgal (mother)
Relatives Vijayalakshmi Pandit (grandmother);
Jawaharlal Nehru (great uncle)

Gita Sahgal (Template:Lang-ks), born Template:Birth based on age as of date in Bombay, India,[3][4] is a writer and journalist on issues of feminism, fundamentalism, and racism, a director of prize-winning documentary films, and a women's rights and human rights activist.[2][5]

She has been a co-founder and active member of women's organizations.[1][6] She has also been head of Amnesty International's Gender Unit, and has opposed the oppression of women in particular by religious fundamentalists.[6][7][8]

In February 2010 she was suspended by Amnesty as head of its Gender Unit after she was quoted by The Sunday Times in an article about Amnesty, criticizing Amnesty for its high-profile associations with Moazzam Begg, the director of a campaign group called Cageprisoners, whom she referred to as "Britain's most famous supporter of the Taliban".[9] Amnesty responded that she was not suspended "for raising these issues internally." Among those who spoke up in her support was Salman Rushdie, who said Amnesty and Begg "deserve our contempt". Begg said Sahgal's claims of his jihadi connections and support for terrorism were "ridiculous", and that he didn't consider anyone a terrorist who had not been convicted of terrorism.

In April 2010, Amnesty said that due to irreconcilable differences of view Sahgal would leave Amnesty on 9 April.[10]

Family, education, and early life

File:Jawaharlal Nehru.jpg

Sahgal's great-uncle,
former Indian Prime Minister Nehru

Sahgal is originally from India, and currently lives in England. She is the daughter of novelist Nayantara Sahgal. She is also the great-niece of former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and the granddaughter of his sister Vijayalakshmi Pandit.[11][12] Schooled first in India, she then moved to England in 1972 and attended and graduated from London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.[1] When Sahgal returned to India in 1977, she joined the civil rights movement.[2] She moved back to England in 1983. Born and raised in a Hindu background, she currently describes herself as an atheist.[2]



Women's organizations

She co-founded in 1979 and has been an active member of Southall Black Sisters. It is a non-profit organisation based in Southall, West London, that has worked against domestic violence, racism (often that of some white feminists), sexism (often that of some Black and Asian anti-racist campaigners), and bigotry.[1][2][6][13]

She also co-founded in 1989 and has actively participated with Women against Fundamentalism.[2] It was formed to challenge the rise of fundamentalism in all religions.[1][6][14] One of its positions has been that as a Christian country with an established church and blasphemy laws that only protect Christianity, England encourages the growth of sectarianism by excluding immigrants, leading them to gravitate towards religious fundamentalism.[2]


In her early years in Delhi, India, Sahgal was part of a feminist network that fought against rape and dowry laws.[3][6]

Commenting on the use of rape in wars, Sahgal said in 2004 that it is a mistake to think such assaults are primarily about "spoils of war" or sexual gratification. She said rape is often used in ethnic conflicts as a way for attackers to perpetuate social control and redraw ethnic boundaries. "Women are seen as the reproducers and carers of the community," she said.[15]

Prostitution and peacekeeping efforts

Sahgal spoke out in 2004 with regard to the fact that prostitution and sex abuse crops up wherever humanitarian intervention efforts are set up. She observed: "The issue with the UN is that peacekeeping operations unfortunately seem to be doing the same thing that other militaries do. Even the guardians have to be guarded."[16]

Invasion of Iraq; Views on Guantanamo Bay

Sahgal, who was against the invasion of Iraq, also condemned the detention and what she views as torture of Muslim men at Guantanamo Bay.[2][17] She told Moazzam Begg, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, that she is “horrified and appalled” by the treatment of people like him.[17]

Writing and film producer

Among her various writings, in 1992, she contributed to and co-edited Refusing Holy Orders: Women and Fundamentalism in Britain with Nira Yuval-Davis.

In 2002 she was the producer of "Tying the Knot". The film was commissioned by the U.K.'s Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Community Liaison Unit, which was set up to handle the problem of British victims of forced marriage who have been, or may be, taken abroad to marry against their will. Sahgal said that while she was not against arranged marriage, she was against those that involve "pressure, emotional blackmail, the massive physical pressure of beatings and abduction".[18] The educational video on marriage and freedom of choice was produced for use in schools, youth groups, and other organisations working with young people, examines marriage across various cultures, and was designed to promote discussion on the issues it raises.[19]

