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India needs a vast army of human rights activists

By: K Parthasarathi
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(Author is a Chennai based freelance writer.)

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The extent of various human right violations across the entire country is mind boggling. There is a need for every individual to become an active HRA.

Being a human rights activist (HRA) may appear to be a trendy thing these days. Everyone naturally wants to be seen as concerned about the violations of human rights anywhere and everywhere. Some of these activists occupy the centre page of the dailies and gobble prime time in the visual media. Not a day passes without our witnessing persons like an Arundati Roy or a Medha Patkar or a Shabana Azmi or Sunita Narayan raising issues passionately and championing unpopular causes. But none of them are doing this for fame or name. They could have led a life of comfort and luxury but have chosen to toil for the suppressed lots braving often uneasy and hostile conditions. Such human rights defenders form the backbone of what we wish to be a fair and humane society. They ceaselessly work to ensure that the fundamental rights guaranteed by our Constitution are not taken away illegally from the people. Their antenna is tuned to pick up the signals of wrong doing anywhere in the country. But they are generally looked upon with much disfavour by the governments and put to inconvenience or considerable harassment wherever the issues championed are not to the liking of powers that be. Provisions of various laws would be used to prevent lawful demonstrations and assemblage as was done in Narmada and Singur agitations. It is a risky job where the activists may also have to face lathi charge, arrests and detention by the police on charges of disturbing the peace.

Nevertheless HRA is a highly respectable occupation that should attract large number of people. It calls for no special skills except a compassionate heart, communication skills, disposable time, an eye for things happening around and a brave heart. The media will automatically gravitate towards the activist if the issue raised has strong mass appeal. If you are a booker prize winner or an ex- model or a retired film actor or a scientist, the fame no doubt comes in handy as you will get instant supporters and a willing media. These are not essential qualifications though. What is needed is your instant anger at injustice and an innate desire to set right the wrongs wherever you see them by voicing your protest courageously.

Luckily for the HRAs no less than UN had adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations. This lends to their work certain legitimacy. Human rights transgressions seem to be the monopoly of developing countries as the microscope is usually turned towards them and poorer they are more the gaze. There are innumerable issues enumerated in the declaration that there will be no dearth of issues if only one cares to look around. Every country has its majorities and minorities on religious, social and economic parameters. There can be suppression of minorities by majority and vice versa too. The activists can take up the many challenges that confront the affected people in the light of the social, economic and political changes taking place consequent upon liberalization.

Poverty issues are legion. Singur or Narmada or Nandigram issues stem mainly from the bleak future of the dispossessed poor. Individuals do not get the attention except during elections. It is thro the institutions like NGOs and the vocal activists the issues get highlighted. But for the hue and cry of many activists and the fast unto death by Mamta, the government would not have listened to their woes. May be some ameliorative measures would be taken but one has to remain watchful of the outcome. Governments are generally insensitive to the sufferings of the poor. Poverty with all its components like hunger, illiteracy, lack of roof over head and health facilities and gender discrimination is a major human rights issue. In India majority of the people are poor and 30% live on less than a dollar a day. Given the huge natural resources and our own self professed garibi hatao government supported supposedly by the pro poor left there should be no excuse for such vast number to be poor. Poverty undermines peoples’ dignity and deprives them of access to justice, health, and education, to name but a few. These are the areas that should engage the minds of HRAs.The poor have neither clout nor the lobby to plead their cases.

Another important sphere relates to children ranging from child labour, child marriage and to the killings of young things for sexual gratification. Thanks to the noise and shrill protests the government was compelled to pass the child labour act. Domestic violence against women is another aberration that has been legislated upon. It is another matter the objectionable practices may continue unabated despite the Acts with the connivance of the officials. The willingness to enforce the provisions of the Acts should be closely monitored by the human right defenders. Otherwise instead of a Nitihari, the scene will shift to some other village till the bones there are exhumed. Soft drink companies may promise to be careful about the presence of pesticides while our leading icons will continue to promote the product. Kidneys would continue to be sold, the poor donors cheated and the few cases that have hit the headlines would be silenced by compensations. The issues are permanent. Imagine for a moment our country without the HRAs and their constant vigil. They are the sentinels on the alert. The governments are so impersonal and the rulers at most levels have vested interests. The whole system is based on venality and corruption. But for the alert media, vigilant HRAs and an active judiciary at higher levels, there will be no hope or succour for the depressed and deprived lots.

The violators of human rights are not some aliens but come from our own society. They can be your friend or a relation but cruelly exploiting a young domestic help for long hours on minimum food. It can be your baker who supplies your bread but who extracts back breaking work from eight year olds from dawn to midnight. It can be your dhobi who washes your linen but beats his wife for his drink demanding her day’s wages. It can be your rich and suave neighbour who lures young innocents for his carnal cravings. The otherwise good and amiable people of villages may deny potable water from common well or use of passage ways to the castes they consider inferior. The helpful law enforcer may torture and perhaps kill the suspected accused by what he considers his sincere effort to ferret out the truth. The jail inmates may be denied by the indifferent jailor the minimum dignity due to a human and put to unbelievable hardships. The discarded inmates of mental asylums would be leading miserable lives mostly with chains with none to question the authorities.

The extent of various human right violations across the entire country is mind boggling. There is a need for every individual to become an active HRA.They can join a NGO of their choice. Better for their credibility if these NGOs can awork without financial assistance from abroad. It is a national duty for all of us to return back to the society a part of what we have taken from it. If only thousands of people in every town and panchayats join in this movement, India would be gloriously different. The cumulative voice of the activists would propel the government into action and put the violators on the correct path. There is a perception that activists jump into the fray only after the atrocities have taken place. This is not wholly true. They do their work silently and effectively by educating the poor and more particularly the women of their rights. May be their work is not much visible and extensive for lack of willing volunteers. The governments on their part must provide adequate space for HRAs to operate peacefully and ensure their protection.NHRC has a crucial role to play in protecting the rights of HRAs to highlight peacefully transgressions without hindrance as otherwise there would be none to stand for the poor, depressed and trampled lot.

K Parthasarathi

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