Today, December 10, is commemorated internationally as Human Rights Day. The UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 with a view to bringing a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations. It was primarily meant to promote a simple yet powerful idea that all human beings are born free and equal in terms of dignity and rights. With the Declaration, it was made clear that rights are not conferred by any government; they are the birthright of all people. It does not matter what country we live in, who our leaders are, or even who we are. Because we are human, we have rights. And because we have rights, governments are bound to protect them.
In the 65 years since the Declaration was adopted, many nations including India have made progress in making human rights a human reality. Gradually, the barricades that previously prohibited people from enjoying the full measure of liberty, dignity, and humanity have come down. Public interest litigation and the judicial activism of the Supreme Court played a major role in expanding the scope of human rights and in giving it much-needed legitimacy through some important verdicts. In many places, indiscriminate laws have been repealed, legal and social practices that degraded humans have been abolished, vulnerable groups have been given due recognition and their lives made secure. These progressive judicial pronouncements were a reaction to social action groups and movements seeking judicial intervention to persuade and pressure governments to defend and fulfil the rights of the most marginalised. This progress was not that effortless. People had to fight, organise and campaign in public and private forums to change not only laws, but hearts and minds.
However, there is still much to be done to secure that assurance, that actuality, and progress for all people. We have repeatedly witnessed such human rights violations: awareness about human rights needs to be made universal. Our endeavour should be to mould a society with no gender discrimination and no violence. When women are empowered, that ensures stable societies. Likewise, when leaders of nations empower people through futurist policies, the prosperity of the nations becomes certain. When religion transforms into a spiritual force, people become enlightened citizens with a value system.
While there is acceptance of universal respect and adherence to human rights, infringement of internationally recognised norms continues unabated in almost all parts of the world. The overall situation has been characterised by large-scale breaches of civil and political rights, as well as economic, social and cultural rights. It is a fact that India, being the world’s most populous democracy, continues to have considerable human rights problems despite making commitments to deal with some of the most prevalent abuses.
Though India took many proactive steps and followed a welfare state model, the police and the bureaucracy have remained largely colonial in their approach and sought to exert control and power over citizens. The feudal and communal characteristics of the Indian polity, coupled with a colonial bureaucracy, dampened the spirit of freedom, rights and affirmative action enshrined in the Constitution. The country has a booming civil society, free media, and an independent judiciary. However, ongoing violent practices that harm vulnerable groups, corruption, and lack of accountability for their perpetrators, lead to human rights violations. Many women, children, Dalits, tribal communities, religious minorities, people with disabilities, and sexual and gender minorities stay marginalised and continue to suffer discrimination because of the government’s failure to train public officials in stopping discriminatory behaviour. Issues pertaining to police brutality, extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary arrests and detention, bonded labour, inhuman and degrading treatment of prisoners, custodial deaths, corruption, labour and migrant rights, sexual violence, refugees, internally displaced people, terrorism, poverty, human trafficking and so on, remain. Continuous attempts are being made by the National Human Rights Commission to address such human rights issues. Some of these issues are being monitored as programmes on the directions of the Supreme Court.
Human Rights Day is an occasion for us to analyse the journey that our nation has undertaken so far on the path sketched by the Constitution, and prepare jointly to make dignity with human rights for all our countrymen a reality. Though scepticism still exists in some quarters, there has been a greater level of acknowledgment of the need to encourage and guard human rights, in spite of the abuse of the human rights discourse by the new imperialist forces.
If human rights need to have genuine meaning, they must be correlated to public involvement, and this participation should be preceded by empowerment of the people.
A sense of empowerment necessitates a sense of dignity, self-worth and the ability to ask questions with a spirit of legal entitlements and political consciousness based on rights. A process of political empowerment and a sense of rights empower citizens to participate in the public sphere. The splendour of human rights has to be maintained with nobility and glory. There cannot be any wearing down of values, deterioration of quality or any cobwebs in the procedure.
(The author, a former Chief Justice of India, is currently Chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission)