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Home / Books / Review: Human Dignity – A Purpose in Perpetuity by Ashwani Kumar

Review: Human Dignity – A Purpose in Perpetuity by Ashwani Kumar

Human Dignity – A Purpose in Perpetuity brings together essays that have the moral worth of every human at its heart

books Updated: Mar 13, 2020, 20:16 IST
Zia Haq
Zia Haq
Hindustan Times
The right message: A statue in London of suffragist and feminist icon Millicent Fawcett.
The right message: A statue in London of suffragist and feminist icon Millicent Fawcett.(Arthur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images)


200pp, Rs 750; LexisNexis
200pp, Rs 750; LexisNexis

Human Dignity – A Purpose in Perpetuity by former minister, legal scholar and politician Ashwani Kumar is a Rawlsian attempt at looking at how politics must be conducted and justice served in order to further the purpose of human dignity.

It brings together essays that have, as the title suggests, the moral worth of every human at its heart. This moral worth need not be earned through any deed or one’s entitlement or place in society. It is the basal and intrinsic self-respect of every man or woman that is at the root of the larger concept of justice.

This whole point of the book is that human dignity is not just about plain morality or the moral obligation of one individual to respect another. Human dignity is the ultimate objective of our political, judicial and social institutions, canonical laws, the Constitution and democracy itself.

From the foreword onwards, the author quickly gets down to business. The essays are topical and go on to show how the author treats human dignity not as an esoteric idea but as a practical concept shaped by the politics and concrete events of our time. The essays are divided thematically in three broad sections: Embracing A Politics of Dignity, In Quest of Freedom, Dignity and Justice, and Diplomacy at Work.

In the section Embracing A Politics of Dignity, the author analyses the Ayodhya verdict to say the Supreme Court was principally guided by a “discernable quest for a pragmatic and equitable solution…” and the need to strike a balance. The author states that with the nation having placed its faith in the highest judicial institution, it is only “fair” that the nation must “defer” to its judicial wisdom, which “even if not perfect, is the ideal way forward”.

The first section also contains a chapter on one of the most notable political decisions of the National Democratic Alliance government: the nullification of Article 370, a matter on which the Supreme Court has been petitioned to pronounce its judgement. Critics see the nullification of Article 370 as a “brazen negation of our solemn historical obligation to the people of Kashmir codified in the Instrument of Accession and a ‘constitutional monstrosity’”, the author states. The counter arguments are not “without appeal” either, he writes. He quotes home minister Amit Shah’s main arguments that the special provisions with regard to Kashmir have never served their purpose towards the people of Kashmir and that it was time for Kashmiris to enter a new “national pact” with the Union.

Whatever, the outcome of the legal challenge, the “decisive battle” on Kashmir will not be fought in courtrooms but in the “hearts and minds of the people”.

The section of the book, In Quest of Freedom, Dignity and Justice is essentially its soul, which directly speaks to human rights by picking some prickly topical issues, such as the “unspeakable and undisputable instances of brutalization, plunder, torture, rape, and murder of the Rohingiyas – the world’s most persecuted ethic minority facing genocide”. The author calls the August 8, 2017 order of the Union government, mandating the deportation of an estimated 40,000 Rohingiyas, “erroneous”.

Although India is not a signatory to the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees 1951, the author argues that the Indian state is founded on humane principles. The country has signed various treaties that reaffirm its commitment to international human rights and humane regime, including the International Declaration of Human Rights. The author firmly stands on the side of human dignity.

Read more: India should also accede to the UN refugee convention

The government, the author argues, may proffer many finer legal points on why it cannot admit the Rohingiyas, but such a stance is “wholly incompatible with our civilizational ethos based on Vasudheva Kutumbhakum”, which translates to ‘the whole world is one family’.

As the nation stands riven by rising communal tensions, political polarisation and strident religiosity, Kumar’s book appeals for an order of politics that is humane and dedicated to the continual purpose of human dignity. He seeks to foretell the story of a “democracy in decline” and a country “drifting from its civilizational moorings”. It argues, in a timely fashion, for “politics of dignity” and redrawing of our “political boundaries to reclaim the nation’s moral centre”. India’s civilizational ethos, as he notes early in his book, puts “justice and empathy” at the “pinnacle of its core values”. In times as tumultuous as these, Kumar speaks to our past to guide us to a hopefully bright future.

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