On 12 October, India was once again elected to the forty-seven member UN Human Rights Council for a three-year period beginning, 1 January 2019. Whilst there was the usual round of self-congratulatory messages and tweets on this election, it has come at a time, when India has perhaps the worst record on human rights violations among the current democracies in the world. Whether being on this august Council will force the country to relook its human rights record, is anyone’s guess. One does not have to be rocket scientist to be aware of the gross human rights violations that are taking place everywhere in the country today. If it is not the ruling political dispensation, then it is either their henchmen or their crony capitalist friends who look with disdain on the rights of others. They continue with impunity and with an air of immunity, knowing fully well, that the wheels of justice often move very slowly in India!
‘Human Rights Watch’, in its Annual Report 2018 on the human rights situation in India, bluntly stated, “ Vigilante violence aimed at religious minorities, marginalized communities, and critics of the government—often carried out by groups claiming to support the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—became an increasing threat in India in 2017. The government failed to promptly or credibly investigate the attacks, while many senior BJP leaders publicly promoted Hindu supremacy and ultra-nationalism, which encouraged further violence. Dissent was labeled anti-national, and activists, journalists, and academics were targeted for their views, chilling free expression. Foreign funding regulations were used to target nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) critical of government actions or policies. Lack of accountability for past abuses committed by security forces persisted even as there were new allegations of torture and extrajudicial killings, including in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Chhattisgarh, and Jammu and Kashmir”.
Another leading human rights organization ‘Amnesty International’ in its Report of 2017/18, used almost similar words saying, “ Religious minority groups, particularly Muslims, faced increasing demonization by hardline Hindu groups, pro-government media and some state officials. Adivasi communities continued to be displaced by industrial projects, and hate crimes against Dalits remained widespread. Authorities were openly critical of human rights defenders and organizations, contributing to a climate of hostility against them. Mob violence intensified, including by vigilante cow protection groups. Press freedom and free speech in universities came under attack. India failed to respect its human rights commitments made before the UN Human Rights Council. The Supreme Court and High Courts delivered several progressive judgments, but some rulings undermined human rights. Impunity for human rights abuses persisted.”
As if on cue, ‘ Amnesty India’ became the latest target of the Narendra Modi government’s assault on civil society. On 25 October, the Enforcement Directorate, an agency that looks into financial crimes, raided the organization’s office and froze its bank accounts, effectively stopping its vital human rights work. Swift on the heels of its assault on ‘Greenpeace India’ earlier this month, when the environmental group’s bank accounts were frozen, the Indian government is claiming violations of foreign funding regulations to shut down another prominent NGO. In a statement, Aakar Patel, Amnesty International India’s Executive Director said, “ The Enforcement Directorate’s raid on our office today shows how the authorities are now treating human rights organizations like criminal enterprises, using heavy-handed methods that are commonly found in repressive states. Our staff have been harassed and intimidated.”
‘Amnesty International’ and ‘Greenpeace’ are not the only human rights organization that is targeted; any one (individual or group) who dares take on the Government or their foot soldiers are dealt with an iron hand. Minorities and their organizations are just not spared. On 28 August, the Pune police raided the homes of several frontline activists like Vernon Gonsalves, Arun Ferreira, Gautam Navlakha, Sudha Bharadwaj, Jesuit Fr. Stan Swamy, Varavara Rao and his family members, Kranti Tekula and Naseem, Anand Teltumbde. Five of them Gonsalves, Ferreira, Navlakha, Rao and Bharadwaj were later arrested. The final verdict on all of them is still not out! Several other human rights defenders, like Teesta Setalvad, continue to be harassed and have false cases foisted on them. The ‘powers’ really feel threatened by those who uphold the rights enshrined in the Constitution.
On 29- 30 November, hundreds of thousands of farmers from all over India marched into Delhi and to Parliament, on a two-day protest. Their demands included loan waivers and better prices for their produce. In the last few years the Government has consistently denied, these who are the backbone of the Indian economy, their legitimate rights. The farmers, with red caps and flags, were shouting slogans like " Ayodhya nahi, karzi maaf chahiye” ( “We don't need Ayodhya but a debt waiver"). Thousands of farmers have been forced to commit suicide in different parts of the country. In the three month period (March to May 2018), 639 farmers have committed suicide in Maharashtra. These are official statistics of just one State. On 2 October, thousands of protesting farmers entering Delhi from Uttar Pradesh were brutally attacked and tear-gassed by the police.
The ‘farmers protest’ in Delhi should have hogged the headlines and been prime-time news all over, resulting in national outrage! However, most media channels hardly gave it the coverage it deserved. The media in India as the fourth pillar of democracy should have taken up cudgels and highlighted the human rights violations in the country. A sizeable section of the media in India has been throttled and muzzled, becoming pawns in the hands of murderous groups and corrupt corporations. So practically, no one dares speak about the death of CBI Judge BH Loya and why one Judge after the other (one as recently as 28 November) rescues themselves from hearing the petition. It is common knowledge as to who was responsible for the killing of Soharabuddin Shaikh on 26 November 2005 in a ‘fake’ encounter. Justice Loya who was hearing the case died a very ‘unnatural’ death because he refused to succumb to the terrorist deeds of the mighty in the country.
