PUCL Bulletin, March 2002

Draconian Moves

By Kuldip Nayar

A different kind of human rights movement is now on the go. A band of Gandhians was flagged off a few days ago from Rajghat on a march to Ayodhya. This 600 km yatra, to be covered in 20 days, will spread Bapu's message of love and communal harmony. The yatris and thousands of others will reach Ayodhya on January 30, the day Gandhi was assassinated. Communal harmony is a major human rights issue because it is connected to the right to life, right to equality before law. Can a small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission alter the course of history?

The Gandhians on the march have armed themselves with Bapu's immortal words: recall the face of the poorest and weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Then you will find your doubts melting away. I wish the ultra groups, which believe they can solve the problem by killing people, would ponder over the Mahatma's words. They are wrong in their approach; so is the state in arming itself with more and more draconian laws. In a way, both are terrorists. Both are making society increasingly unlivable. Both have only force as an instrument to solve problems. They do not seem to realise that both terrorism and state terrorism have become irrelevant. I strongly believe that wrong means will not lead to right results.

The Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance (POTO) is evidence. Despite widespread protests, it has been re-promulgated. The Government has, in fact, cheated Parliament by not bringing the relevant Bill before it. It was the use of wrong methods. The Supreme Court has upbraided some State Governments for bypassing the Legislature. New Delhi has itself criticised them for doing so. But if the Centre indulges in similar tactics, where do people go to escape the Government's tyranny? I am amazed that the sensitive President of India okayed the second ordinance so readily. The Government also gave certain promises to the press. It has gone back on them. Clause 3 (8): regarding the disclosure of information in possession has been deleted. But the harsher Clause 14 stays. It deals with the obligation of all citizens of India to furnish information. My case is not that journalists are a class above the citizens. But the journalistic profession has certain demands and one of them is the protection of source. A police official should have no power to ask a journalist for information and detain him if he refuses to divulge it. Confidentiality of the source is part of a reporter's ethos. How can he breach it? POTO is a blot on the democratic escutcheon. When the National Human Rights Commission reopposed POTO, the matter should have ended there. It is the highest body we have in the country to protect the rights of citizens and it is presided over by one of the ablest former Chief Justices of India. Even before the Ordinance was promulgated for the second time, the Commission used harsh words against it. In a unanimous resolution, it conveyed to the Government: any law for combating terrorism should be consistent with the Constitution, the relevant international instruments and treaties, and should respect the principles of necessity and proportionality.

The Commission chairperson, J.S. Verma, has elucidated recently the point in a lecture: "Terrorism results in gross violation of human rights and must, no doubt, be dealt with a heavy hand. However, the methods to counter terrorism must not violate the human rights of innocents or else the innocents would be exposed to double jeopardy and suffer a twin violation of their human rights." Experience world- wide has shown that state terrorism to combat terrorism is counter-productive. International opinion is also shocked because India is considered a liberal democratic country. As an MP, I have received many letters from abroad, requesting me to stop the measure. How can I when the Government does not have the courage to bring it before Parliament? Sensing defeat in the Rajya Sabha - the BJP had an unofficial count - the Government decided on another Ordinance after the session.
However, the observation by a human rights activist from Denmark is pertinent. The activist says: "One of our concerns with this Bill is that it is incompatible with international human rights treaties, particularly the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which India is a party. Also, India' s own experience with the application of the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA) is a case where widespread abuse occurred in its application. TADA in effect surrendered rights assured under the ICCPR by the de facto establishment of a continuing state of emergency."

Someone, through a personal letter to The Hindu, has brought to my notice one sad example of violation of human rights. Raj Shrivastava was a mental patient and was under medical treatment throughout his life. In 1990, he was found to be HIV positive. His parents married him off to Kalpana suppressing his HIV status and mental illness. Raj used to beat and abuse his wife for not bringing dowry and torture her both physically and mentally in different ways. And so did Kalpana's mother-in-law. In June 1998, Kalpana became pregnant. "I will sit on your stomach and when the child will die inside your stomach and you will cry in pain then I will be very happy," Raj threatened her. Kalpana thought of committing suicide. In September, Raj forced her to go to her parents' house. In April 1999, she had a son and came back to her husband. And the same story of physical and mental torture was repeated. In May 2001, Raj died of AIDS. Soon after, Kalpana's in-laws threw her and the boy out of the house. They now have plans to migrate to the U.S. leaving both Kalpana and her son without any support. At the end of her story, Kalpana says: "An attempt to murder an innocent girl (Kalpana) was made by marrying her to an HIV-positive mental case." She asks: "Who gave them the right to destroy the life of an innocent girl?"

The story of Pratap C. Dutta is equally pathetic, though in a different way. He is an old journalist, abandoned by almost all to die in a nondescript room. Years ago, his byline appeared in most leading newspapers. He had been a witness to our freedom struggle. In some ways he participated in it. Although gentle and affable, he minced no words in his writings. But he has been abandoned now - by friends and others. He needs sympathy and help. Both are not forthcoming. I wrote to the Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, for assistance several months ago. But there was not even an acknowledgement to the letter. The Delhi Chief Minister, Shiela Dixit, has proved no better. She too did not reply. They are busy people, lost in politics. Still, ageing and ailing journalists and artists should be helped. Maybe, there should be a fund for their care. The corporate sector, instead of sponsoring fashion shows and beauty pageants, can create a fund. Reports generally accumulate dust. But the one prepared by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) on Human Rights and Poverty Eradication should not. It mirrors the conditions - and the people's helplessness -prevailing in the Commonwealth countries. But what makes it important is the admission it makes that the rich countries in the Commonwealth lack sensitivity towards the poor ones.

It is a matter of shame for the association, member-governments, the commercial sector and civil society actors that it continues to rely on rhetoric when the social and economic conditions of millions in the Commonwealth are in fact worsening in many ways. Such pervasive poverty mocks at the pretensions of the Commonwealth to solidarity, social justice and equity, says the report.

True, many consciences must have been irked at many places. But this alone will not do. A plan of action is required. The report lacks that. Some time-bound concrete steps are required and the CHRI should supervise them.

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