Each time there is a critical reference to India in the annual reports of organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International etc., our government shows signs of nervousness and switches to denial mode. Given our pathetic record in managing insurgency, political dissent and crimes, it is but natural that we attract critical comments from observers abroad. We all will agree that today a visit to the police station even for very routine matters leaves unpleasant memories. The common man tries to shun these places where atrocity, torture and intimidation are anything but routine. In the rural hinterlands of Bihar, UP and some pockets in north-east, the picture is very dour indeed.
But, focusing only on police station atrocities or government highhandedness towards the citizens will be quite myopic. Even more unfortunate and ill-founded will be the assumption that the idea of ‘Human Rights’ is an import from the West, and we need to emulate them for imbibing its values. True, with no critical attention from the outside world, we might have taken decades longer to put in place this elaborate mechanism of Human Rights courts, human rights education in schools and colleges, and other such mechanisms. Relentless media glare on individual cases of violation has agitated the viewers’ conscience. As the stridency of chorus in favour of human rights enforcement grows, we can feel reassured that the dawn of human dignity in this most populous democracy on earth is just beginning.
But, in this chorus for aligning our human rights redressal mechanism with that of the West, we seem to forget that India, perhaps made the earliest and most forceful push towards human equality and dignity in recorded history. One need not go to as far as the Vedic days to lay claim to this heritage, because that would raise some cynical eyes. In the most documented part of human history starting from the early eighth century onwards till the advent of Dr. Ambedkar and the later day crusaders like Dr. Binayak Sen, we get to read the account of the fearless crusade against the oppressive caste system, practice of dowry and forced labour, resistance to the harrowing system of Sati, dowry and child marriage.
When the society was besmirched by the arrogant and self-seeking feudal claim to superiority by a small group of self-proclaimed elites, Mahaver Jain and Gautam Buddha raised their voice in favour of universal equality and brotherhood. They gave voice to multitude of the dispossessed and the down-trodden, seething with resentment under the dominance of society’s elite classes. They preached that every human being was entitled to enjoy freedom and dignity. According to the tenets of Biddhism and Jainism, caste discrimination was nothing but a slur– a demonic deviation to deprive the ‘lowly-born’ from his claim to equal rights, to opportunity, justice, wealth, entrepreneurship and intellectual pursuits. Birth in an affluent or upper class family does not automatically bestow superiority, these two great souls asserted with great force of conviction. Their preaching swayed millions. It was a confrontation that dented Brahminc pride and emboldened many later day Hindu saints to propound the values of universal equality. Thus, was laid the foundations of a Human Rights movement that would spread to the nook and corner of the country.
The ‘untouchable’ saints like Santh Tukaram of Maharastra and Bhim Bhoi of Odisha swept away the muck that had set in on Hinduism over centuries. Millions of people living in the fringes of the society re-entered the mainstream. But, the most notable contribution to human rights was made by Bengal’s two illustrious sons – Ishwar Chandra Vidysagar and Raja Ram Mohan Roy. Right to education, right of a widow to remarry, right of a woman to refuse to walk into the funeral pyre of the dead husband were so forcefully advocated by these two crusaders that the British had little opportunity to dither on these crying issues of social reform.
The long list of India’s human rights activists will remain incomplete without a few lines on Kabir, the human rights campaigner par excellence. The poor weaver launched the most potent human rights campaign India has ever produced. Loathed by Brahmins and the ‘highly-placed’, but adored by Hindus and Muslims alike, he tore apart the deeply entrenched ritualistic practices of Hinduism. Kabir had immense mass appeal. His simple, reasoned ‘Dohas’ carrying gospels of piety and simplicity struck a chord in the hearts of millions. No rational human being can challenge Kabir’s tenets on spirituality and equality even today.
One must note here that very few of these great thinkers and social leaders had access to western liberal education, as people like Gandhi, Nehru and even Swami Vivekananda had. They were ‘home-grown’ intellectuals who rose from the soil. The momentous social movements took place when the west was still groping in the dark.
A certain degree of caution is, however, warranted in our approach to protection of human rights, particularly in the South Asia’s terrorism-ridden environment. While it is essential to provide a decent chance of defence to the terror-accused, it must be born in mind that these elements have snuffed out life of very innocent people not connected with the political issues at all. Law must deal firmly with the terror elements who care a fig about human rights.
The torch-bearers of human rights today have, therefore, plenty of ground to reflect and feel proud for. But, the present human rights campaign in India, which is becoming stronger by the day, will lose its relevance if it remains limited to freeing the common man from the highhandedness of the local Thanedar or the arrogant civil servant. Human rights campaign must encompass right to food, shelter, security, education, employment and opportunity. Human rights must also mean the right to raise voice against the corrupt political class, the media and the immoral professionals. By doing this, India can indeed lead the world.
Good article on human rights. Human rights violations are a burning topic these days. Down the ages the poor and the downtrodden have been denied the basic rights to live with dignity. But human right activists must have to act in a more impartial way, The first twelve years of this century have thrown up many new challenges, like terrorism, secessionist movements our to destroy the basic fabric of our society. Abductions, killing of innocents in kangaroo courts and blowing up unsuspecting policemen by landmines are the most glaring acts of destabilizing forces. The terrorists blew the twin towers of World Trade Centre, a watershed moment which killed as many as 3000 innocent people in 2001. Are these not violations of human rights? The activists very often lose sight of these incidents and focus only on Govt’s acts of human rights violations. The state has to protect its citizens from these fanatics. Hence all acts of police against terrorists and dreaded criminals shouldn’t be dismissed as human rights violations. They have to take a balanced view, and act according to their conscience. If the state survives, we survive. Unfortunately the common man is criss- crossed between an unsympathetic/corrupt administration and the fanatic terrorists.
Yes, the terrorists and the Maoists need a different yardstick, a sterner approach. Margaret Thatcher had realized it well. She had said, “Publicity is to terrorists what insulin is to diabetics’. This is why the Sukhma collector was chosen. Any district level civil servant doing a good job takes the wind out of the Maoists’ sails. In his success in bringing succor to the people, the Maoists see potential enemy. And these young IAS officers offer good targets. The electronic media just chews the story.
How many of us shed a tear for the two slain guards? Very few.
Human rights is universal. Whoever violates it must get the heavy boot of the state. Sadly for us, scoring points in the hustings is more important for the politicians.