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Volume XLIV, No.51

Human Rights : Basic Issues

From N.C.’s Writings

Tuesday 24 April 2007


The government’s decision to set up a National Human Rights Commission is a significant indication of its being able to read the signs of the times. The Prime Minister has made the eloquent claim about his government’s commitment to upholding human rights: “We must send a clear message that we do not tolerate violation of human rights.” He at the same time conceded that “there is need to identify the weaknesses, the gaps between pronouncements and action, and between legislation and its implementation”.

There is a veritable wave on the global plane today for the assertion of human rights. This is part of the democratic upsurge on a world scale. Long before the present ground-swell for human rights in many parts of the world, it is worth recalling that our country has had a long tradition of struggle for human rights. Before independence, this was known as the movement for civil liberties. In fact, this was an offshoot of the freedom struggle, because one of the tenets of the Indian independence movement was that it never deviated in its commitment to democracy, and therefore, its leaders upheld civil liberties.

In the thirties, Jawaharlal Nehru himself was once the President of the All India Civil Liberties’ Union. This was not a party outfit of the Congress—its separate identity was always respected just as it could attract many personalities of a liberal disposition who would not toe the Congress line at that time. The Civil liberties’ Union survived after independence, though its complexion was perceptibly changed by then; the ruling Congress establishment lapsed into inactivity, while the radical and Left critics of the government became more prominent in it, and only a handful of liberals who could keep their rapport with the radical activists, only they stayed on in the Civil Liberties’ Union. Chakkarai Chettiar, a grand old liberal from the South, was its last President, sometime about 1950-51. After that the organisation was hardly heard of, and it ceased to be even a letter-head organisation.

With the promulgation of the Constitution and the setting up of elected governments both at the Centre and the States, the impression went round that a civil liberties organisation would have little to do in the new democratic dispensation ushered in by the new Constitution. This was not a very far-fetched impression, particularly in the first two decades after independence. There prevailed in the country what can be termed as the Nehru stamp on our political functioning, and this spread over the entire public life. Cases of repression were few and far between in that period.

The scenario changed to a large extent after that period. Roughly it was from the mid-sixties that one could discern a perceptible change. An important area of conflict could be identified in the rural sector. Roughly this was the period of the Green Revolution. Alongwith increased food production, the Green Revolution brought about a significant change in agrarian relations. The increased food production as a result of the new agricultural technique set by the Green Revolution was not evenly distributed. It was cornered by the rich farmer community who owned the land and had the means to exploit the new facilities offered by the intensive cultivation prescribed by the Green Revolution. At the other end, the poor peasant and the agricultural labourer were reduced to the category of wage-earners. The old feudal relations were replaced by the more palpable class antagonism of the modern market. Clashes and tensions spread in many parts of the countryside.

This was the objective backdrop of the wave of militant activism in the rural sector, symbolised by what has come to be known as Naxalism. The rich farmer, more powerful than his effete zamindar predecessor, could afford to keep his armed gang in place of the old lathials, and the militant activist also resorted to the gun—inspired at the beginning by Mao’s teachings and clung on to them even when Maoism was dethroned on its native soil. It is worth recalling that about this time, a Union Home Ministry in-house survey of the new surge of armed conflicts in the countryside, delivered a very significant warning that the Green Revolution “might turn red”.

At the national political level, the scene had changed considerably by then. The old monolith of power that the Congress had been at the time of independence was broken. The party began to lose power in different parts of the country, and with the onset of the seventies, the party itself got split. Followed a new phase of lacerated politics, in which all sorts of permutations and combinations among political parties led to almost chronic instability. Regional parties got an opening and the entire political spectrum became a veritable mosaic of motley combinations.

The inexorable climax was reached by Indira Gandhi’s imposition of the Emergency, when democratic liberties were snuffed out and for the first time since independence, an authoritarian rule emerged in this country. The Emergency itself was the barometer of the political insecurity that gripped Indira Gandhi, and it meant the total suppression of all civil liberties. Human rights became an anathema for the new establishment.

The experience of the Emergency made large sections of public opinion aware of the need for a movement of civil liberties and democratic rights, and the collapse of the Emergency provided the necessary fillip for such a movement. That was how there came up immediately after the 1977 general elections, a whole host of organisations and initiatives among political workers, social activists, lawyers, journalists and among the youth which led to the formation of active human rights organisations in this country.

It was due to this new awareness in concerned sections of the public, coupled with an alerted press, that many of the blatant violations of human rights got exposed. The exposure of the killing of activists in custody with the pretence of their being victims of encounters with the police got widespread publicity and in some cases even judicial strictures. The barbarous torture of suspects in police lock-up; the inhuman incarceration of undertrial prisoners for years, sometimes for decades; the infamous Bhagalpur blindings—all these and many other forms of atrocity, the climax reaching with the pogrom of the Sikh community in November 1984—all these could be highlighted in a systematic manner through the services of human rights organisations.
With the proliferation of social evils like dowry deaths, caste oppression and the revival of some of the superstitious practices, the role and responsibility of the human rights movements have grown tremendously in our country.

With the spread of violent confrontation between militant groups and the armed forces of the state involving largely police and paramilitary forces apart from the Army at some places, new challenges confronted the human rights organisations. These armed confrontations have international dimensions as in the case of Kashmir and Punjab. Naturally, in such confrontations innocent people become the victim in many cases. This raises a very complex question before the human rights activist: should those who observe no human rights principles in dealing with their adversaries in open armed combat, be entitled to the protection of the human rights movement? In other words, should human rights be extended to those who in practice violate human rights in dealing with their adversaries?

This is a question which baffled many a society over the centuries. Much can be said in favour of it or in opposing it, and such debates can go on endlessly until the cattle come home.

There is the more fundamental question which has confronted many all over the world. In a society where there is blatant inequity, and a large section of the population is condemned, for no fault of their own, to a life of persecution and constant deprivation, would not any talk of defending human rights be reduced to a luxury of the rich and the powerful? The Black in the USA or South Africa, the Harijan in India, or the underdog in any of the developed society—is he or she not entitled to the Right to be Human before one talks of human rights to them? But there is another way of looking at the same question: if human rights are enforced and democratic liberties ensured, that itself helps to a large measure, the fight against social justices.

One hopes that the National Human Rights Commission, when it is set up, will take up its mission with such basic issues in mind, and not reduce itself to a post office for complaints and grievances.
(Mainstream, October 3, 1992)

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