As a budding journalist in India, human rights were not an issue that interested me. I was young, life was comfortable and I never looked underneath the carpet for the dirt.
It took me nearly a decade of living outside India to actually understand what human rights was all about. And this realisation came as I got to know people from around the world who have made human rights and the freedom and dignity of people their sole mission. In the UK, where I stay now, I have been invited as a journalist and a guest on numerous occasions to functions and seminars about human rights violation issues in India. I have also had the opportunity to listen to and witness records of gruesome realities of grave injustices committed by the Indian State against its own people — people who have personally suffered have shared their pain, and those who have seen their loved ones suffer have opened their bleeding hearts to me. It is all so painfully true.
What triggered me to write about humans rights now is the fact that India has voted against Sri Lanka at a session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva regarding the investigation of war crimes in that country. For me, India persuaded to dilute the resolution, and to Sri Lanka, India claims that it helped to ‘balance’ it. I am all for the truth coming out of the investigations, all aspects of truth that is, in Sri Lanka.
But why only Sri Lanka? How about rest of the world where war crimes have been committed so blatantly? Who will bring a resolution for that?
Also, the Indian paradox. We have always boasted of being the largest and most open democracy with its ‘free’ media and a powerful legal system. Never mind, our own human rights record.
Hypothetically, if the US brings in a similar resolution, and asks India to come clean on the incidents involved in Punjab, Kashmir, Manipur, Nagaland, ‘Gorkhaland’, Assam, Gujarat, and so on, what will be our stance?
It’s a different issue that none of the countries that actually matter on the global political arena will put India in such an embarrassing position — in the foreseeable future — by raising such questions. But that only makes India’s assumption of a moral high ground on the issue highly unpalatable.
According to the statement issued by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, “India believes that the primary responsibility for the promotion and protection of human rights lies with the States. Consequently resolutions of this nature should fully respect the sovereign rights of states and contribute to Sri Lanka’s own efforts in this regard.”
If India believes so, then it has done exceptionally poorly in keeping up with its own responsibility. There have been flagrant violations of human rights up and down the country, and the Indian government, in numerous cases, has failed to uphold its duty as a protector and promoter of human rights.
A report from the Human Rights Watch says during 2011, the Indian government failed to hold rights violators accountable or to carry out effective policies to protect vulnerable communities. The government is yet to repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, allowing soldiers to operate with impunity. It has not reformed the police despite allegations of torture and unlawful killings. The government adopted measures to compensate rape victims and no longer endorses the humiliating “finger” test to investigate rape cases. “Honor killings”, dowry deaths, and sexual violence remain problems. Internationally, India let opportunities pass to support independent investigations into human rights abuses abroad during its tenure at the UN Security Council and the Human Rights Council.
There have been instances where international human rights organisations have not been allowed in India on the pretext of ‘sovereignty’. If it has nothing to fear about being in the wrong, then there should be no reason for not allowing these groups in.
Responding to India’s statement on the Lanka issue, Lord Nazir Ahmed, who sits in the House of Lords and is a vocal supporter of human rights, said: “No State has right to kill and murder its own people. If it does, then it calls of international interference, and perpetrators of human rights must be brought to justice.” He added that India had committed ‘war crimes’ against many states in the Union and ‘sovereignty’ issue is raised only to save its skin.
None of the recommendations of any of the 11 commissions on 1984 Delhi anti-Sikh massacre have been taken seriously by the Indian government. Similar is the case with Gujarat riot victims.
What happened to human rights activist Parmjit Singh Khalra and the unidentified cremated bodies in Punjab no one knows. And no one in the official position talks about it.
According to Friends of Kashmir, founded in 1993 by a group of expatriate Kashmiris under the chairmanship of Lord Eric Avebury, hundreds of Kashmiris are in illegal detention and their family members have not been informed about their whereabouts. The detainees themselves rarely have access to lawyers, and most have been denied medical care. Habeas corpus petitions have not provided a remedy for illegal detentions as the families of those detained often cannot identify the detaining authority or where the person may be detained.
Mr Balbir Singh, who founded Sikh Organisation for Prisoner’s Welfare, on his return to the UK following his illegal detention in India in 1999, has been working hard to help many such fellow Sikh detainees, lodged in different jails across the country.
Denial of Justice to Prof Davinder Pal Singh Bhullar and now the court order to hang Balwant Singh Rajoana after 17 years in prison has further angered many Sikh organisations in the UK. “India has maintained double standards when it comes to giving justice to the Sikhs and other minority communities. People responsible for Delhi 1984 go scotfree, and even enjoy high positions, but there’s no justice for the Sikhs,” rues Dabinderjit Singh of Sikh Federation UK.
“India must pay heed to 11 years of struggle by Irom Sharmila and many more like her who want the repealing of AFSPA and a right to respectful life,” says a worried Sukhwinder Singh, Director, Helping Humans Organisation, a UK-based body established to provide aid for the needy, especially those needing resources for judicial purposes. “When the ‘protectors’ become ‘predators’, there can be no justice and no dignity of life. Further, if you look at the information contained in the State Human Rights Commissions’ websites, be it J&K, or Assam, Punjab or Andhra Pradesh, the concerns are the same: missing persons, detainees, disappearances and abductions,” he adds.
On one hand, the Indian statement talks about devolution of powers in Sri Lanka. On the other hand back home, the government at the Centre refuses to devolve any of its powers to the states in India.
The Indian government statement concludes with the promise of engaging with the Sri Lankan government “to take forward the process of reconciliation to secure for all its citizens a future marked by equality, dignity, justice and self-respect”.
It’s all a sham in India.
Peace talks with Northeastern states and Naxalites in different parts of the country, or Kashmiris and Sikh organisations which demand “equality, dignity, justice and self-respect” in practice don’t quite seem to start or head in any meaningful direction. With some, there have been various rounds of talks and lots of promises to find a mutual solution, but nothing has materialised. With others, no efforts have been made at all.
I do not undermine the fact that there’s always the other side of the story — the State’s point of view et all. You need two to tango. Still, there is no excusing the State of its responsibility for giving each of its individual citizen a right to live with dignity and respect, a right to express his views (even if they clash with the State). A State has an unyielding power and with a right political will so much can be achieved. India must, by all means, bear this responsibility in a fair and just manner.
For a start, within the democratic fabric of India, at least the free and fair provision of justice should be guaranteed to all-without exceptions. India must make sure that none of its machinery uses high-handedness to suppress any thought or individual, irrespective of his region, language, religion or monetary status. Annulment of capital punishment could be another step.
Engaging with the world, especially our geographical neighbours like Sri Lanka, is undoubtedly essential because it can directly affects the affair within our country, and all efforts should be made to work together for the protection and promotion of human rights.
I feel it’s high time we started practising what we preach.