By Fr Cedric Prakash SJ
This past year from December 2018, had two significant 70th anniversaries: first, of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (10 December 1948) and then, of the promulgation of the Constitution of India (November 26, 2019). It is quite certain that the makers of the Indian Constitution took inspiration from the UDHR. Strangely enough, as if on cue, everything possible is done by the powers that control the destiny of the nation, to demolish human rights and the values enshrined in the Constitution! There is perhaps not a day in the recent past, when the country has not witnessed violations of human rights be it the gang rape and murder of an innocent woman, the lynching of a Muslim and for that matter, a carefully-orchestrated and manipulative initiative to render people , ‘stateless!’
As the world observes the 71st Human Rights Day on December 10, there is perhaps just one conclusion that emerges: for the vast majority of the people of India, where human rights are concerned, it has been a truly horrendous year! Ever since the BJP-led NDA Government seized the reins of power in May 2014, there has been a steady deterioration, violation and now the demolition of human rights in the country. In the ‘Human Development Index 2018’, India reached an all –time low of 130 out of 189 countries. In several other objective and unbiased international analysis and studies, India has touched, on all parameters, abysmal depths.
India has acquired the awful and dubious distinction of being regarded as the ‘rape capital’ of the world! In a society which has consistently treated women as second class citizens, the discrimination that women have been subjected to, was accepted in several quarters as ‘normal’. Ever since, the Gujarat carnage of 2002, raping and murdering women, has been occurring with a frightening regularity. The recent gang-rape in Hyderabad sent shock waves through the nation. The chilling aspect of these sordid acts, is that if you are rich and powerful you can get away with rape and molesting women. You can even become a law maker! In May 2019, the Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR) released a report according to which, nearly half of the newly elected Lok Sabha members have criminal charges against them, a 26% increase as compared to 2014 and a 44% increase when compared to 2009. Out of the 539 winners analysed in Lok Sabha 2019, 233 MPs or43% have declared criminal cases against themselves. After analysing data of state Assemblies and Lok Sabha, ADR found that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has the most number of MPs/MLAs with cases of crimes against women. About 30% of them face very serious charges, like those related to rape and other crimes against women, murder, kidnapping.
Then are the ‘fake encounter’ killings! Four alleged rapists were arrested in the aftermath the Hyderabad gang-rape and murder; a couple of days’ later, all four of them were murdered in cold blood! The ‘justification’ of this act hardly finds any takers! A macabre ‘fairy tale’ which one cannot fool a five-year old kid with. All this, is a painful reminder of the ‘fake encounters’ in Gujarat; of how one of the powerful men of this country was responsible for it and of the ‘untimely’ and ‘unnatural’ death of Justice Loya who refused to be compromised or bought up. Strangely enough in the case of the rapes and murder of women, if the accused are poor then they are ‘done away with’; however, if the accused are rich and powerful then the victim or the witnesses are done away with, as we have seen in the Unnao case!
On December 6, the nation remembered the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid. This year that ‘black day’ was shades darker for many! The recent Supreme Court verdict on Ayodhya took a strong stand against the demolition; but then its decision to give the ‘disputed’ land to the majority community has rankled many. Sections of Muslims are already planning to file a review petition. Writing in ‘The Wire’ (9 November 2019), well-known writer and political analyst Siddharth Varadarajan says, “The court acknowledged the manner in which Ram idols were planted in the mosque was illegal and that the mosque’s demolition in 1992 was “an egregious violation of the rule of law”. Yet, the forces responsible for the demolition now find themselves in legal possession of the land. The site will be managed by a trust that the government will now set up. And the government and ruling party have in their ranks individuals who have actually been charge sheeted for conspiring to demolish the mosque”.
