Within a matter of days, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) of India found itself on the wrong foot twice. In the first instance, a ‘hate speech’ video of a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) constable delivered last month during a debate competition organised by the NHRC went viral, causing consternation. In the second, inviting Amit Shah, once an accused in fake encounter cases, as chief guest for the commission’s foundation day celebrations, has raised eyebrows.
On September 27, Khushboo Chauhan, a constable of the CRPF, delivered an emotive speech which was not just antithetical to the very idea of human rights but also propagated violence against non-combatant civilians like Kanhaiya Kumar.
Moreover, the speech contained claims that were far removed from reality and truth. For example, while referring to the 2016 JNU controversy, she said that “No human rights activist has ever stood with us, but when in JNU, anti-national slogans like ‘Bharat tere tukde tukde honge (India will be divided into many pieces)’ or ‘Afzal, hum sharminda hain, tere qatil zinda hai (Afzal, we are ashamed that your killers are still alive)’ were raised, everyone lined up in support for him.”
Both the claims made by Chauhan are untrue and misleading. Human rights activists and organisations across the country have time and again condemned violence committed against members of security forces by militant groups.
However, it is important to remember that there is a difference between a militant group attacking security forces personnel (and this violating their human rights) and the security forces themselves indulging in such violations. While the use of violence by militant groups is a crime and should be condemned and punished, the violation of human rights by security forces rightly causes greater concern. This is because, unlike militant groups, soldiers and paramilitary jawans are constitutionally mandated to not just protect human rights but also uphold them in all circumstances.
Secondly, the claim that anti-national slogans were raised in JNU by any one let alone Kanhaiya is yet to be proved. To the contrary, a forensic probe into the matter found that two videos attributed to the event were “manipulated” and voices of the people not visible in the clips were added.
Chauhan received ‘consolation prize’
Despite the false claims made by Chauhan, the NHRC chose to bestow her with a ‘consolation prize’ for her speech. More than Chauhan, this is a pitiable commentary on the institution, which was created with the sole objective of protecting and promoting human rights in India. By felicitating Chauhan, the NHRC has legitimised a speech which is questioning the very idea of human and civil rights.
One can argue that debate competitions hardly have an impact on life. That their purpose is to hone the debating skills of participants.
If that’s the case, the NHRC should have issued a clarification (as the CRPF did, in some sense) that it does not agree with the claims made and ‘ideas’ presented by the participants because they are anti-human rights. This would have automatically meant that Chauhan would have dropped out of the honour’s list.
Remember, unlike college/university debating societies, the aim of competitions organised by bodies like the NHRC is not to hone talent but sensitise citizens and participants. Imagine a situation where the National Commission for Women Commission were to honour ‘debaters’ for emotively arguing in favour of female infanticide or some other violation of women’s rights.
Amit Shah’s comments on human rights
As if this were not enough, the NHR invited home minister Amit Shah as the chief guest for its foundation day celebrations. Shah was once an accused in two fake encounter cases and is widely known for his contempt for human rights activists and organisations.
Therefore, it was not a surprise when at the event, he said, “Western standards” of human rights cannot be “blindly” applied to India. He also argued that India’s human rights policy must take into account those killed by militants or Naxals in the same way that it does victims of police atrocities and custodial deaths. “There is no bigger violation of human rights than those affected by militants in Kashmir or Naxals. We must look at these issues with an Indian outlook,” Shah said.
Here, one can argue that Shah was invited because he is the Union home minister, not because he represents a political party or ideology.
True, but then again, the commission doesn’t need to invite the home minister, especially one whose record shows he is not committed to the protection of human rights. The NHRC does not come under the home ministry, or for that matter, any arm of the government. It is an independent body established by an Act of parliament – the Protection of Human Rights Act (PHRA), 1993 (and amended in 2006). It is headed by a person, who is, or has been, a judge of the Supreme Court of India.
In the recent past, for occasions like these, the chief justice of India, the president or the vice president of India have been invited as chief guests. The commission was under no compulsion to invite the home minister.
One can also argue that Shah was well within his rights to express concerns about ‘westernisation’ or western concepts of human rights and ask to look at human rights issues “with an Indian outlook”.
But the fundamental question is what constitutes “an Indian outlook” and what will the basis be of such a concept? If it is going to be the Constitution of India, which ideally it should be, then the human rights movement in India is already driven by this “Indian outlook”.
Section 2(1)(d) of the PHRA clearly defines human rights as the rights relating to life, liberty, equality and dignity of the individual as guaranteed by the constitution or embodied in international covenants and enforceable by courts in India. It should be noted here that the Constitution of India broadly frames the conception of human rights in India. Hence, one wonders what “Indian outlook” the home minister is looking for.
Like Chauhan, Shah has also made unsubstantiated claims and spread misinformation about human rights issues faced by the country. The home minister’s claim that “India’s human rights policy must focus on the rights of civilians killed by militants or Maoists as much as it does on police atrocities and custodial deaths” gives an impression that human rights activists, organisations and the commission are only concerned about the rights of militants or Maoists.
Claims like these are not only misleading but create a hostile environment for human rights workers. These claims feed the propaganda that ‘human rights wallahs‘ are ‘anti-national’ or ‘part of a Western conspiracy’.
NHRC officials legitimise unfounded claims
What is even more alarming is that instead of countering these unsubstantiated claims, the NHRC and its officials are legitimising them. The NHRC chairperson and former chief justice of India H.L. Dattu, gave legitimacy to the opinion voiced by Shah. In a press release, he said:
“The presence of the Union Home Minister, Mr. Amit Shah on this occasion, reflects his concern for and commitment to ensuring an effective realisation of human rights for all the people of India. His dedication and dexterity make him represent the emerging New India, which believes in result oriented performance in every field.”
Ideally, Justice Dattu or the commission should have clarified how the ‘Indian outlook’ is already part of human rights in India. In the absence of such a clarification, it seems that the commission is in agreement with the minister, which should be a cause for concern.
This can further damage the credibility of the NHRC, which is an independent body for the promotion and protection of human rights in India. By providing a platform to the likes of Chauhan and Shah to voice ideas that are antithetical to the idea of human rights by any given standard, and then endorsing them or felicitating them, the commission defeats its own purpose.