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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 4 January 27, 2024

Placing Human Rights at the Heart of the Sanatana Dharma Debate: A View from Below | S Pandiaraj

Saturday 27 January 2024

India is in the midst of a massive political controversy (among many others). This was triggered by a speech made by the Tamil Nadu Minister Udhayanidhi Stalin at a Conference of the Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers, held at Chennai in September 2023 when he had remarked that Sanatana Dharma is against social justice and (hence) should be eradicated. This statement was enough to trigger panic buttons within a lot of circles: political, religious and many others. What followed was a list of threats and reactions, including the filing of FIRs and cases; a bounty on his head; protest marches; eminent citizens writing to the Chief Justice of India requesting action to be taken against him and so on. This article is an attempt to see the Sanatana Dharma through the lens of human rights.

THERE ARE MULTIPLE understandings of Sanatana dharma. To some it is synonymous with Hinduism; others regard it as the eternal religion from God himself; for many others it signifies the Hindu code of life; it is also seen by many as representing its more orthodox Brahminical strand. So when somebody invokes Sanatana Dharma the meaning to be attributed depends on his or her understanding of the same. Apparently, Sanatana Dharma, much like beauty, lies in the eyes of the beholder. For Udhayanidhi Stalin, any dharma which promotes, reinforces and sustains untouchability, caste-based inequalities and discrimination is against social justice and equality, and accordingly, should be done away with.

Human rights are, as we all know, rights that one has simply because one is a human being. They are not contingent on any other extraneous consideration (such as caste, culture, region, race, religion, economic status, political opinion etc.,). They are rights and freedoms of all members of human family.

So, regardless of the multiple meanings (and its diverging implications) attributed to it, it is argued here that no version of Sanatana Dharma can afford to run against certain minimum core principles and rights. These flow from among others, the Constitution of India and certain basic human rights embodied in many international human rights instruments, many of which India has voluntarily accepted, involving as they do, legal obligations.

Indian Constitution and Sanatana Dharma

Caste-based social ordering has been the harsh reality of India since thousands of years. The most profound manifestation of this has been the Hindu social order which is fundamentally based on graded inequality.

This vertical (and inegalitarian) order divides people, based on their accidental birth in a particular caste. At the top of the social pyramid are Brahmins (priests), followed by Kshatriyas (warriors and erstwhile rulers), Vaisiyas (farmers and merchants) and Shudras (workers and craftsmen). The rights and privileges that a group and caste enjoyed depended on its place in this social framework. The higher you were, the more were the rights and privileges that you enjoyed.

Below these four caste groups are the dalits who are outside this formal hierarchy, and who are subjected to the most obnoxious treatment even today. Earlier, they were treated as untouchables and subjected to violence, discrimination, humiliation based on notions of purity and pollution. The caste system – which is hierarchical, hereditary and endogamous – has been nasty and brutish for the dalits, and represents a brutal attack on the very notion of the universality of human rights.

If this has been the social reality of India, the framers of the Indian Constitution had a clear-cut and progressive plan to deal with it: apart from freeing India from the British Colonial Order, they also wanted to write social reforms into the Constitution to usher in social equality for all. It is precisely for this latter reason that the Indian Constitution is hailed as a transformative Constitution.

It seeks to regulate not just the relations between various organs of the State, namely legislature, executive and the judiciary; it also imposes standards and prohibitions on how private individuals treat one another socially. The Preamble to the Indian Constitution clearly reflects the egalitarian aspirations of its founders; it embodies the notion of social justice; it also incorporates the modern democratic principles of liberty, equality and fraternity.

Barring the Preamble, it also has many provisions regulating the social affairs among private individuals. For example, while Article 15 (2) prohibits discrimination against access to shops, public restaurants, hotels and places of public entertainment, Article 17 abolishes the practice of ‘untouchability and punishes the enforcement of any disability arising out of the practice. The State has a mandate to ensure the fulfillment of the same.

