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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 51 New Delhi December 8, 2018

Human Rights: Basic Issues / Not Sorrow but Atonement

Sunday 9 December 2018, by Nikhil Chakravartty


From N.C.’s Writings

Human Rights Day is observed on December 10 every year commemorating the day, in 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. To mark the occasion we are reproducing the following article N.C. wrote twentysix years ago.

Human Rights: Basic Issues

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 commit-ment 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 para-military 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 confron-tations innocent people become the victims 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 injustices.

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)

The following piece, which was published as ‘Political Notebook’ in Mainstream (December 12, 1992), is being reproduced on the twentysixth anniversary of the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6 this year. Its significance is heightened due to the renewed offensive of the Hindutvavadi forces to build a Ram Mandir at that very spot where the Babri Masjid stood before it was razed.

Not Sorrow but Atonement

The vandalism that brought down the Babri Masjid structure on December 6 will remain a Black Sunday in the annals of independent India. Like the insensate violence of fratricidal communalism of the partition days that culminated in Gandhiji’s killing fortyfour years ago, the demolition of the Babri Masjid will remain a symbol of shame for the nation, and particularly for the majority community which permitted a bunch of blackguards to pose as its guardian and get recognised as such.

While anger and anguish over this ghastly incident have overwhelmed millions in this country, there is no escape for certain elements in public life from being held responsible for this despicable act. The BJP and RSS leaders who backed the so-called Dharma Sansad issuing the fatwa for the kar seva have to unequivocally own up the guilt for having collected such a huge number of people around the disputed area by whipping up raging frenzy which was beyond control. And the BJP bosses, who had been campaigning in support of the kar seva, were found to have beaten a retreat when the mob was actually demolishing the mosque—an ignominious commentary on both their capacity and courage. Those who incite a crowd and lack the guts to face and halt it are unworthy of claiming to be leaders. Their moral posture, which they flaunt as part of their Hindutva, should have the honesty to offer public apology for this shocking abdication of responsibility on their part.

The BJP leadership is accountable for the grave misconduct on the part of the Uttar Pradesh Government which the party was running. Chief Minister Kalyan Singh was giving assurances to the Central Government and the Supreme Court which turned out to be thoroughly bogus. If he had any idea about the importance of the commitments he had made to the Supreme Court, he should have anticipated the grave risk he was taking in handling an unmanageably massive crowd, which by its very nature was beyond any discipline. Instead of asking for more Central force, Kalyan Singh was protesting against the despatch of whatever the Union Home Ministry had despatched as a matter of precaution.

The point to note is that the BJP Government in UP, like the rest of the BJP-VHP-RSS combine, was trying to run with the hare and hunt with the hound. They were stoking the frenzy for kar seva all over Uttar Pradesh and beyond, while at the same time assuring the judiciary, the Parliament and the public that the disputed areas would not be touched as per the Supreme Court directive.

Not only that. In the critical days after the National Integration Council meeting on November 23, the senior BJP-RSS leaders were working out some settlement terms with the Central Government. The terms of these negotiations, which the present writer can vouch for, were, firstly, the Babri Masjid disputed structure complex would be adequately protected until the dispute is settled by dialogue or due process of law, and the UP Government would invite the Centre, if it so desired, to send its force to reinforce the State Government’s security arrangements. Secondly, there would be no kar seva in violation of law. Thirdly, the Centre would make a one-point reference to the Supreme Court under Article 143 and the Court‘s opinion would be accepted as binding by both the Centre and the UP Government as also the BJP-RSS combine. Fourthly, the Centre would express its support for expeditious disposal of the case about the disputed plot now pending before the High Court. As these terms were hammered out, an impression prevailed on the eve of December 6 that perhaps the crisis was on the way of being defused. In fact, the BJP-RSS leaders were expected to persuade the Dharma Sansad not to precipitate the crisis.

The question now arises whether the BJP-RSS leaders were diabolically agreeing to these terms while preparing for the demolition of the Babri Masjid; or, were they themselves outstripped by the blitz attack of the mob? The fact that Advani resigned from the post of the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, coupled with RSS leader Rajendra Singh’s statement that the vandalism on December 6 was a “grievous” setback for the Ram temple cause, might be put up by them in their defence that they were themselves overtaken by the developments. Be that as it may, there is no doubt that before the bar of public opinion in India and abroad, the BJP-RSS combine has no option today but to acknowledge their guilt for the heinous act of violent destruction. It is not just a question of owning up moral responsibility, but substantive responsibility for whipping up frenzy and then giving in to mob-violence and thereby desecrating their commitment before the highest court of law and the supreme tribune, that is, Parliament.

