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Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2008 > December 6, 2008 > Challenges before the Human Rights Movement

Mainstream Vol XLVI, No 51

Challenges before the Human Rights Movement

Friday 12 December 2008, by Nandita Haksar


The attack on Taj and Oberoi Hotels in Mumbai by a group of militants has united the middle classes on the need for greater security measure, zero tolerance approach to terrorism and the corollary to that is a zero tolerance to human rights concerns. The discourse on national security poses human rights as a threat to security and the necessity for a trade-off between national security and democracy.

In fact the need to uphold human rights values and build democratic institutions is the only way we can ensure that our country is secure and united. The fact is that the human rights movement has been subverted and undermined both by corporate interests internationally and in the country. It is perhaps worthwhile to look at the human rights movement in India and assess its role in the war against terror.

I am not sure whether the miscellaneous group of organisations, groups, institutions and individuals working within the human rights industry can be described as a human rights movement. The character and structure of the human rights community has radically changed since the post-emergency period when India saw the first human rights movement emerge after Independence from British colonial rule.

The basic challenge before the human rights movement at that time was to document and expose the various aspects of State terror and State abuse of power. This was a challenge that the Indian human rights movement took up with great deal of political commitment, facing the wrath of the state but maintaining its integrity. At this stage it exposed through documentation the following:

1. that human rights violations were not individual acts or aberrations but a part of State policy; that the law enforcement agencies such as the police and armed forces were in fact involved in serious human rights violations such as torture, false encounter killings and murders;

2. that the Indian State did not represent the interests of the poor or oppressed and the it was these sections who were the prime targets of State violence;

3. that there was democratic space within India to have a vibrant human rights movement which could make an effective intervention and bring the problems before the public and even successfully challenge anti-democratic laws.

In the earlier period the human rights violations took place in the context of class struggles mostly by Naxalites. The target of the human rights violations were landless peasants, urban poor and tribal peoples. Their demands were basic social, economic and cultural rights such as the right to minimum wages, abolition of the contract labour system or right to fair price for forest produce.

The Indian human rights movement was broadly divided into those who emphasised social and economic rights of the poor and those who stressed on civil liberties of individuals. The first group, largely influenced by communism, focused on what they called “democratic rights”; while the social democrats and liberals focused on the classic first generation rights.


However, by the 1980s the Indian human rights movement was faced with new challenges with the rise of movements for national self-determination in the North-East, Punjab and Kashmir. The human rights movement unhesitatingly exposed the Indian State’s oppression, the promulgation of undemocratic laws and individual cases of torture. However, it found it difficult to move out of the framework of individual human rights and take up the collective rights of oppressed nationalities living within Indian borders.

There was great hesitancy about supporting the right to self-determination and when Maqbool Bhat was hanged none of the human rights organisations protested even though the entire Kashmiri people rose up in revolt at the injustice. The Indian human rights movement functioned very much within the framework of the Indian State’s definition of nationalism.

By the 1980s the Nagas, Mizos, Punjabis and Kashmiris established their own human rights organisations focusing exclusively on the human rights violations taking place in the context of the local struggles. When these movements turned from nationality struggles to religion based movements, the human rights organisations became even more isolated and marginalised. The human rights movement was further divided when it failed to focus on human rights violations in the context of caste and race. It also did not make serious interventions in the area of women’s rights violations and patriarchy.

Thus the human rights movement was dominated by upper caste, upper class males and there was not much self-criticism.

The next decade saw the collapse of the Soviet Union and an attack on the human rights movement which undermined the very premise on which it stood. Human rights discourse originates in the struggle of the middle classes’ fight against feudalism and therefore its objective has been to protect individual citizens from abuse by the State. It is not concerned with crimes committed in the private sphere. Human rights discourse’s basic premise is that all human beings are equal and it emphasises the common humanity of humankind.

The nineties witnessed three kinds of attack on the integrity of the human rights discourse:

1. the systematic pressure to take up the human rights violence by non-state actors; this was a pressure which was part of an international attack on the integrity of the human rights movement and it split the movement and caused a great deal of divisions which still have not healed;

2. the flow of funds from foreign funding agencies and promotion of what Upendra Baxi has so aptly called trade-related-market-friendly human rights; this is the time the human rights movement started becoming the human rights industry;

3. the attack of the post-modernists and relativists who undermined the basic premise of human rights by emphasising differences.

