Every time there is an attack or killing by Maoists or a terror attack, a set of people otherwise contemptuous of human rights start asking questions like “Where are human rights wallahs? Why are they silent now?” Joining the bandwagon after the Sukma attack is Union minister M. Venkaiah Naidu, who recently issued an official statement titled ‘Why human rights activists silent on dastardly killing of CRPF Jawans in Sukma?’
This isn’t a rhetorical (and ungrammatical) question raised in a press conference, but a formal statement released by his office, with the minister asking if human rights are meant only “for those who chose violence in furtherance of their outdated ideologies and not for security personnel and common people?”
There are two questions here. Are human rights activists and organisations really silent on the Sukma attack? And second, do they believe that human rights are only meant for a few people, especially those who, in the minister’s words, indulge in violence? The answer to both questions is no.
Let us address the first question. Contrary to the minister’s claim, human rights organisations and activists condemned the Sukma incident within a few hours. “The Chhattisgarh PUCL severely condemns the ruthless ambush carried out by Maoists at the Burkapal area under police station Chintagufa limits in district Sukma on April 24, 2017, and expresses its deep grief at the killing of 25 jawans, mostly young persons of poor families,” read the opening sentence of the statement released by the Chhattisgarh chapter of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL).
Similarly, several activists have expressed their shock and anger over the incident and done so publicly. Among those who condemned the killing, to name a few, are Nandini Sundar, Swami Agnivesh, Himanshu Kumar, Soni Sori and Bela Bhatia. These names are significant because they are often accused of being Maoist sympathisers and labelled ‘anti-national’ for upholding human rights and constitutional values.
Moreover, a number of activists and organisations also carried out a candle-light march in Bilaspur, Chhattisgarh, where they paid tribute to the security personnel killed and injured in the incident.
However, Naidu and those who brief him conveniently ignored all these facts – because acknowledging them would not serve their purpose and would rob them of a chance to demonise human rights activists. This is a pattern that is all too familiar by now.
But why should the blame only rest with Naidu when most media organisations also did not publish the statements by human rights activists? Most strikingly, the Indian Express, which ran Naidu’s statement, did not mention the fact that several human rights activists and organisation had indeed spoken against the Maoist attack. In fact, on May 1, the daily published an opinion column written by Naidu titled ‘Romancing the Maoists’. The Times of India, on the other hand, did carry PUCL’s statement, but only online.
As for the second question – do human rights activists believe rights belong only to those who ‘indulge in violence’, as Naidu alleged? Certainly not. No human rights organisation subscribes to this view, or to the suggestion that the state is violating the human rights of armed militants when the latter are killed in the course of an operation. Let us be clear: human rights groups criticise the state for human rights violations only when the security forces kill unarmed, non-combatants – and subsequently pass them off as militants, Maoists and terrorists.
Defining human rights, section 2 of the Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993 clearly states that “Human rights means the rights relating to life, liberty, equality and dignity of the individual guaranteed by the constitution or embodied in the international covenants and enforceable by courts in India.”
The constitution and international covenants make it mandatory for the state to uphold, protect and promote human rights. NGOs, civil society groups and activists can only assist the institutions entrusted to carry out these duties. But unfortunately, most of the time their attempt to uphold constitutional values is seen and projected as not just anti-state or anti-government, but also ‘anti-national’. Activists are often termed as ‘so-called human rights activist’ or ‘activists with double standards’. This despite the fact that human rights organisations and activists across the country have repeatedly maintained that they are against all kinds of violence. It is no surprise, then, that human rights defenders and activists are under attack. Naidu’s statement, appealing for the building of “strong opinion” against human rights activists, is likely to increase and further legitimise the formation of civil vigilante groups like those seen in Bastar, such as the Samajik Ekta Manch and AGNI.
If Naidu is really interested in solving the problem then he should listen to the activists instead of slamming them. As the Bastar-based Bela Bhatia and others have rightly suggested, “The war must end. There have been enough killings and counter-killings. Nothing has been achieved. Actions of both sides have taken the society backwards, not forward. A public call for a ceasefire should be given. In the interest of the people of Bastar, both sides should respect it. Both sides should work towards finding a political solution. The ordinary citizen should no longer remain a mute witness to a war that has lost all meaning and in which there will be no winners.”
One hopes Naidu and those at the helm of affairs are listening.
Mahtab Alam is an activist turned journalist and writer. He writes on issues related to politics, law, literature, human rights and tweets @MahtabNama.