Human rights and wrongsThe Manipur High Court early last month, in a long and dragging Public Interest Litigation, directed the Manipur government to revive the Manipur Human Rights Commission, which has been allowed to lapse after the end of term of the last of two commissions so far, eight years ago. This development is welcome, but it is uncertain if the Manipur government would without further ado comply with the court’s ruling, or it seek further moderations. It has about two and a half months to make the decision, and all or at least most in Manipur would be hoping the MHRC does get to see the light of day again.
Discussions on the matter, and indeed the notion of Human Rights (HR henceforth) itself is back on centre stage. Sad to say but it is evident that certain misconceptions on the notion persist, and therefore this discussion and exploration of the possible genesis of these misunderstandings on what exactly constitutes HR. This aberration happens not just in Manipur, but in many other places, especially in the Northeast where frictions between civil populations and the state in varying degrees of severity have been almost a precondition in India’s state-making and state-consolidation projects.
Journalists as well as HR activists covering these insurgency scenarios would be acutely aware of some of the seeming contradictions of the HR notion. This dilemma is painfully thrust on them in the often heard allegation that they project only excesses by state forces as constituting HR violations while remaining silent when it is the state forces which take casualties in the bush wars with the insurgents. This is indeed the case on the face of it, but the guilt attributed to this interpretation of HR by journalists and activists is where the lack of understanding of the notion is.
At the root of this misconception is the tendency to confuse between rectitude and rights. People are inclined to think that HR are rights that all humans should be entitled to just by the fact that they are humans. This is a moral statement and is of course true on the plane of rectitude, but it must be remembered HR are a set of laws listed in what is now known as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, UDHR, adopted in Paris by the United Nations on December 10, 1948, and ratified by most countries, including India. In the UN’s own words, UDHR “is a milestone document in the history of human rights, drafted by representatives with different legal and cultural backgrounds from all regions of the world”. It sets out, for the first time, for fundamental human rights to be universally protected. The document is in 30 articles listing what were agreed should be the unconditional rights all individuals are entitled to.
Quite obviously, 30 articles cannot list all the rights and natural justices that humans should be entitled to and the architects of the UDHR were well aware of this, which is why the declaration itself is called “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” and not “Declaration of Universal Human Rights”. There can be nothing as “universal human rights” for perception of rights differ from culture to culture, people to people, country to country in varying degrees. Against this backdrop, the UDHR is a document which lists certain core rights on which there should be no further deviations.
A little history of the urgent need felt at a juncture in world history to introduce these rights should make things clearer. The UDHR came into being in 1948 but the constituent body writing it came into being almost immediately after WWII. This timing is crucial in understanding the outlook and underlying philosophy behind these set of rights. In many ways WWII was the last nail in the coffin of the optimism that once fired Europe’s Enlightenment Age, when so much faith was placed on science and progress, and the importance of the benign over-lordship of the modern scientific state in delivering humanity from its existential miseries. Two great wars in the 20th Century, in particular WWII eroded this belief like no other. It was then realised that inevitable and beneficial as the modern state was, it was also capable of great atrocities on its own subjects. The murder of six million Jews by their own governments during the WWII was the flashpoint. The state is a protector of its citizens, but it can also turn against its own citizens and when this happens, the ordinary citizen is left helpless. It is against this latter variety of atrocities that the 30 articles of the UDHR seek to serve as the shield.
In other words, the prime purpose of HR law is to check the state from violating the rights of citizens. When citizens themselves violate each other’s rights, by this definition it does not amount to HR violation. They will instead constitute law and order problems for the state to address and resolve. If a neighbour encroaches into my rights, I can and am expected to approach the state and its appropriate organs to address the problem resolve it as per the law of the state, and it is the bounden duty of the state to hear and arbitrate. But the question is what happens if the state and its organs begin to systematically violate my rights, sometimes under the protection of statutory laws. For instance, if the army or the police begin to trample upon my rights as part of a statutory campaign, would it be realistic for me to go and complain to my very tormentors and seek justice?
Obviously not, and it is indeed for the protection of individuals or alienated communities from such persecutions by the state that the notion of HR was born. Human rights as defined by the UNHR then are international laws meant to check and the state, which is probably why the states like Manipur, and indeed the entire Northeast, where there are raging radical civil unrests, have always been hesitant to constitute their own HR commissions. In this light, those in Manipur asking for the revival of the MHRC are only asking for the government to have the courage to be self-critical and benefit from accommodating dissenting opinions. The farce in the propaganda the state can do no wrong must be banished precisely by introducing checks and balances within the democratic establishment itself. This is how democracy can be deepened. Any HR movement or institution will want to check the excessive powers of the state which are dangerous for individual citizens, but they cannot be said to be anti-state.
It must however be noted that Manipur’s two MHRCs so far have also confused the mandate of the UDHR to a great extent, and did begin seeing themselves as civil courts, handling cases of family disputes, elopements and other ordinary crimes, diluting the HR mission. We hope the new MHRC, if it does revive at all, will refrain from this and remain truly committed to the December 10, 1948 UDHR Paris mandate. Let it nor forget that human rights cases are civil cases, albeit of a special kind. The thumb rule in identifying HR cases should be, if a certain crime can be handled by a civil court, they should not be admitted as a HR case. Surely, nobody will dispute it is a travesty of propriety to have MHRC handle divorce and alimony cases. It must instead strive to be the conscience keeper and watchdog of the state in its dealings with civil dissents, even the most radical ones.
(First published in Assam Tribune)
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