The apparently unanimous decision to appoint a career politician to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) is a questionable step. Since its inception in 1993, the NHRC has always had a retired chief justice of India as its chairperson, a former judge of the Supreme Court, a former chief justice of a high court and two persons who have knowledge of, or practical experience in, matters relating to human rights. This precedent evolved from a principle laid down in the Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993. There is no evident reason for it to be abandoned now and the panel that appoints the NHRC members — including the prime minister, the Lok Sabha speaker, leaders of opposition in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha among others — should rethink its decision.
The reported choice of the panel for the post is Avinash Rai Khanna, a vice president of the BJP and a former MP, whose only claim to be a part of the NHRC seems to be a short stint in the Punjab State Human Rights Commission. The question is not whether a politician ought to be in the NHRC. It is: Why change a convention that has served the institution and the system well? The ex-officio members of the NHRC are mostly political appointees — chairpersons of the national commissions for minorities, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and women. It is important for the balance of the institution to exclude persons with clear political affiliations from full-time membership. This organisational structure has allowed the NHRC to gather a standing, over the years, as an independent and fair-minded body capable of resisting pressure from the political executive. The contributions the NHRC has made to help victims of the Gujarat riots of 2002 and human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir reveal the ability of the body to stand for justice, even if it means standing against the current.
It is telling that the Opposition, which rarely agrees with the government on any issue, has been a willing participant in the government’s bid to capture the body for the political class. Earlier, the BJP had opposed the nomination of a former judge to the NHRC because he was “perceived to be close to certain political and religious organisations”. Indeed, perceptions matter, especially when it comes to institutions like the NHRC. It is ironic, then, that in office, the BJP has picked a party office-bearer for the body. The move could erode the institution’s standing as an impartial body.