India national flag pattern on leader's fist isolated (clipping path) on blue mint sky for Human equal rights, labor day concept
India national flag pattern on leader's fist isolated (clipping path) on blue mint sky for Human equal rights, labor day concept

One of the depressing political realities of India today is that human-rights activists are hounded, framed and sent to jail to suffer as political prisoners for years.

Swami Agnivesh, the veteran human-rights activist, was assaulted in Delhi as he was on his way to pay homage to former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who died recently. The anti-bonded labor campaigner was earlier assaulted in Pakur, Jharkhand on July 18 when he went there to attend a civil society meeting.

On July 4,  a TV channel close to the government claimed that it was in possession of a letter that established a link between Sudha Bhardwaj, the national secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (founded by Jayaprakash Narayan to fight the state of emergency declared in 1975) and Kashmiri separatists, suggesting she was an anti-national.

In an inter-state operation in June, police arrested five human-rights activists from different parts of the country at odd hours. They included Mahesh Raut, a young graduate from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, who organised natives at Gidchiroli against mining; Rona Wilson, who advocated against the death penalty and release of political prisoners; Surendra Gadling, a lawyer who fought the cases of political prisoners like Dr Sai Baba; Shoma Sen, who voiced against growing sexual violence against women in conflict zones; and Sudhir Dhawale, organiser of Elgaar Parishad, an assembly of over 250 Dalit and minorities’ organizations that deliberated to fight implications of caste and communalism in daily life.

All the activists were framed under sedition laws and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). It is alleged that they were working against the interest of the country and were indulging in unlawful and disruptive activities.

The cases against the activists, however, do not hold water. For example, Mahesh Raut, a prime minister’s national rural fellow, demanded implementation of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas Act), or PESA, which prohibits mining in inhabited tribal areas like  Gadchiroli. He organized people of the area, who resented the impact of mining on their lives and livelihood.

Similarly, Sudhir Dhalwale, an Elgar Parishad activist, was arrested for organizing a meeting to discuss strategies to counter injustices that India’s 300 million Dalits and 260 million other minorities face in the name of caste and religion on daily basis.

On an average, a human-rights defender becomes a victim of state misuse of power every three days. According to the National Human Rights Commission,  30 such cases were reported between April and June this year. These included failures to take lawful actions and abuse of power like unlawful detention, false implication and illegal arrests.

These people are among  293,000 under-trial prisoners who, like  Chandrashekhar Azad Ravan, make up 67.2% of India’s total prison population, spending six months to five years in overcrowded jails. This is reminiscent of the ordeal of Josef K in Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial.

A human-rights activist

The human-rights activists feel the pain of violated fellow human beings and reach out to protect them at great personal risk. They are the heroes of war and peace alike. These are extraordinary people who, to borrow a sentence from veteran economist Ashok Mitra, “instead of being a top brass in the government system, assert their rationality, which is an integral element of the human mind, against the rampant asymmetry of the human condition.” They contribute no less than a soldier, general or a prime minister.

Human-rights activists have an inevitable role in any society – lawful or lawless – due to skewed power distribution in society, which operates on the Darwinian principle more than altruism, a concept further elaborated by Richard Dawkins in the book, The Selfish Gene.

The human-rights activists feel the pain of violated fellow human beings and reach out to protect them at great personal risk

The degree of hostility to human-rights activists in a society and state is a measure of injustice in society and the tyranny of the state. Presently, the human-rights activists are alone against a mighty state, except for a civil society network that alerts the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) about the persecution of human-rights activists across the nation. However, the NHRC has its own limitations and the only people who miss, mourn or fight for human-rights activists are friends and family members, which is an excruciating battle of David against Goliath.

Given the daily battle with the courts that the human rights activists’ families and friends face, it is incumbent on civil society to rise above regions and ideologies and set up a human-rights defender fund to support worthy people.

The government, considering its international obligations as a member of the UN, must also act on the  Universal Declaration of Human Rights defenders to adopt “laws and policies that specifically guarantee the protection of human-rights defenders.”

By jailing the human-rights defenders, a society can neither be free nor democratic, but just a notch up from the one that put Socrates to death in 399 BC.

Pushkar Raj is a researcher and author based in Melbourne. Formerly he taught political science in Delhi University and was the national general secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL).

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