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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 25, June 12, 2010

Human Rights—Rhetoric and Reality

Monday 14 June 2010, by D.R. Chaudhry


Human rights are those rights and freedoms by acquiring which one achieves one’s potential in various fields. Since the dawn of human civilisation, human beings have been striving for human rights. Undoubtedly, there has been a marked progress since the time of slavery when human beings were no better than chattel, yet a lot is yet to be achieved in this field.

In pre-modern cultures, the concept of human rights did exist but it suffered from serious limitations. Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, extensively wrote on the rights of citizens to property and participation in public affairs. However, citizens included only free members of the Greek city-States and slaves were outside the purview of human rights. Slavery, in fact, was justified as a natural phenomenon both in Greek and Roman society.

For a ling time, the Divine Rights of Kings Theory prevailed in Europe. The sovereign was supposed to be the representative of the almighty God and answerable to Him alone. In the seventeenth century, Thomos Hobbes founded a contractualist theory postulating a social contract between the sovereign and the subjects. However, the citizens were to submit to the commands of the sovereign to avert anarchy in society.

John Locke further enriched the concept of social contract. It was his considered view that in case the sovereign failed to protect the life, liberty and property of citizens, they had every right to overthrow the unjust government. It was French philosopher Jean Jacques Roussean who propounded the theory of the Social Contract in an elaborate form. His famous dictum that man is born free but is everywhere in chains signifies that the bondage of man by man is the creation of the powerful and the mighty and is against the law of nature. So, human beings have every right to strive for the natural law of human rights and they have the inalienable right to elect their rulers.

Two major revolutions occured in the 18th century and these greatly enriched the concept of human rights. The United States of America declared independence from the Great Britain in the year 1776. Its Declaration of Rights of 1776 stated:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

However, the above declaration covered only the free citizens and the slaves were kept outside the ambit of rights. Slavery was the most inhuman form of bondage till the time of Abraham Lincoln, who abolished slavery. He emphatically argued that since he would not like to be a slave, nor would he be a master. The bold step of abolition of slavery resulted into civil war which saw a lot of bloodshed.

The French Revolution of 1789 was another important milestone in man’s journey in the quest of rights. This revolution, which led to the overthrow of the monarchy and execution of many members of the then ruling elite, had three ringing slogans: Equality, Liberty and Fraternity. This great revolutionary upheaval inspired people all over the world and marked the end of feudal aristocracy and the onset of bourgeois democracy.

The Second World War saw large scale death, destruction and suffering. As a sequel to Hitler’s notorious theory of racial purity and the Aryan race, there was horrific persecution of Jews who were gassed to death in large numbers. This is the most glaring and revolting instance of man’s cruelty to man in human history.

The UNO which came into being after the Second World War took up the issue of human rights in all seriousness. It adopted a resolution in its General Assembly on December 10, 1948. Its Article I states: “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.” Article II of the Declaration makes no distinction on grounds of race, gender, colour, language, birth or status. The Declaration categorises rights into two groups as follows:

(a) Civil and Political Rights:

Right to life, liberty and security of person; freedom from slavery and torture; equality before law, protection against arbitrary arrest, detention or exile; the right to fair trial; the right to own property; freedom for political participation; freedom of thought, expression, religion etc.

(b) Economic, Social and Cultural Rights:

Right to work, equal pay for equal work, the right to join Trade Union, the right to education, the right of free participation in cultural life etc.

All members of the UNO are signatories to the above Declaration of Human Rights and are expected to practise it in letter and spirit. The UNO has also evolved a mechanism to monitor the violation of human rights anywhere in the world and suggest ways and means to correct the distortion. However, these rights, political, economic, social and cultural, are not legally binding. The UNO has no coercive apparatus to enforce the Declaration.

In practice, all the assertions are pious platitudes. There is a yawning gap, a painful hiatus between rhetoric and reality. Some powers, especially the powerful and mighty, treat this Declaration with contempt. The latest illustration is the American War in Iraq and Afghanistan, ostensibly to fight terrorism, but in reality to capture the oil resources in Iraq and establish its hegemony in the Middle East after the demise of the USSR. The brutal Army rule in Myanmar is an illustration of the gross violation of human rights and the UNO has utterly failed to enforce this declaration there.

The yawning gap between rhetoric and reality in the matter of human rights is best illustrated metaphorically in Gerge Orwell’s novel Animal Farm where he states: “All animals are equal but some are more equal than others.”


To take stock of the Indian situation, inequality, which in a blatant or subtle manner subverts human rights, operates, to take a broad view, at three levels—economic, gender and caste. This trinity operates against the human rights of the chronically poor, women, Dalits and other lower castes. All three have their specific significance and need to be tackled at their respective levels. However, it is the economic factor which plays a dominant role in the inequality and rights-deprivation syndrome. If the poor, women and lower castes are economically empowered, this can go a long way in substantially mitigating the effect of deprivation.

Regarding economic deprivation, which plays a highly important role in subverting human rights, an observation of Dr B.R. Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian Constitution, is highly relevant. While introducing the Indian Constitution in the Constituent Assembly, Dr Ambedkar observed as follows:

“On the 26th January, 1950 we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognising the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long should we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril. We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment, or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this Assembly has laboriously built up.”

Dr Ambedkar’s impassioned plea to resolve the contradiction in economic and social terms if political democracy in India has to be saved has acquired pressing relevance at the present juncture. The vote of a rickshaw puller and that of a millionaire have the same value but in socio-economic terms they are poles apart. A Dalit might be a little better off economically than a high caste Hindu, but he still stands at the lower point in the social ladder. His warning that economically and socially deprived people might one day blow up the structure of political democracy is proving prophetic. In about 20 States of the Indian Republic, right from the border of Nepal to the periphery of Kerala, the chronically deprived people have picked up guns to defend their rights. Our Prime Minister has characterised this phenomenon as the most potent internal threat to the security of India.

