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Human rights and basic needs are one and the same thing — PM Modi’s sequencing is fraught

PM Modi’s stress on human rights mattering only when basic needs are fulfilled is problematic, in as much as it sees the two as disparate and divisible, and as counting for more and less.

The PM’s party’s own slogan seems to urge a more encompassing view. “Sabka saath, sabka vikas” now has “sabka vishwas” added to it.

Speaking at the 28th Foundation Day of the National Human Rights Commission, Tuesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke of human rights in ways that could potentially take the conversation further and deeper — but also in ways that run into familiar dead ends. The prime minister was right to point out that there is a political lens through which rights are viewed, but he made it sound like an accusation more dire than it deserves to be. Of course, there is a politics of human rights and, as the PM said, views can be and are “selective”. There are “my human rights”, versus “your human rights”, vantage points matter. That is in the order of political things. But to say that “selective outrage” over human rights is the biggest violation, that it hurts the country’s image and is “dangerous” for democracy, is surely to oversay it. This is still a country where, all too often, basic individual freedoms and rights are unprotected, and violated by a state that is excessively powerful and also armed with impunity — Lakhimpur Kheri is a reminder that the right to protest safely and the right to justice can be put to the test. But more significantly, perhaps, it is what the PM said about basic needs, his government’s achievements in delivery of goods and services that meet those needs, and the relationship between needs and rights, that opens a conversation, while pointing to the dead-ends.

In a capacious democracy, it would be narrowing the room for discussion severely to pose “basic needs” and “human rights” as separate from each other, or sequential, or in conflict — not as essential partners. Links need to be drawn and acknowledged — between meeting basic needs and asserting basic rights, between needs and development, between human rights and development. While doing this, it is important to see the people not as beneficiaries, but as those who are entitled to both the benefits of development and freedoms, economic, social and political. Moreover, the latter must be seen not as a means of achieving development but as a direct good in their own right. In this context, the PM’s emphasis on the delivery by his government of goods — he gave the example of Ujjwala gas cylinders, among others — is well taken. Indeed, the effect of the success of several of the government’s flagship schemes, which are essentially non-discriminatory in their targeting and their reach, cannot be underestimated in persuading voters, and also empowering them. But the PM’s stress on human rights mattering only when basic needs are fulfilled is problematic, in as much as it sees the two as disparate and divisible, and as counting for more and less.

The PM’s party’s own slogan seems to urge a more encompassing view. “Sabka saath, sabka vikas” now has “sabka vishwas” added to it. For earning the people’s trust, the need for the gas cylinder cannot be, it must not be, walled off from the right to justice. And special steps, beyond Direct Benefit Transfer, need to be taken to ensure that “sabka” translates into everyone, including the minorities, as well as the voiceless and the poor.

This column first appeared in the print edition on October 14, 2021 under the title ‘Beneficiary & Citizen’.

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First published on: 14-10-2021 at 03:00:26 am
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