For more than 125 days now Kashmir has been in a state of siege! On August 5, the State was overrun in a swift, unethical and undemocratic way! In a patently unconstitutional and anti-people act, the BJP-led NDA Government abrogated Article 370 and 35A of the Constitution. The draconian and secretive manner in which the Government pushed a sensitive bill, steam-rolling all opposition, without consulting Parliament, without taking the people of Kashmir into confidence, is clear betrayal of the values embedded in the hearts and minds of most Indians. The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) states, “The fact that hardly any information is currently coming out from the region is of great concern.” The Spokesperson pointed to the UNHRC’s July 8 report on the human rights conditions in Kashmir, which documented how authorities in India have “repeatedly blocked telecommunications networks to muzzle dissent, used arbitrary detention to punish political dissidents and employed excessive force when dealing with protestors leading to extrajudicial killings and serious injuries;” adding that the latest restrictions “will exacerbate the human rights situation in the region.”
Freedom of speech and expression in the country has almost become a ‘reality of the past’. In April 2019, when the World Press Freedom Index was released, India had fallen to a miserable 140 out of 180 countries. Media has been compromised, bought up, made to toe the line! This is obvious when one reads the headlines of most national dailies or listens to the electronic media! The Government now blatantly snoops into computers, taps telephones and monitors WhatsApp messages; they have also begun controlling other forms of social media. The recent exposure that at the behest of the Government, an Israeli firm hacked into the WhatsApp messages of human rights activists, lawyers, academics, political opponents – has made it clear that this regime will destroy even the right to privacy in order to realise their anti-Constitutional agenda.
It has also been bad for human rights defenders. One hears about threats, coercion, intimidation, arrests, foisting of false cases and even death for all those who take a stand for human rights, justice and peace. Some months ago, five well known human rights activists Sudha Bharadwaj (Faridabad), Arun Ferreira (Thane), Vernon Gonsalves (Mumbai), Gautam Navlakha (Delhi) and writer P Varavara Rao (Hyderabad) were arrested on absolutely fictitious charges( most of them are still languishing in jail after repeated denial of bail); eighty – year old Jesuit Stan Swamy was searched ,hounded and his meagre personal belongings attached. There are several others who have to bear the brunt of a very repressive political system. The ‘sedition law’ is both archaic and draconian and is still being used by the ‘powers’ to quell dissent and even to muzzle citizens when they ask questions! The amended Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) has now become an instrument to terrorise the citizens.
The National Register of Citizenship (NRC) is downright negation of the human rights of a citizen. Initiated in Assam, it has already ‘declared’ almost two million people stateless. The NRC together with the ‘Citizenship Amendment Bill’, assuring citizenship to all undocumented persons except those of Muslim faith, risks tearing the country apart, reopening the wounds of partition, and ultimately destroying the secular and democratic tenets of the Constitution. A few days ago campaigning in Jharkhand, the Home Minister Amit Shah said that “2024 is the deadline for completing the National Register of Citizenship across the country. “This is an extremely dangerous step and the country today stands at the brink of catastrophic human suffering and injustice, if the government as it plans to do, begins implementing it nation-wide. That are several protests all over on this sensitive issue. The Assam ‘Land Policy- 2019’, which mentions land allocation only for “indigenous peoples”, is another anti-people step. The definition of indigenous people has not been, so far, finalised (excluding toiling populations of Muslim/Hindu and Bengali origin). Without this definition in place, the ‘Land Policy- 2019’ has been repeatedly made mention of the fact that the ownership of land will be exclusively reserved for the indigenous people; again a blatant violation of the Constitution.
Freedom of Religion or Belief, is on the back foot. The latest data with intelligence agencies shows a rise in communal incidents in nine states, led by Uttar Pradesh which has witnessed 457 communal incidents this year, between January and October. There were almost five hundred reported attacks on Christians in various parts of the country. In Gujarat, police are knocking at the doors of Churches to extract details from Baptism and Marriage registers. The fundamentalists thrive on ‘hate speech’. ‘Lynching’ has become the new normal as right-wing forces are ready to kill anyone not like them and without any provocation! The Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister tries to introduce the ‘English medium’ in Government-run schools; the votaries of Hindutva see it as a ‘ploy to convert people to Christianity!’