She also made a film for Despatches, one of British TV’s main investigative documentary programs, on the subject of Kiranjit Ahluwalia, a Punjabi woman brought to the UK by arranged marriage who was abused by her husband, set him on fire when he was drunk and asleep—killing him, and won the subsequent legal battle for her freedom.[20]

In addition, she has made a film about atrocities committed during the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971.[2]

Amnesty International controversy; Moazzam Begg and Cageprisoners

Sahgal quote and suspension

File:Moazzam Begg.jpg

Moazzam Begg

Sahgal joined Amnesty in 2002, and became head of its gender unit in 2003.[2][3] She came to wide public attention in February 2010, when she was suspended by Amnesty International as head of the organisation's Gender Unit, after she was quoted by The Sunday Times in an article about Amnesty, criticizing Amnesty for its high-profile associations with Moazzam Begg, the director of a campaign group called Cageprisoners.[21][22]

She said:

To be appearing on platforms with Britain’s most famous supporter of the Taliban [Begg], whom we treat as a human rights defender, is a gross error of judgment.[21][23]

Sahgal argued that by associating itself with Begg and Cageprisoners, Amnesty is risking its reputation on human rights.[21][24][25][26] "As a former Guantanamo detainee, it was legitimate to hear his experiences, but as a supporter of the Taliban it was absolutely wrong to legitimise him as a partner,” Sahgal said.[21] She said she had repeatedly tried raising the issue internally at Amnesty for two years, to no avail.[2] Amnesty's Senior Director of Law and Policy, Widney Brown, said Sahgal raised concerns about Begg and Cageprisoners to her personally for the first time a few days before she shared them with the Sunday Times.[2] Begg spent time at a mujahideen training camp in Afghanistan in 1993, where the camp's leader told him: “To me jihad is a drug I’m allowed to take and I always come back for more ... As long as Muslim lands [such as Kashmir and Israel] are occupied, I have vowed to fight for their liberation”.[2][23] Begg wrote in 2006 that his time at the training camp:

was a life-changing experience for me.... I had met men who seemed to me exemplary in their faith and self-sacrifice, and seen a world that awed and inspired me.[2][23][27]

In 2001, Taliban police in Afghanistan were beating women for improper dress, had fired all women in public service, had effectively abolished education for women, and were engaging in Friday stonings and amputations in applying sharia law.[17][23] Begg wrote in his autobiography that in 2001 the Taliban had made "some modest progress—in social justice and upholding pure, old Islamic values forgotten in many Islamic countries".[17][23] He also said that the Taliban was "better than anything Afghanistan has had in 20 years".[2][21] Begg said later that it was his perception at the time, and that since then he has criticised the Taliban for human rights abuses.[17][23][28] Cageprisoners has championed the rights of, among others, al-Qaeda member Anwar al-Awlaki (linked to three of the 9/11 bombers, the Fort Hood shooter, and the Christmas Day 2009 bomber), Abu Hamza, Sajid Badat, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and Abu Qatada.[21][23]

Amnesty has brought Begg (representing Cageprisoners) to a meeting at Downing Street delivering a letter to U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown demanding the closure of Guantanamo Bay, hosted Begg on a European tour urging countries to offer safe haven to Guantanamo detainees, and paid expenses for his attendance at its events.[21]

The Sunday Times published an article about Amnesty's association with groups that support the Taliban and promote "Islamic Right" ideas on 7 February 2010.[9][21] Sahgal spoke to the newspaper because she felt that for two years Amnesty had completely ignored her concerns on the subject.[3] Sahgal's views on Amnesty's high-profile associations with Begg and Cageprisoners were quoted.[9] Within a few hours of the article being published, Amnesty suspended her.[9]

Sahgal statements

Sahgal issued a statement in which she explained further that she felt that Amnesty was risking its reputation by associating with and thereby politically legitimizing Begg, because Cageprisoners "actively promotes Islamic Right ideas and individuals".[9] She headed off the argument that the issue was Begg's rights, by saying she has always opposed the illegal detention and torture of Muslim men, and been "horrified and appalled" by the treatment of people like Begg. But that the issue is not about Begg’s "freedom of opinion, nor about his right to propound his views: he already exercises these rights fully as he should. The issue is ... the importance of the human rights movement maintaining an objective distance from groups and ideas that are committed to systematic discrimination and fundamentally undermine the universality of human rights."

