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After secularism and patriotism, human rights have been redefined, writes Anil Singh

02:30 AM Oct 16, 2021 | Anil Singh

After secularism and patriotism, human rights too are sought to be redefined by this regime. Speaking at the 28th Foundation Day of the National Human Rights Commission on October 12, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that human rights matter to people only after their basic needs are met. The entire nation thinks that the Lakhimpur Kheri incident, where the son of the Union minister of state for home allegedly mowed down four unsuspecting farmers, was an outrageous case of human rights violation but the PM implied that it has more to do with politics than with human rights.

In fact, he has not condemned the incident and refuses to give in to demands to sack the minister. Instead, he alleged that “some people are tarnishing the image of the country in the name of human rights violations through their selective behaviour”. Perverse as this may seem – even tantamount to condoning the crime – it is the PM’s statement that human rights are secondary to basic requirements that is astonishing.

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Human rights are the basic rights and freedoms based on shared values such as dignity, fairness, equality, respect and independence which are defined and protected by law. The Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993, defines them as the “rights relating to life, liberty, equality and dignity of the individual guaranteed by the Constitution or embodied in the International Covenants and enforceable by courts in India”.

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Different take

However, the PM has a different take on it: “When a poor man is struggling for his basic facilities like toilets, electricity, concerns of health and treatment, and if somebody goes to him and lists out his rights, the poor man will first ask whether these rights will be able to fulfil his needs. In order to provide rights mentioned in the documents to the poor, it is very important to fulfill their needs first. When their needs get fulfilled, the poor can channel their energy towards rights and demand them.

“And we all are also aware that when the needs are fulfilled, there is an awareness regarding the rights and as a result, aspirations also grow faster. The stronger these aspirations, the more strength the poor get to come out of poverty. After coming out of the vicious circle of poverty, he moves towards fulfilling his dreams. Therefore, when a toilet is built in the house of the poor person and there is electricity and gas connection; it is not just a scheme which is available to him. These schemes are fulfilling his needs, making him aware of his rights and instilling aspiration in him.”

The PM’s desire to deliver goods and services to the poor is laudable but he misses the point that human rights are independent of all other rights. You may give a man bread, butter and jam but in a feudal and casteist country like ours that is not enough for him to live with dignity; his human rights are to be guaranteed and enforced by the state. The rule of the law is universally applicable.

Hathras, Kappan, Stan Swamy cases

The Hathras gang rape and murder of 2020 is a case in point. The UP cops cremated the 19-year-old victim in the dead of the night without the consent and presence of her family which was kept locked up in their house. The district magistrate threatened the family from speaking out on national TV. Kerala journalist Siddique Kappan who was on the way to Hathras was arrested under the dreaded UAPA along with seven other and continues to languish in jail. Had the Supreme Court not intervened to get him proper medical treatment, he would have met the fate of Fr Stan Swamy, the 84-year-old tribal activist who was arrested with a dozen other academics and activists for a ‘plot to kill Modi’ and who died in custody.

Kappan’s case is not unique. According to Geeta Seshu, co-editor of the Free Speech Collective, there has been a sharp rise in criminal cases lodged against journalists in India for their work with the majority of the cases in BJP-ruled states. Her research shows that in the last decade, 154 journalists in India were arrested, detained, interrogated or served show-cause notices for their professional work and a little over 40 per cent of these instances were in 2020.

Of course, Modi supporters see nothing Orwellian in it. The ‘andolan jeevis’ themselves are to blame, they say. Hence, the PM’s rant: “In recent years, some people have started interpreting human rights in their own way. Some people see rights violations in some incidents but not in other similar incidents. This type of mentality also causes great damage to human rights.” And he ended with the dog-whistle: “The country also has to be careful with such people.”

Attack on JNU

Meanwhile, it is okay for armed mobs to ransack the JNU, it is okay to pick up a 22-year-old environmental activist from her home in Bangalore and take her to Delhi to be interrogated for anti-national activities as apparent from a toolbox she had forwarded to protesting farmers. As for BJP Lok Sabha candidates raising slogans such as ‘Desh ke gaddaron ko, goli maaro salon ko’, it is standard practice. Talk of being selective.

And since it is okay to invoke Gandhi in all sorts of whitewash jobs, so why not here: “Our revered Bapu is seen as a symbol of human rights and human values not only by the country but the entire world. It is our privilege that we are taking a pledge to live up to those values and ideals of Mahatma Gandhi through Amrit Mahotsav.”

Dr Kafeel Khan case

Was the government not selective and vindictive in the case of Dr Kafeel Khan, the whistle blower in the 2017 case where more than 60 kids died because of oxygen shortage in Gorakhpur’s BRD hospital? Was the government not selective and vindictive when it arrested student activists such as Sharjeel Imam, Natasha Narwal, Devangana Kalita, Meeran Haider, Asif Tanha, Safoora Zargar, Gulfisha and Umar Khalid for speaking out against the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019.

The PM denied the migrant labour crisis and the oxygen shortage but now he has converted these corona failures into human rights trophies: “Past experiences show whenever a major tragedy strikes such a huge population, it leads to instability in the society. But what India did for the rights of its common people proved all the apprehensions wrong.”

It is not as if there is great respect for human rights in the non-BJP ruled states in India. The Maharashtra State Human Rights Commission is defunct. No state government is willing to implement police reforms and everyone is happy at the way the Centre is throttling the Right to Information Act.

However, the PM’s speech on the Foundation Day is deeply disturbing. It shows his utter contempt for any discussion, debate or dissent in a democracy. He just does not acknowledge that the onus for protecting life and liberty is on the state, failing which it has to be challenged by human rights groups, the opposition and as the Lakhimpur Kheri case showed, even by the Supreme Court. Abusing them as ‘sickulars, libtards and anti-nationals’ and converting human wrongs into human rights is a dangerous trend.

The writer is an independent journalist based in Mumbai. He welcomes feedback on anilsinghjournalist@gmail.com

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