The ongoing controversy over Amnesty International’s sacking of Gita Sahgal, head of the group’s gender unit, for publicly criticising its association with those who support the Taliban and other Islamic outfits holds many lessons for human rights organisations all over the world, including India.
Sahgal had opposed Amnesty decision to organise joint activities with Moazzam Begg, an Islamic activist and former Guantanamo inmate who is now mobilising world opinion against this torture chamber set up after 9/11 by the US government.
The first lesson is straightforward -- those who preach human rights, democracy and other lofty values should also practice them. Amnesty, with its otherwise excellent record, should of course continue to campaign against human rights abuses across the world but do so while upholding rights principles within its organisational fold. Summary sacking of an employee with dissident views is hardly in keeping with democratic values anywhere.
The second lesson here is that the victims of human rights abuses in one context -- like Moazzam Begg -- may not necessarily be defenders of human rights in another. Not all of the oppressed everywhere are free of the bad qualities of their own oppressors and it is important for human rights organisations to maintain a healthy distance from them in such cases.
Like in other parts of the world, in India too, these lessons are highly relevant to all human rights groups and activists. The need for setting very high standards is especially important here because the very concept of human rights is still unfortunately alien to much of Indian society, particularly the elites, who run the country as if they were a colonial power of some kind. As Dr B.R.Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian Constitution said way back in 1949 itself, "Democracy in India is only top-dressing on an Indian soil which is essentially undemocratic".
What we are dealing with in this country is a situation where historically the concept of the fundamental rights of a universal, standard ‘human being’ has never existed. The only two categories that have prevailed for centuries in this land -- and continue to do so in many parts of the country even today -- are that of the ‘devas’ and ‘asuras’. ‘Human being’ is a somewhat fancy Western category in between the ‘gods’ and the ‘demons’ that small groups of enlightened activists have been bravely propagating for many years but one which is understood by very few even in the highest echelons of power -- in the Indian parliament or the Indian judiciary.
Even today, in many parts of the country, while there is a ban on ‘cow slaughter’ that is effectively implemented, there is no such privilege for people from the Dalit, Adivasi or Muslim communities. In that sense these hapless people do not even have ‘cow rights’ leave alone the more esoteric ‘human rights’.
To those sections of society who rule India, the Dalit, Adivasi, Muslim or the poor in general, who constitute over 75 percent of the Indian population, are not human beings at all. That is why a vast section of this oppressed population is subject to the most horrific forms of violence in the form of not just direct physical attacks from time to time but also abject poverty, forced displacement and disease. For example, there are 2.5 million children under the age of 5 who die every year due to malnutrition related diseases in this country -- all avoidable with social or state intervention. A vast majority of these children are from the communities I mentioned above.
In such conditions it is not very surprising that a large number of human rights activists tend to try and combine their rights work with efforts to bring about socio-economic change. There is in that sense an overlap of their work with that of political organisations on the Left, which have historically taken up these issues around the country. As a result there is a tendency to see the civil and human rights movement as a ‘front’ for leftist political parties of different shades.
If this were only true of public perception the problem would have been different -- a better communication strategy could have cleared the misconception about what Indian human rights organisations are really all about. The unfortunate thing is that many human rights activists themselves see their role as facilitators or promoters of the Left political vision and objectives and that too in the narrow sense of being partisan towards specific leftist political parties of their choice.
A frequent question that is asked by the media and even many ordinary citizens is: ‘Why do human rights groups always rush to the defence of left activists attacked by the state but never criticise leftists for their violent actions?’ In the context of the recent incidents of Maoist violence in West Bengal, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand this question is raised repeatedly.
Of course, as human rights groups continue to point out, the Indian state -- run by elected representatives -- has a duty to uphold the principles of the Indian Constitution and uphold the Indian law, which is why it is criticised for any violations it commits. On the other hand, militant or terrorist groups are non-state actors who do not believe in the Indian Constitution and as participants in an insurgency they should be judged in the light of principles of war like those enshrined in the Geneva Convention.
Whatever be the excuse, the truth remains that there are hardly any human rights activists who are willing to go on a fact-finding mission to document the human rights violations committed by different insurgent groups -- whether they be in the Indian north-east, Kashmir or in central India. This is a serious drawback of the Indian human rights movement in general as it robs it of the credibility and popular base it needs in order to be effective in checking the violations of the Indian state, which is the biggest culprit in such matters.
As mentioned before, among many human rights activists, there seems to be a genuine confusion that they are also supposed to bring about political change in Indian society through their human rights work. My recommendation to them is that if they want to bring about a ‘revolution’, they should do so but not from behind the cover of human rights or civil rights groups. Their inability to do radical political work in an open manner should not result in the destruction of the credibility of human rights work. .
For the truth is that the Indian soil, that Dr Ambedkar spoke of, requires the cultivation of basic principles of ‘human rights’ before it is ready to grow a crop of truly revolutionary change.
The standards of human rights should also be seen as being like the ethics of the medical profession. Just as no ethical doctor can refuse to treat a patient because of his own or his patient’s personal political beliefs so is the civil or human rights activist duty bound to oppose all rights violations irrespective of who its victims are or who commits them. This is the minimum standard that has to be established -- defending the fundamental human rights of even your political opponents if necessary.
By being selective in their focus, they do injustice to the title ‘human rights worker’ and undermine the development of a genuine culture of human rights where everyone has the same rights and where some humans are not ‘more equal’ than others. As long as a more professional attitude to human rights work is not taken such concerns will remain confined to small groups of ‘well-meaning ‘people, who keep meeting in little seminar rooms and prevent human rights from becoming a truly mass political issue in India.
Satya Sivaraman is a journalist based in New Delhi.