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The Monoculture Of ‘Human Rights’

By Satya Sagar

28 February, 2010

“Democracy in India is only top-dressing on an Indian soil which isessentially undemocratic.”

—B.R. Ambedkar, in 1949, in "Thus Spoke Ambedkar, Vol. 1: A Stake in the Nation"

Over sixty years after Dr Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian Constitution, talked about the ‘essentially undemocratic’ nature of the ‘Indian soil’ his insight remains relevant to any discussion on human rights and civil liberties in the country. For, without examining closely the very foundations on which the fancy structures of Indian democracy and its political and social institutions rest, it is easy to mistake them for the real thing.

Yes, there is such a thing called democracy in India. There are regular elections and peaceful transfers of power. There is a judiciary that is relatively independent of the legislature and an executive that often operates with a mind of its own. Yes, India is also the world’s ‘largest democracy’ by the sheer size of its population. All these are fruits of many past struggles and something to be proud of as many developing countries around the world are still run by absolute dictatorships.

What Dr Ambedkar was referring to however was the quality of the democracy that ‘Indian soil’- with its caste system, vast economic inequalities, ethnic and gender discrimination is really capable of nurturing. So the question to ask is how conducive or hostile is this ‘Indian soil’ to the functioning of democracy and the flowering of democratic processes or culture? What needs to be done to improve the ‘fertility’ of this soil so that a genuine democracy can be established in this land? A true democracy in any society is after all not the same as the holding of regular elections or going through the routine motions of convening a parliament and having a separate bureaucracy and judiciary. Maybe these are the minimum institutions needed for a democracy but by no means are they enough when they are set in the deeply unjust and oppressive conditions of India society.

Though Dr B.R.Ambedkar was instrumental in the conceptualisation and writing of the Indian Constitution, he was also fully aware of the limitations of equating something as lofty as the ‘rule of law’ with the existence of a well-crafted, beautifully worded set of rules. The same written law is applied in different ways to different sections of Indian society- we all know that- I don’t really have to elaborate. This is the essential tension that exists today between the concept of ‘civil rights’ as enshrined in the Indian Constitution and what actually happens in practice.

Let us first examine whatever exists currently in the name of both the modern Indian state as well as Indian democracy. The modern Indian nation state and its administrative, economic, educational and other structures are quite new. They are after all inherited from the British colonial empire, which in its quest for territory, resources and markets forcibly brought together very diverse peoples, nationalities and cultures into one fenced off piece of private property called ‘India’.

Of course, the Indian freedom struggle against British colonialism produced a national consciousness but this was largely confined to either the urban upper-caste, middle classes or at best to certain regions of India. Even today large parts of the sub-continent refuse to see themselves as part of ‘India’, which they see as a continuation of British colonialism taken over by the ‘Brown Sahibs’.

It is not surprising that they feel this way given the vast inequalities in income, opportunities and access to resources that characterise modern India. Adding to this discontent is the subtle and not-so-subtle conflation in recent decades of the very idea of Indian nationalism with that of upper-caste Hindu domination and the move away from principles of secularism. This is also not so surprising given that the private property called ‘India’ was taken over from the British by the Indian upper-castes who still continue to dominate the country in all its aspects.

The primary institutions of Indian democracy, whether it be the parliament, the judiciary, the executive or the ‘free’ Indian media are like saplings, introduced just sixty years ago in this nation state complex. They were very lovingly planted and nurtured by the founders of modern India and by now have grown into trees of some sort- a proud achievement indeed in the context of many other developing countries around the world. And yet as many millions of our fellow citizens, particularly from the Dalit, Adivasi and Muslim communities can confirm easily, the shade from these trees of Indian democracy rarely reach them, condemned as they are to permanent suffering under the harsh sun of social, economic and political repression.

Human Rights vs. Cow Rights

What we are dealing with in this country is a situation where historically the concept of the fundamental rights of a universal, standard ‘human being’ has never existed. In fact I would argue that traditionally in India there has never been the concept of a creature called the ‘human being’.

The only two categories that have prevailed for centuries in this land- and continue to do so in many parts of the country even today- are that of the ‘devas’ and ‘asuras’. ‘Human being’ is a somewhat fancy Western category in between the ‘gods’ and the ‘demons’ that small groups of enlightened activists have been bravely propagating for many years but one which is understood by very few even in the highest echelons of power- in the Indian parliament or the Indian judiciary.

To those sections of society who rule India the Dalit, Adivasi, Muslim or the poor in general, who constitute over 75 percent of the Indian population, are not human beings at all. That is why a vast section of this oppressed population is subject to the most horrific forms of violence in the form of not just direct physical attacks from time to time but also abject poverty, forced displacement and disease. For example, there are 2.5 million children under the age of 5 who die every year due to malnutrition related diseases in this country- all avoidable with social or state intervention. A vast majority of these children are from the communities I mentioned above. If this is not a genocide I would like someone to explain what is?

Even today in many parts of the country while there is a ban on ‘cow slaughter’ that is effectively implemented there is no such privilege for people from the Dalit, Adivasi or Muslim communities. In that sense these hapless people do not even have ‘cow rights’ leave alone the more esoteric ‘human rights’.
History of the Human Rights Movement

I want to bring to your attention some of the peculiarities of the Indian civil rights movement historically. In the post-Independence period one of the first organisations born to take up the issue of civil rights of citizens explicitly was the Association for Protection of Democratic Rights or APDR, in 1972 at the height of the political repression against the Naxalite upsurge in West Bengal. The organisation is still there after all these years and some very courageous and exemplary work.