A large part of the human rights movement got co-opted into the agenda for globalisation and the foreign funded NGOs entered into the fray with full-time human rights professionals and human rights institutes.

The Indian human rights movement was trapped in the liberal democratic discourse based on individual rights. It even failed to focus on human rights violations being committed as a result of the unfair terms of international trade and the violation of third generation human rights. By the time the Vietnam War ended, the US had started using human rights as a weapon of its foreign policy and by the 1990s human rights discourse was used to justify the unipolar world order.

The effect of these developments was that the human rights movement lost its vision and goal. It also became more and more depoliticised. In other words, the documentation did not include the root cause of the human rights violations or the political context in which the violations had taken place. Besides this, India and the Western states through their NGOs co-opted a large part of the activists into human rights work such as police reform and teaching human rights to para-military forces.

The NGOs worked hard to take “civil society initiatives” promoting peace, reconciliation and human rights as substitutes for political resolution to conflicts. Civil society was invariably those sections of society who were in no way accountable to their own people but rather to those who were funding them. The definition of “ civil society” did not include people’s movements, especially if they were engaged in armed resistance. Thus the human rights community was responsible for delegitimising peoples’ resistance.

While the human rights movement was being systematically undermined and the organisations had split and many activists co-opted or marginalised the US was laying the foundation for a war against terror – which would substitute the Communist as main enemy of freedom with the Muslim terrorist. It required careful planning to invent this new enemy and launch this war without an end.


The foundation for the war against terror was laid in 1968 when the USA started to keep statistics on international terrorist incidents. In 1976 the USA had the office of the Ambassador-at-large for Counter-terrorism in charge of Public Diplomacy Working Group whose function was to “generate greater global understanding of the threat of terrorism and efforts to resist it”. By the 1980s there were some 40 to 50 institutes and think-tanks set up in the USA sponsoring experts to study terrorism. This is when there was no agreed definition of terrorism either in law or in academics.

There is no space to trace the history of how the war against terrorism was constructed but we do need to know that it did not begin in September 2001.

In India throughout the 1990s to this date the media has built up the image of the Muslim as the pro-Pakistani barbaric dehumanised terrorist. There has been no engagement with the Hindi film industry on this issue even though Bollywood wiped out the gains of two decades of the human rights movement and made torture a legitimate form of asserting our nationalism. The media was manufacturing consent for the war against terror and the culmination was “A Wednesday” where the message is clear that it was our patriotic duty to murder anyone suspected of terrorism: needless to say all the terrorists had Muslim names.

The women’s movement, including feminist groups, were also complicit in the manufacturing of this new enemy and demonising and criminalising of the Muslim community. They supported the media when it blew out of context. The oppression of Muslim women like Gudia or Shah Bano were seen as reflection of barbarity of Muslim religion and culture but violence against Hindu, Christian, Dalit or Sikh women was treated as “domestic violence”. The fact that Muslim women have been fighting their oppression did not make it to the media whereas women from the majority communities were portrayed as fighting for their rights. In the light of this experience there is an urgent need for both human rights activists and feminists to re-examine the concept of secularism and how it has been used as a weapon by the State to suppress human rights.

Perhaps the biggest weakness of the human rights movement in India has been its inability to challenge in any substantial way the growth of the Hindu fascist forces and their systematic attack on human rights values and democratic norms.

Thus when the war against terror was launched the human rights movement had already disintegrated and the human rights industry was incapable and unwilling to take on the new challenges. The war against terror threw up the following challenges:

1. war against terror required that an entire community be criminalised and that meant that 150 million Muslim citizens became vulnerable to human rights violations; while it is true that this so-called war is not a religious war but an imperialist one, it is equally true that it makes Muslims (along with all those who oppose US policies) the prime targets;

2. in this war the role of the intelligence agencies has been crucial and the human rights community has not even begun to document and expose their role in spreading disinformation; they have penetrated into peoples’ movements, human rights groups and even Muslim organisations; the problem is further complicated by the fact that Indian intelligence agencies are now working closely with both US and Israeli intelligence agencies;

3. the war against terror is part of the corporate political agenda to encroach on human rights, dignity and production of a culture which will destroy all cultures based on secular and humanist values;

4. since the target of this war are the Muslims there is a need for solidarity and alliances with Muslim organisations; this is a very difficult challenge when the Muslim resistance to imperialism is often in the language of purist Salafi Islam which sees human rights discourse as a weapon used by imperialism.