Just a few days ago, the renowned Carnatic musician, T. M. Krishna was invited to perform in Delhi by the Airports Authority of India and SPIC MACAY. Krishna, transcends the confines of religion and his music is all about communal harmony and peace and respect for all faiths. The organizers of the programme started receiving threatening messages from the ‘sangh parivar’ calling Krishna an ‘urban naxal’ and lambasting that he sang songs about Jesus and Allah. The organisers got cold feet and abruptly called off the performance. However, Delhi’s AAP Government stepped in and on 18 November, Krishna actually performed to a huge and appreciative audience in Delhi. The ‘right to freedom of opinion and expression’ (#19) has been systematically destroyed in the country. Several media persons and other intellectuals , who have stood up for justice and truth, like Gauri Lankesh, Kalaburgi, Dabholkar,Pansare, Bhaumik and others have been killed many more are intimidated and harassed and even have false cases foisted on them . Films are either banned or not allowed to be screened. Social media activists are closely monitored controlled and some have even been arrested. Those who stand up for truth and speak out on critical issues and human rights violations are immediately dubbed as ‘anti-nationals’ or as ‘urban naxals’. On the other hand, those in power continue foisting myths, lies and fake news on the nation. India is placed at 139 out of 176 countries in the World Press Freedom Index 2018.
Freedom of Religion or Belief, guaranteed in the Constitution of India is once again on the back foot. According to a recent report, there more than 200 attacks on Christians and their houses of worship in the recent months, ending October 2018. On 25 November the Chief Minister of Gujarat Dileep Sanghani ridiculously stated that the late Dr. Verghese Kurien, the founder of ‘Amul’ and regarded as the “milkman of India”, diverted Amul’s profits to fund conversions to Christianity from among the tribals. This was immediately rubbished by Kurien’s daughter who maintained that her father was also an atheist. The Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath has gone on a name-changing spree, renaming important cities, which have some Muslim significance like Allahabad, with a Hindu-sounding one. ‘Hate Speech’ is what these fundamentalists thrive on. At the end of November, a prayer hall which was being constructed in a village in the Dangs District of Gujarat was stopped by the police on flimsy grounds. Article 18 of the UDHR unequivocally states that “ everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” The Government of the day seems determined that this right should not be exercised by the minorities and those who belong to sub-altern groups.
In the 2018 Human Development Index, India stands at a measly 130 out of 189 countries. India has reached abysmal depths on all social parameters. The rights of children and women are violated. Millions of children still labour in hazardous occupations in several parts of the country, besides being denied their right to education, they are deprived of their childhood. Women despite the platitudes that are dished out, continue to be treated as second-class citizens. The Government of India’s stand on the Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution from Myanmar – besides violating the rights of refugees, goes totally against the basic spirit of compassion and hospitality. The LGBT community is still looked down upon and treated very unjustly in India.
The economy is on a downward spiral; demonetisation has had an extremely negative impact particularly on the common person (in a new book the former Chief Economic Adviser Arvind Subramaniam refers to it as “a massive, draconian monetary shock”). The poor and the vulnerable find it impossible to make both ends meet due to the escalation of prices on essential commodities. Those who dissent and take on the Government are harassed no end and even killed. Powerful vested interests continue to destroy the environment and displace thousands of poor people everywhere. There is a growing gap between the rich and poor!
It is pathetic to witness the way the country is being dragged into unmitigated disaster by the Government of the day and its unholy nexus with small group of anti-national forces consisting of fundamentalists, fascists, fanatics and other fringe elements! The rights and freedoms which are guaranteed in the Indian Constitution are totally disregarded by these autocrats and despots, who today attempt to control the lives and destinies of the people. They have abdicated their role and responsibility to defend the rights of every citizen: the right to life and to livelihood; to freedom of speech and expression; to freedom to preach, practise and propagate one’s religion; the right to eat, dress and see what one chooses and all the other fundamental rights guaranteed to the citizens.
Exactly a year ago (30 November 2018), as a preparation for the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) launched a website www.standup4humanrights.org . This highly interactive website has on one of its key pages this quote “ No democracy! No Human Rights! Male police beating up women in a peaceful protest in Lucknow UP 23 October 2017.” Certainly not a laudatory comment on the reality of the largest democracy in the world; indeed a big shame and a terrible blot on the country that this incident should figure in the world’s premier human rights body. The plain truth however is that this is indicative of the ground reality in India today: human rights of the ordinary citizens are trampled upon as never before! One needs to see how India as a member of the Human Rights Council deals with this reality!
As Human Rights Day, 10 December, draws near, we need to remind ourselves once again, that the sacred document of 1948 the ‘Universal Declaration of Universal Rights’, to which India is also a signatory, is systematically being torn to shreds in our country. Citizens from all walks of life, need to awake now and rally together, to prevent the human rights situation in the country, from deteriorating any more. Those responsible for governing this country must be held accountable and be made to realise that ‘ human rights are universal and inalienable; indivisible; interdependent and interrelated. They are universal because everyone is born with and possesses the same rights, regardless of where they live, their gender or race, or their religious, cultural or ethnic background’.
The words of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar are more than relevant today, “We must stand on our own feet and fight as best as we can for our rights. So carry on your agitation and organize your forces. Power and prestige will come to you through struggle”. In the same vein, Rabindranath Tagore challenges us, “into that heaven of freedom my Father, let my country awake!”(The writer is a human rights activist. Contact: email@example.com)