Her statement also said in part:

A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when a great organisation must ask: if it lies to itself, can it demand the truth of others? ... Amnesty ... has sanitized the history and politics of ... Begg and completely failed to recognize the nature of ... Cageprisoners....
I sent two memos to my management asking a series of questions about what considerations were given to the nature of the relationship with ... Begg and ... Cageprisoners. I have received no answer.... Amnesty has created the impression that Begg is not only a victim of human rights violations, but a defender of human rights....
I have been a human rights campaigner for over three decades, defending the rights of women and ethnic minorities, defending religious freedom and the rights of victims of torture, and campaigning against illegal detention and state repression. I have raised the issue of the association of Amnesty International with groups such as Begg’s consistently within the organisation. I have now been suspended for trying to do my job and staying faithful to Amnesty’s mission to protect and defend human rights universally and impartially.[9]

On 27 February, she said in an interview on National Public Radio (NPR) that Amnesty had provided Begg with a platform and legitimized him as a human rights defender, while Cageprisoners promotes people who in turn promote "a violent and discriminatory agenda".[29] She also said that Cageprisoners' Asim Qureshi spoke supporting global jihad at a Hizb ut-Tahrir rally.[29] And she noted that Begg had run a bookshop, a bestseller of which was a book by jihad-promotor Abdullah Azzam—a mentor of Osama bin Laden, and a founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba, which has attacked civilians and been implicated in the 2008 Mumbai attacks.[2][29] In a separate interview, she pointed as well to Begg having attended jihadi training camps and sold books and videos promoting global jihad and terrorist attacks, to Quereshi having affirmed his support for global jihad on a BBC World Service programme, and said that "these things could have been stated in his introduction".[30] She stressed that Begg's bookshop published The Army Of Madinah, a jihad manual by Dhiren Barot "perhaps Britain’s most important connection to the al-Qaeda leadership, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to murder and is serving a life sentence in prison, without parole".[31]

Amnesty responses

Amnesty responded on its website with a statement by its interim Secretary General, Claudio Cordone:

[Sahgal] was not suspended ... for raising these issues internally... [Begg] speaks about his own views ..., not Amnesty International’s... Sometimes the people whose rights we defend may not share each others views–but they all have human rights, and all human rights are worth defending.[32]

Cordone said on a Canadian radio program that he thought Begg's politics are benign, and that so far there was not any evidence to suggest that Amnesty should cut its ties with him.[2][33] Responding to a petition in support of Sahgal from Sunila Abeysekera (a veteran Sri Lankan human rights campaigner), Amrita Chhachhi (a senior lecturer in women’s and gender studies at the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague), and Sara Hossain (a Bangladesh Supreme Court advocate), Cordone wrote: "Begg and others in his group Cageprisoners also hold other views which they have clearly stated, for example on ... the role of jihad in self-defense. Are such views antithetical to human rights? Our answer is no, even if we may disagree with them."[34][35][36] Abeysekera, Chhachhi, and Hossain called Cordone's assertion "shocking".[35]

Widney Brown also spoke on the NPR program.[29] She said the fact that Begg's bookstore sold "books that undermine women's rights ... books that you don't like" shouldn't undermine him as a legitimate voice on Guantanamo Bay abuses.[29] Responding to the observation that Amnesty had sponsored his tours through Europe, which might be seen as more than just hearing his views, she said that because Begg was one of the first detainees released, he was able able to dispel Guantanamo Bay's secrecy.[29] She added that, as a British citizen, Begg has "an incredibly effective voice in talking to governments in Europe about the importance of" their accepting Guantanamo detainees.[29] As to the praiseworthiness of Sahgal's work, she said:

There's no question about it. Gita is incredibly intelligent, very strong analysis .... She's done great work for us. And I think the real tragedy of this particular circumstance is by going public in this particular way knowing that we were addressing her issue means that she's maybe undermining her own work in fact.[29]

Responding to criticism from Salman Rushdie, Kate Allen, director of Amnesty UK, said it took criticism “seriously” but would continue to seek “universal respect” for human rights.[37] Amnesty’s international secretariat Policy Director, Anne Fitzgerald, when asked if she thought Begg was a human rights advocate, said: “It’s something you’d have to speak to him about. I don’t have the information to answer that.”[2][21]

In April 2010, Amnesty circulated a statement internally, saying:

Due to irreconcilable differences of view over policy between Gita Sahgal and Amnesty International regarding Amnesty International’s relationship with Moazzam Begg and Cageprisoners, it has been agreed that Gita will leave Amnesty International on 9 April 2010. Gita ... was in a period of consultation over possible redeployment following a redundancy process. Accordingly, Gita will leave receiving a payment based on Amnesty International’s redundancy policy.[10]

