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IN SEARCH OF THE RIGHT MEANING
Freedon in dignity

On December 10 every year, India dutifully joins the world in celebrating Human Rights Day. From esoteric seminars to rallies by schoolchildren, these “awareness drives” offer a forum for reviewing policies and exploring response options. Yet all that they achieve are debates about the premises on which the notion of human rights can be based.

In the absence of a utopian scenario where each human being is accorded a specific set of rights coinciding with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which accords legitimacy to the international human rights movement, activists often grapple with the theory of natural rights. But since human nature does not dictate a single, precise set of rights, there is a conflict of interests on this issue at multifarious levels. This may occur in the international arena, between or within nations, over cultural premises, ethnicity or claims and expectations in civil society.

At the global level, the West and sundry non-governmental organizations are charged with subverting principles of human rights in the name of “humanitarian intervention”. Thus, while most agree that intervention by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Kosovo (the bombing campaign in 1999) was a human rights success (it helped orchestrate a peace accord and end Serbian abuses against Albanians), many consider it an overreaction. Similar is the case with the role of the United States of America in Afghanistan and Iraq. These divergent reactions may be justified when we compare the West’s lukewarm response to the large scale human rights offences in Sierra Leone, or the delayed response to the genocide in Rwanda or East Timor, which lie on the fringes of Western interests.

But just as the NATO bombings failed to ensure a strong and vigilant human rights legacy in Kosovo, there are two sides to every representation of such violation wherever they may occur. As Robin Fox, the anthropologist, explains, “There is no simple translation of human nature into human rights.” Doubts and questions persist because human rights violations are so rampant that they have to be addressed selectively, if only for political, economic or even legal reasons.

At the national level, existing laws sometimes fail to protect human values because “truth” can be overruled by the “consensus” of a majority, or by the “power” wielded by corrupt politicians. Recently, a mob nearly lynched a bus passenger in Ahmedabad because he voiced an opinion contrary to the majority’s. In this case, no one intervened to save the man from the crime (lynching) because the strength of numbers prevailed. From Gujarat to the Northeast, culture and ethnicity are powerful factors in the human rights arena. Amnesty International, which promotes concepts of human rights arising out of Western notions, often finds itself at the receiving end of criticism in India. Last week, on Human Rights Day, the West Bengal chief minister, Buddhadev Bhattacharjee, lashed out at Amnesty for its “bias” in treating issues here. Divergent points of view are inevitable, given the varied ethos of nations. For example, several countries have the death penalty for rapists, but human rights groups in India are vehemently opposed to the idea — with specific reasons related to the history of anti-rape laws in the country. Activists in Pakistan came up with startling data — 460 women have been killed in that country so far this year by their own relatives on suspicion of adultery. This is not considered an aberration or violation of human rights because Pakistan’s tribal society believes a kari (sinful) woman forfeits right to life.

India has been fairly soft on human rights offences. Even in the sphere of tackling terrorism, Indian soldiers are trained to apprehend, not kill. Yet the policy of tackling militancy, not militants, has boomeranged on the security forces, lengthening their casualty list. This is the reason why Tamil Nadu and Karnataka are today trading charges over the killing of the former minister, H. Nagappa, relying on a statement by the notorious bandit, M. Veerappan. Also relevant in the context are the anxiety over the release of hardcore militants in Kashmir after the new government came to power and the spat between human rights activists and the army over the killings near Hajo earlier this month.

When a dubious “informer” tipped off the army about the presence of Ulfa militants, the security personnel chose to go in civvies, leading the villagers to think they were extortionists. In this case, the army learnt a lesson by paying with the lives of two soldiers. But more often than not, the security forces are at the receiving end simply because it is politically expedient.

Ironically, the same day, the chairman of the National Human Rights Commission, J.S. Verma, said it was the “ineptitude of governments” that led to human rights violations. Addressing a seminar in Thiruvananthapuram, he stated: “The country has enough laws against human rights violations. What it lacks is the political will to implement them.”

Members of “monitoring” bodies are often at a loss because human rights continue to evolve with changing social mores and interpretations of justice. Last month, the killing of two Ulfa militants in Guwahati snowballed into an issue of human rights violation. The police officer who led the encounter was promptly transferred as part of an embarrassed government’s damage control exercise and the chief minister condemned the “inhuman manner” in which one of the bodies was removed, tied to a bamboo pole. But what of the treatment terrorists mete out to hostages and those they choose to kill'

Last year, spearheading a campaign for the prevention of terrorism ordinance, the then cabinet minister, M. Venkaiah Naidu, had said punishing terrorists was the government’s top priority and that insurgents “could no longer take refuge under human rights”. Yet, no sooner than a criminal is caught, politicians materialize to bail him out and make a villain of the valiant officer concerned on grounds of human rights abuses. Since countless politicians have criminal records (138 contested the Gujarat elections, not to speak of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar) they ensure that antisocial elements are out in a jiffy, cocking a snook at the lawkeepers. States like Andhra Pradesh have decided to dispense with lock-ups at police stations since illegal detentions violate human rights. Considering the magnitude of political intervention in releasing the accused from custody, this appears to be an exercise in futility.

Beyond the arena of national issues lie those affecting civil society. Human rights of refugees (like the Chakmas, displaced since independence) or the Rohingyas, fleeing persecution by the Myanmarese junta, are seldom highlighted because politicians seeking to woo the local votebank pursue a separate set of priorities. Another aspect of human rights made problematic by prevailing stereotypes is that pertaining to the needs of women. Very often, human rights arguments are at odds with local realities and cannot change deeply entrenched cultural norms that perpetuate injustices. Customary laws, too, often negate efforts of rights activists.

Expediency in governance overrules the spiralling sense of insecurity of helpless civilians. This underlying vulnerability became evident as the nation went into alert mode for the 10th anniversary of the Babri Masjid demolition on December 6. Where are the monitoring agents when terrorists blow up trains and buses, hijack flights or regularly ambush the security forces' Are the maimed survivors and families of victims expected to keep faith in humanity and social justice'

Political apathy is so rampant that the joint action committee on human rights in Tamil Nadu spent December 10 renewing pleas to the chief minister, J. Jayalalithaa, to fill up vacant posts in the state’s human rights commission. The onus of monitoring and effective control of rights abuses ultimately rests on the citizens. They are the ones who alert the watchdogs and it is upto them to find a common territory for interest groups to converge and ensure justice. Otherwise, Human Rights, the story, will continue to be as distressing a tale as it was half a century ago.

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