The urgent tasks before the human rights community in India are:

1. Consistently focus on the root causes of human rights violations both nationally and internationally and its specific political context; the war on terror is an attack on the rights and dignity of the workers, urban and rural poor. According to the Bureau of Labour Statistics, at least 30 million full time workers in the US have been laid off since Reagan. In 50 countries there are officially 25 million internally displaced people apart from 15 million refugees.

2. Focus on the fact that the human rights violations on a world scale are due to the unfair terms of international trade and have resulted in the destruction of millions of cultures, economies and ecology.

3. Document and expose the growing role of intelligence agencies in the disinformation campaign and their penetration into the ranks of movements, including the human rights movement.

4. Counter the argument that human rights must be sacrificed for national security—in fact preservation of human rights standards is the only way to ensure our nation remains secure; human rights violations leads to greater alienation of the victims.

5. Counter the systematic criminalization of Muslims as a community; this requires a clear vision on the rights of minorities within a democratic polity.

6. Systematic documentation of violation of human rights and the specific context in which it occurs; expose the corporate interests that are promoting the war against terror.

7. Acknowledge and focus on the fact that Muslims individually and their organisations are the special targets of this war against terror.

In this setting it is essential

(a) to engage with the media (film industry, electronic media and print media) and to come up with guidelines for reporting on the war against terrorism; the guidelines must include the ban on publishing reports based on legally inadmissible confessions to the police;

(b) to engage with the legal fraternity to educate them on the need to protect human rights standards and how harmful to society is the stand of certain bar associations who have refused to defend anyone accused of terrorism;

(c) to fight for the rights of political prisoners, especially detained within so-called high risk cells;

(d) to develop a concept of Solidarity which is based on a vision of multi-cultural society but distinguish it from State sponsored integration policies which are both patronising and oppressive; imperialists used Muslim organisations against Communists and other secular forces and now they are trying to use the liberal and secular forces against the Muslims;

(e) to vigorously take up the just demands of the Muslim community such as the implementation of the Sachar Committee report, especially the return of the Wakf properties.

8. Distinguishing human rights discourse co-opted by imperialism from a pro-people human rights movement and building an alternative theory of human rights which takes into account collective rights of people and not only individual rights and to focuses on the third generation of human rights violations. Article 28 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights gives us a right to a just social and international order.


How should the human rights community respond to the specific attacks by non-state actors, especially on civilian population?

First of all, we must demand greater transparency from the government in dealing with militancy which means that all fundamentalists, fascist forces have to dealt with equal vigour.

Second, those caught for violating the law and committing crimes must be punished but strictly in accordance with the law and human rights standards. The use of the politics of fear for narrow electoral and short-term political gains serves to encourage corruption among the investigating agencies and undermines the criminal justice system.

Thirdly, there is an urgent need to fight both Hindu fascism and Islamic fundamentalism politically and ideologically. The movement would need to use secularism to promote greater democracy and not use it as a weapon for oppressive nation building. That task is well beyond the competence of the human rights movement but human rights discourse can certainly play a role in this if we have a theory of human rights not based merely on individual rights but that which includes the collective rights of the people.

While it is absolutely true that human rights is the most evolved form of Western imperialism and it has been used selectively to justify gross human rights violations, the USA opposed 150 times between 1984 and 1987 resolutions furthering human rights, peace, nuclear disarmament and economic injustice.

It is equally true that human rights is also the only common language and framework for the oppressed and victims of that imperialism. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a product of thousands of struggles the world over and it needs to be evolved and become more inclusive, especially of collective rights. The Guiness Book of records shows that the declaration is the most translated document in the world. It is available in 360 languages, from Arabic, Chinese to Pipil spoken by 50 people in Cental America. In these bleak times when the world is so divided this Declaration does stand out as a little beacon of hope.

The author is a legal practitioner, writer and human rights activist

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