Begg response

Begg said Sahgal's claims of jihadi connections and support for terrorism were "ridiculous."[21][38] He defended his support for the Taliban, saying: “We need to be engaging with those people who we find most unpalatable. I don’t consider anybody a terrorist until they have been charged and convicted of terrorism.”[21]

Begg also points to his work with groups that empower Muslim women; such as HHUGS (Helping Households Under Great Stress), which supports the families of detainees, and an Iraqi women's refugee group.[2][3] Sahgal, he says, "has no monopoly on women's rights".[2]


File:Salman Rushdie in New York City 2008.jpg

Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie, who was championed by Amnesty after Iran placed a fatwā on him for writing The Satanic Verses, said:

Amnesty ... has done its reputation incalculable damage by allying itself with Moazzam Begg and his group Cageprisoners, and holding them up as human rights advocates. It looks very much as if Amnesty's leadership is suffering from a kind of moral bankruptcy, and has lost the ability to distinguish right from wrong. It has greatly compounded its error by suspending the redoubtable Gita Sahgal for the crime of going public with her concerns. Gita Sahgal is a woman of immense integrity and distinction.... It is people like Gita Sahgal who are the true voices of the human rights movement; Amnesty and Begg have revealed, by their statements and actions, that they deserve our contempt.[39][40]

Denis MacShane, a Member of the British Parliament and former Labour government minister, wrote to Amnesty protesting its suspension of Gita Sahgal: "one of its most respected researchers because she rightly called into question Amnesty’s endorsement of Mozzam Begg whose views on the Taliban and on Islamist jihad stand in total contradiction of everything Amnesty has fought for."[41] He called "Kafkaesque" the fact that Amnesty—"the very organisation meant to defend human rights"—would threaten the career of Sahgal for her having exposed "an ideology that denies human rights".[41]

Writing in The National Post, writer Christopher Hitchens said "It's well-nigh incredible that Amnesty should give a platform to people who are shady on this question and absolutely disgraceful that it should suspend a renowned employee who gave voice to her deep and sincere misgivings," writing in The Independent, journalist and human rights activist Joan Smith said "Amnesty's mistake is simple and egregious", and writing in The Spectator journalist Martin Bright said: "It is Gita Sahgal who should be the darling of the human rights establishment, not Moazzam Begg," and columnist Melanie Phillips wrote "her real crime has been to expose the extraordinary sympathy by white ‘liberals’, committed to ‘human rights’, for Islamic jihadists—who are committed to the extinction of human rights."[42][43][44][45] The Times (not connected to The Sunday Times) wrote: "In an extraordinary inversion of its traditional role, Amnesty has stifled its own still small voice of conscience," and journalist Nick Cohen wrote in The Observer "Amnesty is living in the make-believe world ... where it thinks that liberals are free to form alliances with defenders of clerical fascists who want to do everything in their power to suppress liberals, most notably liberal-minded Muslims."[46][47] Writer Michael Weiss opined in The Wall Street Journal that Sahgal had correctly characterized Begg, whom Weiss said has written favorably about the Taliban, and journalist Antara Dev Sen wrote in Daily News & Analysis: "It was a gutsy stand, given the dread of political correctness that cripples our thought and makes us bend over backwards till we almost topple over. ... Suspending Sahgal was an illiberal knee-jerk response unbecoming of this cherished human rights organisation."[33] Farrukh Dhondy wrote in her support, in The Asian Age, as did The Herald (Scotland), columnist and author Mona Charen in Australia's The Daily Advertiser, commentator Jonathan Power in Dubai's Khaleej Times, journalist and author Terry Glavin in the National Post, columnist Rod Liddle in The Spectator, columnist Jay Nordlinger in National Review, and David Aaronovitch in a column in The Times entitled "How Amnesty Chose the Wrong Poster-boy".[17][23][48][49][50][51][52] Feminist historian Urvashi Butalia also spoke up in her support.[6] Douglas Murray wrote in The Telegraph that "Amnesty is longer an organisation worth listening to, let alone supporting", and The Wall Street Journal wrote: "it's a pity that a group that was born to give voice to the victims of oppression should now devote itself to sanitizing the oppressors".[53][54]


Her mother,
novelist Nayantara Sahgal

Sahgal's mother, Nehru’s niece novelist Nayantara Sahgal, said she was proud of Gita:

for her very correct and courageous stand. Gita had been taking up the matter for a couple of years now, but after not having received a response she decided to go public—which was a very brave thing to do.... Amnesty has been supporting Begg, legitimising him, making him a partner and sponsoring his tour of Europe. They should at least have checked his credentials. It simply gives them a bad reputation.[55]