The rights of children are violated with impunity! Millions of children still labour in hazardous occupations in several parts of the country; besides being denied their right to education, they are also deprived of their childhood. Innumerable women and children are trapped in the web of human trafficking. 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. Millions are still displaced by mega –projects as we see in the Narmada Dam area. Powerful vested interests continue to destroy the environment and displace thousands of poor people everywhere. The LGBT community is still looked down upon and treated very unjustly in India.
In mid-October, when the Global Hunger Index (GHI) was released, India was placed at an abysmal 102 out of the 117 countries ranked. The annual index is designed to measure and track hunger at the global, national and regional levels and to assess progress and setbacks in combating hunger. India is now ranked below Pakistan (94), Bangladesh (88) and Sri Lanka (66) among South Asian nations. According to the report prepared by Welthungerhilfe and Concern Worldwide, India is among the 45 countries that have serious levels of hunger. “In India, just 9.6 per cent of all children between six to 23 months of age are fed a minimum acceptable diet. As of 2015-2016, 90 per cent of Indian households used an improved drinking water source while 39 per cent of households had no sanitation facilities (IIPS and ICF 2017),” said the report.
The economy is in shambles; ‘demonetisation’ has had an extremely negative impact on the common person (in a new book the former Chief Economic Adviser Arvind Subramaniam refers to it as “a massive, draconian monetary shock”). Banks have gone bust and many have lost their hard-earned savings; corruption has been totally institutionalised by the Government and their ilk. The poor and the vulnerable find it impossible to make both ends meet due to the escalation of prices on essential commodities. Unemployment in the country has reached an all-time high! Industries are closing down rendering thousands jobless overnight! Farmers continue to commit suicide. Even the ‘humble onion’ which is (with the chilly) indispensable to the poor has sky-rocketed to more than Rs. 100/- a kilo! There is a growing gap between the rich and poor! Those who are rich continue profiteering at the expense of the poor!
The country is being dragged into unmitigated disaster by the Government and its unholy nexus with small group of anti-national forces consisting of fundamentalists, fascists, fanatics and other fringe elements! These are the people who legitimise the role of ‘Godse’ – the man who murdered Mahatma Gandhi! They have abdicated their role and responsibility to protect and promote the rights guaranteed to every citizen by the Constitution: the right to life and liberty; to dignity and equality; to freedom of speech and expression; to freedom to preach, practise and propagate one’s religion; the right to livelihood, to eat, to dress and to see and to read what one chooses to; and all the other fundamental rights guaranteed to the citizens. The Government no longer cares about the right to information, the right to food, the right to a clean environment and to safe drinking water. Human rights in India are systematically being demolished!
The ‘Human Rights Watch ‘Annual Report 2018 is relevant today as it succinctly states, “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 labelled 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”.
In a hard –hitting article entitled ‘ Blood and Soil in Narendra Modi’s India’ in the prestigious ‘The New Yorker’ ( 9 December 2019 issue) the author Dexter Filkins writes, “a feeling of despair has settled in among many Indians who remain committed to the secular, inclusive vision of the country’s founders. “Gandhi and Nehru were great, historic figures, but I think they were an aberration,” Prasad, the former Outlook editor, told me. “It’s very different now. The institutions have crumbled—universities, investigative agencies, the courts, the media, the administrative agencies, public services. And I think there is no rational answer for what has happened, except that we pretended to be what we were for fifty, sixty years. But we are now reverting to what we always wanted to be, which is to pummel minorities, to push them into a corner, to show them their places, to conquer Kashmir, to ruin the media, and to make corporations servants of the state. And all of this under a heavy resurgence of Hinduism. India is becoming the country it has always wanted to be.”
There is a feeling of ‘déjà vu!’But the people of India must not give up: though human rights are being demolished, there is still strength and resilience in the people: an undying conviction that “we shall overcome”; that justice and truth will finally triumph! This 10 December, is a fitting day for all to commit themselves to and ensure “human rights for all and for always!!!”