A cursory glance at the kind of society evolving in India as an outcome of the developmental strategy adopted by our ruling elites makes the situation clear. India during the last several years has had the highest rate of economic growth in the world after China. We have the largest number of dollar billionaires in Asia. Earlier, it was Japan in this field but during recent years, India has surpassed it. This is one side of the picture. The other side paints a dismal picture. While the ruling elites—political, bureaucratic, industrial, mercantile etc.—have amassed wealth and acquired a living standard higher than that of the affluent Americans, at the base of the social pyramid are the toiling millions who find it difficult to survive. This has become all the more difficult with the advent of neo-liberalism, globalisation, liberalisation and free market economy.


The Government of India appointed a Commission on Unorganised Enterprises under the chairmanship of Dr Arjun Sen Gupta. The unorganised sector, including agriculture and other sundry occupations providing livelihood to a large segment of Indian population, covers, according to official figures, 94 per cent of our work force. The report of this Commission states that 77 per cent of the Indian population live on less than twenty rupees per capita per day.

According to the Planning Commission estimate, 28.3 per cent of rural households are below the poverty line. The Report of the Expert Group to Review the Methodology for Estimation of Poverty, chaired by Prof Suresh Tendulkar, submitted to the Planning Commission, finds that 41.8 per cent of rural households live below the poverty line. This methodology too has one serious flaw. It estimates poverty only on the basis of consumption of per capita calories. It ignores expenditure on education, health and other basic needs. If these factors are kept in view, the below poverty line will escalate further.

The National Crimes Records Bureau estimates that about two lakh farmers committed suicide between 1997-2008. It is the largest single wave of suicides recorded in history. Agriculture has become a losing concern. A farmer does not get the price of his produce in proportion to the rise in the cost of inputs like fertilisers, pesticides etc. The peasant indebtedness is on the increase all over the country. Even the agriculturally advanced States like Punjab and Haryana suffer from this malaise. The 2001 Census reveals that eight million cultivators quit agriculture between 1991 and 2001.

The world has yet to recover from the recession which started in the USA. A UN study report points out that 34 million more Indians joined the ranks of the poor in 2008-2009 because of the economic slowdown. India fortunately escaped the worst effect of recession due to the opposition of Left forces to the entry of foreign direct investment in crucial sectors like banking, life insurance etc.

India’s record is the worst in the world in the matter of hunger and malnutrition. As per the National Family Health Survey (2006), child malnutrition is 46 per cent in India. The figure is almost double of the sub-Saharan African countries. In the Global Huger Index, India ranks 66th among 88 countries surveyed—below Sudan, Nigeria and Cameron and slightly above Bangladesh. A UNICEF report states that 1.95 million children below the age of five die annually in India mainly form preventable causes that are directly or indirectly attributable to mal-nutrition. Prof Utsa Patnaik, a well-known economist, has aptly described India as “A Republic of Hunger”.

The major cause of the contradiction in the Indian society is that there has been no structural change in India after independence. Mahatma Gandhi observed to a deputation of students in 1934: “The two things, the social reordering and the fight for political swaraj must go hand in hand. There can be no question of precedence or division in water-tight compartments.” There has been no attempt to change the social order in spite of the talk of socialistic pattern of society, inclusive growth, development with a humane face etc.

Gandhi, in his book Hind Swaraj, states that British rule should not be replaced by Western institutions of governance run by Indians. “English rule without the Englishmen. This is not a Swaraj I want,” asserts Gandhi. He affirms: “Independence must begin at the bottom—life will not be a pyramid with the apex sustained by the bottom.” However, once independence was achieved, none listened to Gandhi. He rued that he had become a counterfeit coin.

The then Vice-President, Dr S. Radhakrishnan, too stated that India must have a “socio-economic revolution..........[to achieve] the real satisfaction of the fundamental needs of the common man........ [and] a fundamental change in the structure of Indian society.”

What is worse is the criminally indifferent attitude of the ruling elite to the misery and sufferings allaround. The elites in India are too acquisitive and exploitative, treating the resources of the nation as up for grab. They do not seem to have drawn any lesson from world history. The Roman Empire was a huge, sprawling entity. It covered the whole of Europe and parts of Asia and Africa. One day it collapsed like a house of cards. The reason? The ruling elites had become insensitive to the plight of the common people. It was a society where patricians (aristocrats) had all privileges and plebians (commoners) had to be contented with bread and circus. The idea was that a common man only needed to fill his belly and a little bit of entertainment. The Indian counterparts substantially lack even these two things.

No social system can survive with the help of force alone—police, Army, para-military forces etc. Once it loses its legitimacy and ideological hegemony in society, it cannot last long. The Indian socio-political scenario is fast reaching this point.

Some radical forces are fighting for revolutionary transformation of the social structure through violent or democratic means aimed at mass mobilisation.

The least the Indian society needs today is a strong civil society comprising professional associations, unions, NGOs, a vigilant media, pressure groups and public spirited individuals. Various progressive measures like the Right to Information Act, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the Forest Act, the Compulsory Education Act etc. are the outcome of the pressure exercised by the civil society. The process needs to be further strengthened.

The author, who retired as a Reader in English from Dayal Singh College, University of Delhi, is currently a member, Haryana Administrative Reforms Commission.

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