An organization called Human rights for All formed in her defense.[56] They have been joined by many notable supporters.[57]

The Observer wrote in April 2010 that Amnesty had faced few sticker periods since it was founded in 1961, and Oliver Kamm wrote in The Times that "Disastrously for itself and those who depend on its support, Amnesty is no longer the friend of liberty".[3]


Leaked extracts from an internal 10 February 2010, memo by Amnesty’s Asia-Pacific director Sam Zarifi, which echoed some of the concerns raised by Sahgal, were published by The Sunday Times.[58] In the memo he said Amnesty should publicly admit its mistake in not establishing sufficiently publicly that it does not support all or even many of Begg's views. Zarifi said Amnesty "did not always sufficiently distinguish between the rights of detainees to be free from torture, and the validity of their views", adding that the organization "did not always clarify that while we champion the rights of all—including terrorism suspects, and more important, victims of terrorism—we do not champion their views”.[59] In a subsequent letter to The Sunday Times, while Zarifi did not retract any of the above, he said he fully agreed with the measures Amnesty took in response to Sahgal sharing her views publicly.[60]

In response to Zarifi's objections, Amnesty decided not to use Begg in its South Asia work.[2] Widney Brown said: "Sam's view was that, no, he was not the right person for [our South Asia campaigns]. He raised the concern, and he was heard."[2]

File:Yvonne Ridley.png

Yvonne Ridley

British journalist for Press TV, the Iranian-based English language news channel, and Cageprisoners patron, Yvonne Ridley, said Begg was being “demonised”, and that he was “a great supporter of women and a promoter of their rights”.[23][61][62]

Former writer for The Guardian, and co-author of Enemy Combatant, Victoria Brittain wrote, "Ms Sahgal has contributed to the current climate of intolerance and islamophobia in Britain."[63]

Andy Worthington, critic of Guantanamo Bay detention camp, and friend of Moazzam Begg, also cited Islamophobia, and then defended Begg. He said, "I know from personal experience that Moazzam Begg is no extremist. We have met on numerous occasions, have had several long discussions, and have shared platforms together at many events."[64]

Select writings




  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 Shah, Neelima (19 February 2010). "It’s Very Human To Disagree; She feels the rip of Amnesty International’s barbs for speaking up; Neelima Shah on Gita Sahgal". Outlook. Retrieved 21 February 2010.
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 2.12 2.13 2.14 2.15 2.16 2.17 2.18 2.19 2.20 2.21 Guttenplan, D.D.; Margaronis, Maria. "Who Speaks for Human Rights?". The Nation. Retrieved 20 March 2010.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 Mark Townsend (25 April 2010). "Gita Sahgal's dispute with Amnesty International puts human rights group in the dock | World news | The Observer". London: Guardian. Retrieved 27 April 2010.
  4. Hasan Suroor (9 February 2010). "Suroor, Hasan, "Amnesty in row over “collaborating” with pro-jehadis", The Hindu, 9 February 2010, accessed 16 February 2010". Retrieved 18 March 2010.
  5. The situated politics of belonging – Google Books. Retrieved 4 March 2010.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 Nair, Malini (21 February 2010). "A fundamental question for human rights groups". Daily News & Review. Retrieved 1 March 2010.
  7. "Women Against Fundamentalisms | Variant 16". Retrieved 4 March 2010.
  8. Amit Roy (10 February 2010). "The Telegraph – Calcutta (Kolkata) | Frontpage | Amnesty suspends Nehru kin". Retrieved 4 March 2010.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 9.5 Sahgal, Gita (7 February 2010). "Gita Sahgal: A Statement". Retrieved 17 February 2010.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Bird, Steve (13 April 2010). "Gita Sahgal, who criticised Amnesty’s ‘pro-jihadi’ links, leaves job". London: Times Online. Retrieved 12 April 2010.
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  21. 21.00 21.01 21.02 21.03 21.04 21.05 21.06 21.07 21.08 21.09 21.10 Kerbaj, Richard (7 February 2010). "Amnesty International is ‘damaged’ by Taliban link; An official at the human rights charity deplores its work with a ‘jihadist’". The Sunday Times (London). Retrieved 2 March 2010.
  22. Gupta, Rahila, "Double standards on human rights; Where does Amnesty International stand on women's rights after suspending Gita Sahgal for criticising links with Moazzam Begg?," The Guardian, 9 February 2010, accessed 11 February 2010
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