Human rights form the very nucleus of democracy and the raison d’etre of the modern sovereign nation-state.
December 10 marked the international Human Rights Day, which commemorates the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), in 1948. It was a time when the world had seen the most despicable abuse of human rights in horrific wars and also a time when much of Asia and Africa had broken free from the chains of colonialism.
Human rights form the very nucleus of democracy and the raison d’etre of the modern sovereign nation-state. According to the United Nations, the UDHR, holds the Guinness world record for being the most translated document. The irony, however, is that human rights are perhaps the least understood and most berated even by high-ranking actors of the state.
As the Indian government flexes its authoritarian muscle, the already meagre importance given to human rights has receded further over the recent years. In the prevailing political climate, the toxic notion that supporting human rights is tantamount to supporting terrorism has gained traction. Those who speak for fair trials and upholding Indian laws are looked down upon and in some cases even labelled anti-nationals/traitors, despite India being a signatory to the UDHR. This dissonance perhaps springs from the fact that while most states rhetorically vow to uphold human rights, there is no effective mechanism at the UN to penalise erring states.
Further, it is tragic that India is the only one of the nine countries that hasn’t ratified the United Nations Convention against Torture, despite signing it in October 1997. The UN-CAT, is an international human rights treaty which endeavours to prevent torture and other acts of cruelty or inhuman in nature.
As India seeks to play a bigger role in the global arena and increase its clout in the world, it is important that we lead the civilised world by example. It is therefore not in our national interest to berate human rights, especially when we have committed to a democratic form of government and aspire to be a modern, progressive nation in the free world. It should be kept in mind that the primary duty of the state is to protect the lives of its citizens, even if they are dissenting against the government. A modern nation would not require the use of torture in its law enforcement apparatus, if it moves with the changing times.
Another aspect of human rights that gets little attention in India is the question of internally displaced people (IDP). Unlike refugees, who flee their home countries, IDPs are those who are forcibly removed from their homes, often due to conflict, natural disasters or even for development projects. According to a report by the Norwegian Refugee Council and Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, in 2016, close to 2.4 million people were displaced in India, which is the third-highest globally.
There are seldom any efforts by the state to rehabilitate the displaced as the administration is mired in corruption coupled with being overworked and underpaid. A large section of the population that is alienated and angry is the breeding ground for civil strife and more conflicts. As the population increases, there is stress on the government to ensure that basic needs of citizens are met. Failing to do so will turn our demographic dividend into a population bomb. As such, it is imperative for the government to ensure that there are jobs for the youth and that the fruits of growth are shared among all sections of the society.
However, the recent body blows to the Indian economy – demonetisation and an ill-planned GST – have jeopardised the prospects of growth. Rather than belittling the opposition and stifling dissent, the government should engage with those who have grievances and attempt to allay their fears. It would be prudent to strike at the root of human rights violations as peace and prosperity will bring down the scope for conflict or displacement. The government unfortunately appears to be clueless and bereft of any critical thinking necessary to respond to the challenges we face as a society.
Instead of masking their deep-rooted insecurities, and manifesting it as bravado, the government will do well to introspect and look for solutions. It’s high-time the government listened to voices of dissent and accusations of human rights violations, rather than brush it off as anti-national. No problem has ever been solved by being wished away.