The Prime Minister is reported to have said, “In recent years, some people have begun interpreting human rights in their own ways, prioritizing their interests. They see human rights violation in one incident but cannot see it in another incident of a similar nature. Such mindset harms human rights a lot.” He is absolutely correct.
In 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The document articulated the rights and freedoms to which every human being is equally and inalienably entitled.
The Preamble to the document captured the reality of the world in 1948 and justified the need to document the UDHR because “disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind….” What was true in 1948 is true in 2021; it may have become better in some countries but it has certainly become worse in some other countries, including India.
Let’s start with what happened on October 3, 2021, in a place called Lakhimpur Kheri in Uttar Pradesh. Farmers were protesting against three agriculture-related laws enacted by — actually rushed through — Parliament. A convoy of vehicles (of which at least two have been identified) driven at great speed behind the marching farmers mowed down four protesters. Violence followed. Three occupants of the car were caught by the enraged crowd and beaten to death. A journalist also died. The lead vehicle belonged to the Minister of State (MoS) for Home in the Central government. It was alleged that his son was one of the occupants of the vehicle.
Human rights were violated in the incident. Article 19 of the UDHR declares that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference….” Article 20 declares that “Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.” The protesting farmers had assembled peacefully and the march was an expression of their opinion on the farm laws. Article 3 declares that “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” The speeding vehicle snuffed out three lives instantaneously.
On the violation of human rights in Lakhimpur Kheri, the Prime Minister has remained silent until this day.
Activists are Terrorists!
Let’s go back to 2018 and to an incident in Bhima Koregaon, Maharashtra. On June 6, 2018, five social activists were arrested by police on charges of instigating caste violence in Bhima Koregaon in January 2018. The five included a lawyer, an English professor, a poet and publisher, and two human rights activists. They are still in prison; their applications for bail have been repeatedly rejected. (On August 28, 2018, five more social activists were arrested.)
The lawyer, Mr Surendra Gadling, asked to be allowed to study ‘cyber law and human rights’. His request was rejected. The English professor, Ms Shoma Sen, after a year of complaining, was given a chair in her cell. Despite her arthritis, she has been forced to sleep on a thin mattress on the floor. In the initial months, she was kept with convicts. The rights activist, Mr Mahesh Raut, has been refused Ayurvedic medicines brought by his family for his ulcerative colitis. The poet and publisher, Mr Sudhir Dhawale, has not been allowed to meet his colleagues and friends because they are not blood relatives.
On January 2, 2021, a journalist, Mr Prateek Goyal, documented 16 violations of law in the criminal proceedings against the accused in the Bhima Koregaon case.
These included egregious excesses such as search and seizure without a warrant; whisking away a prisoner without an order of transit remand; denial of a lawyer of the prisoner’s choice; refusal of the State to bear the cost of hospital treatment of a prisoner; refusal to give medical reports to a prisoner; refusal of a commode chair to a prisoner suffering from arthritis; refusal of a full-sleeve sweater; refusal of books by Swami Vivekananda; arbitrary withdrawal of the case from the Maharashtra Police and its transfer to the National Investigation Agency (under the Central government, tasked with investigating terrorist acts and crimes) two days after a new government replaced the BJP government in Maharashtra; refusal of parole to a prisoner to attend his mother’s funeral; and so on.
Punishment Before Trial
The relevant Articles of the UDHR read, inter alia, as under —
Article 5: No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
Article 9: No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.
Article 10: Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.
Article 11: Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial….
To the best of my knowledge, in the last over three years, the Prime Minister has not uttered a word on the human rights of the prisoners in the Bhima Koregaon case nor on the prolonged delay in even framing the charges, in a case prosecuted by the agency under his charge, the NIA. Needless to say, the trial has not started.
I entirely agree with the Prime Minister when he said “Such mindset harms human rights a lot.”