Naturally, as it was created to help people from a particular political movement facing State repression their focus for a long period was protection of rights of activists of the Naxalite movement imprisoned and tortured in complete violation of their Constitutional rights. Of course the APDR has moved on since then to take up a very wide range of civil liberty issues but in some ways their core focus still remains the issues that led to the emergence of the Naxalite movement.

The Peoples’ Union for Civil Liberties or PUCL was born in the midst of the Emergency declared by Mrs Indira Gandhi and had a broader range of political trends in its midst- indeed from the Right to the Left. In the post Emergency period the PUCL, though somewhat fragmented, has evolved into the only truly national level body working on the issue of civil and human rights though the ideological spectrum of its membership has narrowed considerably. With some exceptions here and there the concerns of the PUCL today are also congruent with that of the Indian Left movement in general .

The People’s Union for Democratic Rights, which was started in New Delhi in the early eighties, is another organisation that has done excellent work on civil rights particularly during the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984. But they too have stepped beyond the narrow confines of civil rights work to take up broader social, economic and even cultural issues also from time to time.

In that sense almost all the civil and human rights organisations in India are grappling with both the problem of ensuring the implementation of those rights enshrined in the Indian Constitution as well as those that are not guaranteed by it but which they feel should be implemented.

There is in that sense an overlap of their work with that of political organisations on the Left, which have historically taken up these issues around the country. As a result there is a tendency to see the civil and human rights movement as a ‘front’ of leftist political parties of different shades.

If this were only true of public perception the problem would have been different- a better communication strategy could have cleared the misconception about what Indian human rights organisations are really all about. The unfortunate thing is that many human rights activists themselves see their role as facilitators or promoters of the Left political vision and objectives and that too in the narrow sense of being partisan towards specific leftist political parties of their choice.

A frequent question that is asked by the media and even many ordinary citizens is ‘why do human rights groups always rush to the defence of left activists attacked by the State but never criticise leftists for their violent actions’. In the context of the recent incidents of Maoist violence in West Bengal, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand this question is raised repeatedly.

Of course, as human rights groups have pointed out the Indian State – run by elected representatives - has a duty to uphold the principles of the Indian Constitution and uphold the Indian law and hence they are criticised for the violations they commit. On the other hand militant or terrorist groups are non-state actors who do not believe in the Indian Constitution and as participants in an insurgency they should be judged in the light of principles of war like those enshrined in the Geneva Convention.

Yet, the truth remains that there are hardly any human rights activists who are willing to go on a fact finding mission to document the human rights violations committed by different insurgent groups- whether they be in the Indian north-east, Kashmir or in central India. This is a serious drawback of the Indian human rights movement in general as it robs it of the credibility and popular base it needs in order to be effective in checking the violations of the Indian state, which is the biggest culprit in such matters.
Political revolution and human rights

As mentioned before, among many human rights activists there seems to be a genuine confusion that they are also supposed to bring about revolutionary change in Indian society through their human rights work. Let me say clearly that in my opinion anyone who thinks that human rights work is a substitute for revolutionary political work is being very naïve or plainly dishonest. My recommendation to them is if you want to do revolution please do so but not from behind the cover of human rights or civil rights groups. One’s inability to do revolutionary work in an open manner should not result in the destruction of the credibility of human rights work and needlessly threatening the lives of those who genuinely believe in the these rights being applicable to everyone.

For the truth is that the Indian soil, that Dr Ambedkar spoke off, requires the establishment of basic principles of ‘human rights’ before it is ready for any truly revolutionary change. There are several universal standards that have evolved over the centuries about how human beings should treat each other, what are their rights with respect to the State and the principle that even the worst of criminals is given reasonable opportunity to present his defence. These standards should be observed even by non-state actors in Indian society- particularly by those that claim to be fighting for a more just and humane future.

The standards of human rights should in fact be seen as being like the ethics of the medical profession. Just as no ethical doctor can refuse to treat a patient because of his own or his patient’s personal political beliefs so is the civil or human rights activist duty bound to oppose all rights violations irrespective of who its victims are or who commits them. This is the minimum standard that has to be established- defending the fundamental human rights of even your political opponents if necessary.

By being selective in their focus they do injustice to the title ‘human rights worker’ and undermine the development of a genuine culture of human rights where everyone has the same rights and where some humans are not ‘more equal’ than others. Promoting the idea of human rights as a monoculture can only add to the barrenness of Indian democracy.

As long as a more professional attitude to human rights work is not taken such concerns will remain confined to small groups of ‘well-meaning ‘people, who keep meeting in little seminar rooms and prevent human rights from becoming a truly mass political issue in India.

An important addition I would also make to Dr Ambedkar’s observation about Indian democracy is that the threat comes not just from the soil below but also from the foraging beasts of imperialism and neo-colonialism that have the power to chew up the ‘trees’ of democratic institutions as and when they want. For global capital, dictatorship is indeed the preferred mode of operation if it is to succeed in its mission of extracting every penny from the pockets of the world’s ordinary citizens. Establishing a human rights culture in the country is therefore also a primary task in the overall battle of the Indian people against imperialist and corporate designs on the country.

Satya Sagar is a journalist and videomaker based in New Delhi. He can be contacted at sagarnama@gmail.com