The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) is India’s highest statutory body constituted for the defence of the human rights of vulnerable people. Since it was created by a statute of Parliament in 1993, it has had a mixed and chequered record in the performance of duties that are critical in a country of such vast historical inequalities and embedded systems of oppression. Its finest hour was in the aftermath of the Gujarat communal riots in 2002, when it actively held the state government to account for relief, reparations and justice for the survivors. But for much of its tenure, the NHRC has often been criticised for inaction during human rights violations in contexts of communal, caste and gender violence and discrimination, extra-judicial killings, torture and forced disappearances.
However, a recent report by the NHRC, for the first time, opens it up to grave criticism not just of inaction, but of actively contributing to a majoritarian, communally-charged discourse. Its team visited the Muslim-majority township of Kairana in western Uttar Pradesh in which some Muslim survivors of the communal violence in 2013 had migrated after being uprooted because their homes and families had been attacked and they felt it was unsafe to return. The report, in effect, regards these Muslim migrants not as victims deserving the defence of the NHRC but as people responsible for contributing to raised levels of crime and the harassment of women which resulted in the “exodus” of law-abiding Hindu residents from Kairana.
The NHRC states that it acted on the basis of a complaint by Supreme Court advocate Monika Arora, but the charge of a Hindu “exodus” from Kairana because of the alleged criminal activities of riot-affected migrants was first raised by BJP MP Hukam Singh. His complaint was part of an old strategy of majoritarian communalists to paint the Hindu community as victims even when Hindu communalists perpetrate communal attacks. His communally explosive charges were disproved by investigations by The Indian Express, The Hindu and NDTV, which demonstrated that most of the 346 Hindus alleged to have left Kairana did so much earlier in search of better opportunities, or were dead or still living in the town.
The NHRC still felt it fit to reinvestigate the same communally motivated charges that had been publicly disproved. It concurs in its report that because of “the post-rehabilitation scenario resulting in resettlement of about 25-30,000 members of Muslim community in Kairana town from district Muzaffarnagar, UP, the demography of Kairana town has changed in favour of the Muslim community becoming the more dominating and majority community”. The report agrees with “witnesses” and “victims” that “the rehabilitation in 2013 has permanently changed the social situation in Kairana town and has led to further deterioration of law and order situation.”
There is much that is extraordinary about these NHRC findings. In a recent report Living Apart: Communal Violence and Forced Displacement in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli, Akram Chaudhary, Zafar Eqbal, Rajanya Bose and I documented the exodus forced by communal attacks of around 50,000 Muslims, of whom around 30,000 were living in poorly resourced and self-settled refugee colonies. We described the enormous suffering of these displaced persons, forced forever to leave the villages of their birth in a continuing climate of hate and fear, moving from camps to tiny tenements, with education, livelihoods and social relationships destroyed. This exodus, caused by communal violence, spurred no action in support of the displaced persons by the NHRC. The thousands of Muslims forced to leave their villages because of targeted communal attacks are not “victims” or “witnesses” for the NHRC. They are, instead, the problem. The “victims” are the Hindu residents of Kairana town where the riot-displaced persons took refuge. It is also noteworthy that since 2013, the NHRC has taken no significant initiatives to assist riot victims.
Further, the figure of 25-30,000 persons having come into Kairana town after 2013 is a gross exaggeration. Our survey, reported in Living Apart, had found around 200 riot-affected families in Kairana. After the NHRC report, Akram Akhtar and his colleagues undertook a fresh survey in case they had missed any resettled families and found another 70 stray Muslim families in the outskirts of the town. Even if we assume an average family size of seven, this would still amount to around 2,000 persons, a far distance from the irresponsible figure quoted by the NHRC.
The 2011 census showed that Kairana had a population of 89,000 persons, of who more than 80 per cent were Muslim. It is difficult to see then how an addition of 2,000 persons had so drastically altered the demography of Kairana “in favour of the Muslim community becoming the more dominating and majority community”, as stated by the NHRC, when it was already an overwhelmingly Muslim majority town. What is even more regrettable is that this small increase of Muslim people internally displaced by hate-violence is stated by the NHRC to have resulted in a deterioration of the law and order situation in Kairana town. Once again, this conclusion is not based on any crime figures or other data presented by the NHRC; instead, this is based on the statements of the Hindu “victims” that its team chose to speak with. The NHRC report states: “At least 24 witnesses stated that the youths of the specific majority community (Muslims) in Kairana town pass lewd/taunting remarks against the females of the specific minority community in Kairana town. Due to this, females of the specific minority community (Hindus) in Kairana town avoid going outside frequently. However, they could not gather courage to report the matter to the police for the legal action.”
Our enquiries with the local police revealed that there were no complaints of so-called “eve-teasing” or lewd remarks by Muslim youth made to them over the last year. It is highly unfortunate that the NHRC report plays into the communal stereotype that dates back to Partition — of Muslim young men sexually harassing Hindu girls. This is even more irresponsible because it was precisely this charge against Muslim youths that sparked off the 2013 communal massacre that led to the killings, arson and forced exodus of Muslims from mixed villages in the region. For the NHRC to accept these conclusions, without any credible independent evidence, reflects its unacceptable complicity in communal rumour-mongering and stereotyping.
This is a precipitous fall for the NHRC, from the heights it attained under the leadership of Justice J.S. Verma — after the Gujarat 2002 communal riots, it chose the mantle of the principal defender of the rights of a survivors of the gruesome attacks. The NHRC was unflinching and uncompromising as it documented the many failings of the state and central government in ensuring the protection, relief, compensation, rehabilitation and access to legal justice for the survivors. It was the NHRC which itself moved the Supreme Court to oversee the investigation and trial of the major massacres. From these heights, the NHRC slipped later to a record largely of wilful passivity during subsequent communal and caste massacres. But it has today allowed itself to echo communal majoritarian labelling of the victims. We have seen many public institutions enfeebled and compromised in recent years. The NHRC is too important a public institution, created as it was for the defence of the rights of the weak and oppressed, to be destroyed in this way.