Defending the Defenders

Human rights defenders are scared and they are scared for good reason. How to defend the defenders of rights in an environment where any legitimate voice of dissent is being seen as anti-national is a tricky question. Of late rights defenders are increasingly under attack. Instead of appreciating their noble pursuits that help concerned and sensitive people in full enjoyment of social, cultural, political and economic rights the persons in power frequently resort to repression to silence them. In February 2015, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) organised a day-long workshop on Human Rights defenders only to conclude at the end that nothing spectacular happened in the defence of rights defenders ever since they organised the first workshop in 2009. NHRC is a unique institution that adopts pious resolutions and make fine recommendations in advancing Human Rights awareness without bothering about follow up action by the authorities. It is one thing to recognise the pioneer role of rights defenders who are relentlessly trying to make the civic society more humane, but it is quite another to get rid of them simply by dubbing them spokespersons for left-wing extremism.

For the civil society, it is its social duty to espouse human rights. Strictly speaking the very idea of human rights in India has touched only a fringe of the population. Governments at the centre and in states hardly attach any importance to the functioning of human rights defenders, notwithstanding dozens of well-thought out recommendations by NHRC. In a sense the Government of India is very much against the spirit of development of rights movement. The Centre has all along been giving low priority to the UN Resolution on Human Rights Defenders and their concerns. These days the Modi government in Delhi is trying to make things more difficult for rights defenders, both national and international. For all practical purposes the revised ‘Foreign Contribution Regulation Act’ was passed to create obstacles for human rights defenders. So Green Peace India was out of action. In truth they committed a ‘crime’ by opposing big investments in mining which would displace large numbers of tribals and destroy environment for ever. The National Advisory Council comprising civil society representatives to have a voice in government policy framing is now defunct. And the reconstituted Planning Commission as NITI Ayog has abandoned the provision of having human rights defenders or NGO representatives on board. For the government, irrespective of its colour, corporate interests are national interests.

NHRC has given several suggestions including one for setting up a Focal Point of human rights defenders at state human rights commissions, to create a genuine democratic space for rights activistis. The obnoxious Section 66A of the Information and Technology Act, which empowers police to make arrest over ‘offensive’ writings and messages on social networking sites, is a new area of concern for all human rights defenders. The apex court is examining its constitutional validity in the light of the ‘Right to Freedom of Expression’ guaranteed in the constitution. Even innocuous cartoons on social networking invite police action and harassment under Section 66A.

Of late IIT-Madras is hitting the headlines for attack on the ‘Freedom of Expression’. In truth the Madras episode showed among other things how democratic space is being continually curtailed by powers that be, with a view to making mockery of ‘Right to Freedom of Expression’. The de-recognition of an IIT-Madras students’ body allegedly for being critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the latest example of political intolerance and threat to human rights defenders.

The Ambedkar Pariyar Study Circle at IIT-Madras was floated in 2014 to promote debates on socio-cultural issues from the perspective of the oppressed and marginalised. Perhaps they stretched themselves too far by criticising Modi and his party’s attempts to enforce reconversion and polarise people on communal lines. As the very name of the students’ body suggests it is basically working to protect the interests of SCs and STs. And they have rightly criticised the Modi government’s move to downsize monetary allocation of the schemes for SCs and STs. The banning of IIT-Madras Students’ Body followed a common pattern as they would try to brand the activists of study circle for being sympathetic to naxals. If they went to silence rights defenders, the easiest way is to identify them with left-wing extremists, even by dishing out wild imagination. Now Ambedkar and Pariyar are on trial, for being ‘naxals’.

Surprisingly, the Republican Party of India (RPI), an ally of Modi’s NDA came down heavily on the IIT-Madras Study Circle de-recognition.

Right to freedom of expression is for those who support government policies even if those policies are anti-people. The Modis in reality are too weak to withstand simple criticism and yet they think theirs is the biggest democracy in the world.

Dalits are not satisfied with paper rights. They want to enjoy rights in real life. Many of the Rights as guaranteed in the constitution, are now mere jokes. The stringent provisions of the ‘Right to Education’ has led to closure of many poor schools which were running since long but didn’t have their own building or land or money to pay normal wages to teachers.

There is no democracy for the poor and socially disadvantaged in this country. It doesn’t matter what part of the country one comes from or what language one speaks. If he is poor and belongs to marginalised communities, he is excluded from this democracy with open use of violence and punitive measures. And human rights defenders find it difficult to protect and defend the defenceless because they are themselves threatened for espousing ‘Rights for All’.

Vol. 47, No. 49, June 14 - 20, 2015