Human rights and the State
The government, political parties, and the National Human Rights Commission need to value all kinds of civil liberties
At the 28th foundation day of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi critiqued what he saw as the selective and political use of human rights, and said this harmed democracy and tarnished the nation’s image. He traced the idea of human rights to the freedom movement, and outlined his government’s steps, particularly with regard to welfare delivery, as aiding the rights of marginalised. For his part, the NHRC chair, Justice (retired) Arun Mishra, echoed the PM’s critique of selective deployment of the idea of human rights, claimed terrorists must not be defended in the name of rights, and hailed the government, especially home minister Amit Shah, for steps in Jammu and Kashmir and Northeast.
It is important to go back to first principles. One, indeed, there must be no selective application of human rights — the right to life, liberty, equality, dignity, religion, privacy, free speech, free movement, free association, among others, must apply to all citizens, irrespective of caste, religion, region, gender or any other criteria, subject to reasonable restrictions as constitutionally stipulated. Two, it is the job of the State to protect and preserve these rights for all, and it is the job of human rights organisations to critique the violation of these rights, be it by the State or a political party or a vigilante group or a terror outfit. Three, given the fact that the State is the only actor which has a legitimate monopoly over force, there is a tendency for its coercive arms to exercise these powers beyond what the rule of law permits. It is, then, natural that the State will have a somewhat adversarial relationship with human rights groups. Indeed, this distance is important, and human rights commissions should never lose sight of the fact that their primary job is to comfort the afflicted and hold governments accountable. And four, all rights — political and civil rights, and social and economic rights — are crucial.
Given this framework, Indian democracy would be best served if the executive, political parties, activist organisations, and human rights bodies internalise that rights must apply to all, that violation of rights by any actor is wrong, that the State has a special responsibility to protect rights and must be challenged when it fails to do so, and that socioeconomic progress and political liberty are both important.