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India – Who will speak for the Human Rights Defenders ?



Guest Post by Pushkar Raj*

The Bombay high court judgment cancelling Prof. Sai Baba’s bail and initiating contempt proceedings against the writer Arundhati Roy is a major blow to the human rights defenders in the country.


Dr. Sai Baba was arrested by the police in 2014 for allegedly indulging in maoist activities. He was charged under various sections of Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and later denied bail. In an article in a magazine Arundhati Roy had questioned the manner of arrest of the professor and grounds on which he was denied bail. She had criticized the courts in the country for following different set of rules while granting bail depending on person’s ideology and proximity with the government of the day.


Dr. Sai Baba organized and participated in the meetings in the capital that highlighted the misery of the indigenous population who face displacement and crisis of survival in light of the governments’ big project centric development agenda. Arundhati Roy stressed that Dr. Sai Baba is primarily a human rights defender who should be treated humanely in light of his 90 per cent disability and the jurisprudence principle of presumption of innocence till proven guilty.


Ideally the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) should have come out in support of activists like Dr. Sai Baba. However, its record for defending the HRDs, despite having a dedicated cell for this purpose, has been dismal for various reasons. Therefore, the burden of speaking on the behalf of people like Dr. Sai Baba has fallen on the shoulders of the civil society in the country.


However, the civil society organizations too require support of the writers, artists and intellectuals to lend weight to their voice, especially when the present government, erroneously, treats the rights based human rights activities in the country as an anathema to its development and ideological agenda.


As a writer, one would assume, Arundhati Roy may feel that branding people naxalites and then treating them inhumanely before their guilt is proven is an outrageous practice in a constitutional democracy. In the outlook article which is the subject of ‘interference in administration of justice’ charge against her, the writer puts her perspective with her own set of arguments. These arguments may be right or wrong. The judgment of the court castigates the writer’s right to hold that perspective or opinion which is a disturbing trend.


It is a matter of concern that the contempt proceedings against Arundhati Roy, might serve as a warning to the writers and thinkers of the country to stay away from the public issues. Already, a section of the government has vilified a large number of writers because they dared to voice against encouraging and growing intolerance in the Indian society.


Any kind of threatening message coming from any branch of the government on thought and its expression is an erosion of our constitutional values and detrimental to the interest of our society. The writer, as Chinua Achebe, doyen of African literature, argued, creates the values of a society. When we silence the writer, we create a value vacuum in the society, i.e., a breeding ground for the mob driven justice and fascism.


The Bombay high court judgment is regrettable that it has come from an institution- the judiciary- that the writers and HRDs of the country look up for protection of their life and civil liberties. Several of courts’ landmark judgments preserved and expanded the rights of the individual rather than shrinking them.  In that light, the Bombay high court bench judgment is an exception.


The present case is sure to go to the Supreme Court. One hopes that it will be reviewed and nullified in the interest of civil liberties and constitutional values of the country.

*        Pushkar Raj is an independent writer based in Melbourne (Australia). Earlier, he taught political science in Delhi University and was the National General Secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), India. 

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