In a nutshell, the Constitution has a progressive mandate in terms of moving away from a rigid, hierarchical caste-based Hindu social order to an egalitarian social order where rights and freedoms are to be accorded to one and all. Indeed, it is precisely for this reason that the Indian Constitution was branded by few conservative forces as ‘Un-Indian’. The Constitution stands rooted in the cosmopolitan ideals of individual freedom, equality and justice for all. The Indian Constitution is clearly opposed to the questionable ideals obtaining within the historic, traditional, caste-based Hindu social stratification system.

Accordingly, after the advent of the Indian Constitution, no version of Sanatana Dharma can afford to sanction discrimination; oppression; exploitation; ignominy; individual unfreedom; violence; human rights violations, among others. No version of Sanatana Dharma can afford to treat people as though they are devoid of human dignity, agency and rights. No version of Sanatana Dharma can afford to go against the core values of the Indian Constitution (principles of liberty, equality and fraternity, for example).

International Human Rights Law and Sanatana Dharma

The United Nations, which embodies the collective will of the international community, asserts the binding principle of equality and non-discrimination as its core commitment in its founding document UN Charter. In terms of this Charter, human rights and fundamental freedoms are to be enjoyed by all without any distinction. Indeed for the UN, that human rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent and inalienable has been, an article of faith.

The most basic document laying the foundations of international human rights law is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) which was proclaimed by the General Assembly on 10 December 1948 unanimously. India was a signatory to this milestone document.

Proclaimed as ‘a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations’, the UDHR provides that ‘the inherent dignity of all members of the human family is the foundation for freedom, justice and peace in the world’.

It affirms that fundamental rights and freedoms are inalienable and inherent to all human beings. The Principle of Universality stands codified in its very first provision: ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.’ It also captures the full range of human rights from the right to life, liberty, and security of the person to the right to an adequate standard of living including food, health and housing.

A provision of seminal significance and a matter of great relevance to our discussions is Article 28, which entitles everyone to a social and international order conducive for the realisation of rights that it contains. The reference to ‘social order’ means that the national regimes should be creating an enabling environment for the rights to be realized. This is for everyone.

Put differently, any national social order that disempowers any person or group of persons from realising their rights/full development potential falls squarely foul of this provision. In other words, within the framework of Article 28 lies the right of all (including the most marginalized people) to be treated humanely with dignity and (the entire gamut of) rights.

Article 28 of UDHR is where basic human rights trump social systems. It is not an accident, then, that this provision served as one of the important normative basis for (another groundbreaking international law document called) the Declaration on the Right to Development adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1986. At its core, it says that development is a human right belonging to all and everywhere.

It is also worth highlighting the fact that the UDHR is addressed not just to States; it also applies to ‘every individual and organ of society’, as articulated in its Preamble. Hence, in terms of the UN Charter and the UDHR, it is impossible to sustain a national social order that does not uphold the rights of all to have a life of dignity, freedom, and equal opportunity.

If certain parts of Sanatana Dharma do so, and convert the most basic human rights of certain people into an ‘empty promise’, then it makes a compelling case for a radical restructuring of this Sanatana Dharma, taking into account the human rights mandate flowing from the UDHR and a host of other human rights treaties which have followed it.

The principles of dignity, equality and non-discrimination have also been a constant theme in almost all the post-war international human rights treaties and instruments adopted after the UDHR. India is a state party to many of these human rights treaties (most importantly the International Covenant on Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination) is worth underlining here. These international legal commitments demand (among others) that dalits no longer endure a lifetime of abuse, discrimination and human rights violations owing to their social status.


For the controversy surrounding Sanatana Dharma, Human Rights are the answer. One needs to understand that everyone has a certain amount of core human rights that cannot be negated and disregarded. These flow from the Indian Constitution and also international human rights instruments, to many of which India is a state party. India can ill afford to turn its back on international human rights law and her own Constitution.
All social systems need to be compatible with these basic rights. Social systems and human rights agenda need to be mutually supportive. Indeed, ‘all human rights for all’ has been a motto of the global human rights movement. Hence, anything that militates against the agreed minimum standards of humane treatment embedded in the human rights discourse and the Indian Constitution, deserves to be thrown into the dustbin of history.

(Author: SanKaralingam Pandiaraj is an independent researcher in the field of human rights. He has a Ph D from the Centre for International Legal Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. He has also taught human rights in many law schools in South India. Email: pandiaraj05[at]

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