Updated: March 17, 2021 8:52:34 am
There is really nothing new, not already anticipated in a distressed planet since the emergence of human species life nearly two million years ago. So, a long prehistory of inter-faith dialogue entailing the reciprocal relation between religious traditions and the robustness of the very idea of being human and having rights, precedes the recent UN movement of faith for rights (F4R).
Archbishop Rowan Williams in his arresting anthology Faith in the Public Square wrote: “Pluralism is more than nervous or evasive good manners” and that “Argument is essential to a functioning democratic state”. Religion “should be involved in this, not constantly demanding the right not to be offended.” True faith does not lie in being religiously offended at the slightest pinprick but in robust public dialogue, serving both freedom and faith. And “we must resist policies or practices which accept the welfare of some at the expense of others”.
Much the same was said by Mohandas Gandhi in adopting Narsimh Mehta’s poem as a daily national prayer: Vaishnava jana to tene kahiye, jo peed parai jaane re (A gentle person is one who knows the pain of the other). And so did the Supreme Court inarguably, via forms of social action litigation, taking the sufferings of people seriously. Indeed, I was moved to say in the Eighties that at long last the Supreme Court of India has become the Supreme Court for all Indians.
The F4R framework has finally been affirmed by the United Nations system. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OCHR) promoted the Rabat plan of action in 2012. Note that this happened after the end of the Cold War, during globalisation, and soon after 9/11. The plan was a result of a series of expert workshops on the prohibition of incitement to national, racial or religious hatred, underlying “legislative patterns, judicial practices and policies”. The UN Human Rights Council is shortly going to discuss further the prohibition of the advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to “discrimination, hostility or violence”.
The OCHR followed (at five regional workshops at Vienna, Nairobi, Bangkok, Santiago, and Rabat) “a bottom-up, multi-stakeholder and consultative process” and recent examples of “post-electoral violence spurred by hatred along ethnic lines; … involving extremist groups, abusive and malicious portrayal, online or in traditional media, of certain religions and their followers”. Thus, “hatred has many faces and is present in all parts of the world”.
Attention was drawn to the “new punitive measures” — and the introduction of “vague and unclear provisions … open to misuse” amidst the “uneven and ad hoc application of these laws, compounded often” by the lack of “properly equipped institutions”. The “negative impact” was manifest in anti-blasphemy laws, the “curbing” of freedom of information and the use of the internet, harassment of journalists and human rights defenders, or instances… of minorities” persecution, with “a chilling effect on others, through the abuse of vague or counter-productive legislation, jurisprudence and policies”.
The Rabat plan aims to “contain the negative effects of the manipulation of race, ethnic origin and religion” and “ the adverse use of concepts of national unity or national identity, which are often instrumentalised for… political and electoral purposes”. Dual standards have developed for protection of perpetrators while “members of minorities are de facto persecuted, with a chilling effect on others, through the abuse of vague domestic legislation, jurisprudence and policies”.
The F4R movement underscores the high threshold of Article 20 of the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights, and urges that restrictions on rights be clearly and narrowly defined, prosecution be a responsible response to a “pressing social need”, and recourse to the least intrusive measure — free speech may not be restricted “in a wide or untargeted way”. Proportionality requires that the “benefit to the protected interest outweighs the harm to freedom of expression”. And a six-part threshold test is proposed for expressions considered as criminal offences — context, speaker, intent, content and form, extent, and imminence.
If the catalytic role of religious leaders against hate speech animates the Rabat Plan, the Beirut Declaration, 2017, recognises how religions “flourish in environments where human rights, based on the equal worth of all individuals, are protected”. Its 18 commitments underline the benefits of “human rights… from deeply rooted ethical and spiritual foundations provided by religions and beliefs”. All this stands remarkably reiterated by the recent sojourn of the Pope Francis to Iraq. He met at Najaf with the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and preached hope, healing, tolerance, and renewal in the violent debris of Mosul, where ISIS tortured the unbelievers.
Certainly, India has a high place at the UN table. Wise leadership and judicious human rights diplomacy are forever expected of India, which has a proud global record of promoting spiritual politics in many capacities. As a member of the UN Human Rights Council, non-permanent member of the Security Council, she now awaits before undertaking any decisive further steps, the final decision of the apex court (due shortly) on constitutional secularism.
The nine-judge Bench will rule on seven major matters: The (i) interplay between the freedom of religion under Articles 25 and 26 and other provisions in Part III of the Constitution; (ii) “public order, morality and health” occurring in Article 25(1);(iii) “morality” or “constitutional morality” as affecting faith; (iv) nature of judicial power to explore the “integral part of the religion”; (v) meaning of the expression “Hindus” in Article 25(2)(b); (vi) relationship between Articles 25 and Article 26; and (vii) standing of non–denominational persons to question religious practices of a denomination.
One hopes that the decision will dovetail with the F4R movement, portending new human rights futures. Further, one hopes that religious leaders and human rights experts will further nourish F4R and so will citizens and cadres, and the four estates of democracy — legislatures, executive, judiciary, and media.
After all, the executive, in formulating its climate change policy, revived the famous shanti mantra from Yajur Veda: “Unto Heaven be peace, unto the sky and the earth be peace, peace be unto the water, unto the herbs and trees be peace.” The F4R movement is a recent expression of the collective right to peace and peace is a cornerstone of India’s foreign policy.
This column first appeared in the print edition on March 17, 2021 under the title ‘Believers against hate’. The writer is professor of law, University of Warwick, and former vice-chancellor of Universities of South Gujarat and Delhi
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