The BJP leaders have to bear in mind that the rule of law has to be respected if they do not want to put their party outside the pale of law and the Constitution. More than once during these crisis days, the BJP spokesmen have talked about “the majesty of law”, and now they themselves connived, if not were actively involved, in the blatant defiance of the Consti-tution. The pulling down of the Babri Masjid structure is not just a matter of religious frenzy, but the blatant assault on the rule of law and civilised conduct of public affairs. Here is the essence of their guilt.

In the history of contemporary India, this is how terrorism has crept into politics. Whether it is the Akali Party or the Asom Gana Parishad, one finds the moderate parliamentary leaders using the rowdy terrorist groups as their battering ram against the adversary and in course of time, they themselves become the captive of the militants, as many of the distinguished Akali leaders have become today in Punjab politics. What has happened at Ayodhya looks like the curtain-raiser of the very same type of political adventurism coming over to the BJP. The RSS leaders may have survived the stigma that stuck to them after Gandhiji‘s assassination, but there is grave doubt whether they can come out of the present crisis intact. The more mature among them would soon have to make their choice here and now.

Looking at the predicament facing the Congress and its government today, there is little doubt that public opinion has already marked out those in power as being guilty of dereliction of duty. There is no room for passing the buck to the UP Government, since it was as much the Centre‘s solemn charge to protect the Babri Masjid structure.

It was all the time given out that the Centre was on the alert even while the talks for a settlement were continuing. When para-military forces were sent, one can very well ask, why were these not sent in adequate strength, at least to guard the disputed structure? Even if a fully equipped Army unit had been posted to guard the disputed structure, it would have acted as a deterrent, and the shame of the Indian state not protecting a place of worship of its citizens would not have come upon our country. This is the simple charge of any government claiming to rule from New Delhi as the guardian of a secular state. The Prime Minister himself had made the solemn commit-ment on August 15 in his Red Fort speech saying that the mosque would be protected as much as the government would like the proposed temple coming up.

In this context, this writer needs to acknow-ledge in all honesty the validity of the criticism voiced by some observers that the Centre dithered in imposing President‘s Rule in UP immediately after the NIC meeting when the kar sevaks were yet to gather. Hindsight makes it clear that such a pre-emptive strike might have averted the tragedy of December 6. At the same time, such an action of dismissing an elected government could have been misconstrued at that stage as a partisan move with poor legitimacy.

The exploitation of religious sentiments for political purpose has become the bane of Indian politics over the years. The opening of the lock at the Babri mosque complex and the subsequent permission of shilanyas on the disputed spot were done by the Congress under Rajiv Gandhi to collect Hindu votes. The passing of the Muslim Women‘s Bill in the wake of the Shah Bano case was done by the Congress to gather Muslim votes. If the Janata Dal took the help of the BJP to form its government at the Centre, the Congress too did not hesitate to vote along with the BJP to oust the same Janata Government at a moment when the Janata Dal fell out with the BJP‘s clamour over the same Babri Masjid issue. Even the Left in the late sixties did not have any qualms to form coalition governments with the Jana Sangh at the State level. The cumulative effect of this exploiting religious faith for electoral gains today is that the BJP leadership at this moment, instead of being branded as having violated the tenets of the Constitution, is regarded by the large body of Hindus, particularly in North India, as being heroes who have dared to defy the law to uphold the urge for Ram‘s temple.

With nobody having a clean hand on the issue of pampering to communalism, the BJP-RSS combine has been able to go so far in initiating a totalitarian communal approach as could be seen from their moves to change names of places and rewrite textbooks apart from the ghastly deed at Ayodhya. This multipronged communal approach can hardly be halted by mere seminars on secularism, but only by launching a nationwide mas movement for Hindu-Muslim amity, which alone can provide the surest guarantee for genuine secularism in the country. While swift administrative action to halt communal violence is imperative at the moment, the building of communal amity on sound footing can come only through relentless mass campaign. All parties will have to unequivocally abjure the slightest communal bias in political life with relentless vigilance. This applies equally to all communities, as is brought out by the ugly demonstrations in the Jamia Millia over the secular stand of a distinguished scholar. Hollow men do not make History, but unmake it.

Indian nationalism shall not endure by preaching hatred and deceit and disdain between brother and brother. Out of the ruins of the Babri mosque must rise the shining mansion of communal harmony. We, each one of us, have to pledge ourselves as our brother‘s keeper. What we need today is not sorrow but atonement.

(Mainstream, December 12, 1992)

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