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Human rights and Indian values

Dadri, Alwar and Rajsamand are names that must ring a bell for every aware Indian. In a little more than a year these have been sites where a fellow citizen has been brutally murdered by another Indian. They should be a source of deep shame to us as these were not random events. In every case the victim was a Muslim from the poorest sections of our country. Mohammad Akhlaq, Pehlu Khan and Afrazul Khan were murdered for the identity assigned to them and the alleged guilt that is thereby claimed to cling to them.

Acts of hate

Union Minister for Minority Affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi was quick to respond to the murder of Afrazul Khan stating that it should not be seen as religiously motivated but as a criminal act. Not only is this difficult to sustain given the explanation by Afrazul Khan’s assailant that he was only seeking revenge for “cross-community” marital relationships but it also ignores a pattern in the three killings in question. In all cases the murders have been justified in the name of injuring the sensibilities of Hindus. They are, for all to see, unmistakably acts of hate committed against a member of a religious minority.

Four days after the killing of Afrazul Khan on December 6, India celebrated Human Rights Day. December 10 is the anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the UN General Assembly. As an early supporter of the UN movement and a constant participant in its deliberations, India has, in international fora, constantly endorsed the charter of rights that the declaration unfurled.

On December 10, at an official ceremony at Delhi’s Vigyan Bhavan Vice-President Venkaiah Naidu said two noteworthy things. He first affirmed India’s commitment to human rights emphasising the duty of governments to ensure them to individuals. Second, he observed that human rights existed in India not due to some constitutional morality but because of the DNA of Indian civilisation. To clarify what he meant he chanted from the Upanishad “Sarve Janaha Sukhino Bhavantu”, loosely translated as “May all be happy”.

The Vice-President was obviously referring to the many assurances of the freedom of thought and expression and the right to life and liberty in the Constitution, suggesting that their provenance lies in the immemorial history of the country’s civilisation. While there may be a grain of truth in this observation it doesn’t count for much when it comes to repeated violation of human rights in India, of which the murders of Mohammad Akhlaq, Pehlu Khan and Afrazul Khan are instances.

Role of government

In the light of these violations, it may have been more helpful if the Vice-President had said that the constitutional provisions are inadequate by themselves and the role of government is fundamental in advancing them. In fact, it is precisely because we cannot rely on civilisational values that may or may not be enshrined in the constitution to deliver us rights that we adopt democracy as the form of government.

Historically, votaries of civilisational values have struggled to break free of cultural prejudices and accord similar status to other civilisations. Not very long ago, colonialism had been justified on civilisational terms, with the very term “civilised” being used to differentiate the West from the indigenous populations of the lands colonised by Europe. It is perhaps this that led Gandhi to respond to the query of what he thought of Western civilisation by saying, “I think it would be a good idea.” Gandhi is unlikely to have been any softer on champions of the superiority of eastern civilisations.

Civilisational hubris abounds in claims of “the inclusivity of Hinduism” or “the egalitarianism of Islam”. Whatever be the exhortations in the texts that underlie these religions, the history of caste and gender inequality in India and Islamic societies, respectively, show them to have been neither inclusive nor egalitarian. It is clear that civilisational values, in our case Indian, are far from sufficient to deliver us the rights that we seek to make our own.

Though the UN’s declaration of human rights is expansive, in his speech the Vice-President took it further to include social and economic rights. It is clear that Indian civilisation has not had much success in ensuring their delivery. If any progress has at all been made in the desired direction, it has been after the adoption of a democratic form of governance; an arrangement that is distinctly non-Indian in its origins. In terms of human development, 21st century India is radically different from what it was in the 20th century. That economic inequality has steadily risen and ecological stress is written all over the country cannot take away from the fact that there has been progress of a form that has collapsed social distance. The rise to the prime ministership of India of Mr. Narendra Modi is the best testament to this. There is social churning in India, with some of it having come through affirmative action and some of it through economic transformation in which the more recent liberalisation of the economy has had some role.

However, as India has managed to shed some of the centuries old practices that maintained social distance due to caste and economic differentiation, newer axes of power have emerged. We have begun to see an unimaginable rise of violence against women and Muslims. Hardening patriarchy and Hindu chauvinism are India’s unanticipated demons. These have taken us by surprise, and as a society we appear to be incapable of handling them.

Ways to tackle intolerance

Our task of ensuring human rights in India is, however, made no more easy after rejecting the potential of civilisational values and of the instrumentality of economic growth combined with constitutional morality in achieving such a state. While “constitutional morality”, a term used by Ambedkar to appropriately reject any role for “societal morality” in the Republic, is of course a useful guide to the courts when it comes to adjudicating between individuals, it is by itself helpless in preventing acts of violence. The efficacy of constitutional provisions is entirely dependent on the government machinery entrusted to our elected representatives. An effective protection of individuals, in this case women and minorities, from acts of violence requires the power of the state to weigh in on their side. In too many cases of violence against women, Muslims and Dalits, the Indian state is distinguished by its absence.

In a recent paper Canada-based economist Mukesh Eswaran demonstrated that it is possible to understand “9/11” and home-grown terrorism in western Europe as a response to the historical wrongs inflicted on Muslim societies by Western powers, notably the invasion of Iraq. This is a useful corrective to the collective gasp of incredulity let out by Western elites when addressing the violence unleashed against them by Islamic groups. Transferring Eswaran’s reasoning to the Indian context, one might argue that India should contain violence against its Muslims to ensure the safety of Hindus. But such crass instrumentalism would be unworthy of a great civilisation. We want to ensure the flourishing of all the peoples of India not out of self-preservation but because we want to be civilised. Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, anyone?

Pulapre Balakrishnan teaches economics at Ashoka University, Sonipat, Haryana and the Indian Institute of Management, Kozhikode, Kerala

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