PUCL Bulletin, April 2003

Liberties at risk
-- By Kuldip Nayar

Two recent incidents, not connected with each other, are disturbing because they relate to individual liberty. Both reflect an attitude of scant respect to the other rule of law. The attack on an American missionary in Kerala and the illegal detention of a journalist from Kashmir show a type of vindictiveness that is alien to our culture. By any criterion, they violate human rights.

Take the case of the American missionary, Joseph Cooper. He is a known evangelist. But the propagation of one's faith is not banned, conversion through force and fraud is. Some extremist Hindus injured him grievously. The State Chief Minister, A.K. Antony, said such incidents had happened before. This may be a statement of fact but it brings no credit to the State which tops the country's literacy pyramid and which is supposed to look after the safety of its people. For reasons best known to Antony, he did not want to identify the attackers. He should have called a spade a spade because this is one way of exposing such forces.

The RSS has been active in Kerala for a long time. Till recently, the communists were the RSS' main targets. At many places, the two have clashed and dozens have died at each other's hands. But since the communists proved to be more than a match for the RSS, it seems to have switched to targeting the Christians. The RSS chief, K.S. Sudarshan's innuendo against the Jesuits is only a few days old. Some fanatics seem to believe that killing a missionary here or demolishing a church there will create fear among the Christians and make them stop their normal activity. Incidents are taking place in Bihar and Orissa and in Madhya Pradesh and Kerala.

Top RSS men, working in the Ranchi tribal belt, have been shifted to Madhya Pradesh. The organisation's latest strategy is to have anti-conversion legislation in all the States where the BJP is ruling and to make conversion a poll issue in States where it is not in power. Already, BJP-ruled Himachal Pradesh, where elections are only a few weeks away, has announced that the party would bring in the anti-conversion law if it is returned to power. The plan is to play the Hindu card even though the population of Muslims and Christians in the State is negligible.

The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has done well in taking Suo Motu notice of the attack on the missionary. The Antony Government, unlike the Narendra Modi Government in Gujarat, will not hide facts. When the NHRC asked Ahmedabad about the communal riots, the report sent was inadequate and misleading. It could do so because the Home Ministry was at its back. Kerala is different. The Government may be circumspect about naming the organisation behind the incident of political reasons but there is no reason to believe it will not cooperate with the NHRC.

It is a pity that the NHRC chairman, Justice J.C. Verma, has retired before the report has come from the State. His has been a commendable tenure. One felt unhappy over his equivocal definition of Hinduism in one Judgement. This has come in handy to the Hindutva forces. However, he has allayed doubts about his leanings by his stand on Gujarat. His finest hour was when he forced the Modi Government to submit a report on the carnage in the State. Indeed, Justice Verma has spoken eloquently on behalf of a permanent underclass in our society, the minorities whose rights are impinged upon every day.

It seems as if the job that the Commission has done first under Justice Venkatachaliah and now under Justice Verma has upset the BJP. It was never in favour of a Human Rights Commission. When it was part of the Janata Government (1977-79), it wanted a different type of commission. This may will be the reason why the Justice Ahmadi committee's recommendation to give more powers to the commission has remained unimplemented. The committee's proposal was that the armed forces, outside the ambit of the NHRC, should be redefined so that the exemption given is applicable only to the three services, not to the BSF, CRPF and such other formations.

The Government has not yet accepted an other recommendation that the Commission be given power to grant interim relief to the sufferer. Official bias against the Commission is clear from the long time taken to fill vacancies. Two vacancies in the five members NHRC have been there for months. Probably, the Government feels it is one way to punish the Commission for the alacrity it shows in coming to the rescue of the aggrieved.

The case of Iftikhar Geelani, a journalist from Kashmir, is a shameful example of violation of constitutional rights an Indian citizen enjoys. His fault is that he is married to the daughter of Syed Shah Geelani, a Hurriyat leader. Not many like Mr. Geelani's father-in-law's open support for Kashmir's integration with Pakistan. But should sins of a father-in-law visit on the son-in-law? We seem to have at the Centre a Government, which knows no bounds of law. Mr. Geelani would have been still behind the bars had the Director General of Military Intelligence (DGMI) not given him a clean chit and told the court that the documents found in Mr. Geelani's possession were not "incriminatory". The attitude of the Home Ministry was vindictive.

Even after the Army's clearance the Ministry stuck to its line of "punishing" the son-in-law. It rejected even the evidence tendered by the DGMI. Public exposure of the Home Ministry's stand evidently made it withdraw the case against Mr. Geelani. His statement after coming out of jail will touch every honest Indian's heart. He described how he was physically manhandled in jail and how, in spite of everything that was happening, he had never lost faith in the Judiciary. He was sure that justice would triumph.

When POTA came into force, some people expressed fears about its possible misuse. Mr. Geelani's case shows how biased rulers can misuse POTA for their political ends. Authoritarian ways finished Indira Gandhi. The BJP leaders should have learnt a lesson. But Mr. Geelani's case proves that they have not. It was brought further contempt to the system and those running it. It looks as if human rights activists are going to be targeted more than before. They should be prepared for this.

Where is Sevagram? This was the question many asked me in Delhi when I told them about a meeting of voluntary workers at Sevagram. Even at Nagpur, which is near Sevagram, it was the same query. Once when my car driver lost his way, quite near the place, it was difficult to find a person who could tell us the exact location of Sevagram.

Sevagram had been the hub of political activities only five decades ago. This is the place where Mahatma Gandhi spent most of his years and from where he launched several satyaagrahas. Certain things he did are still done the same way here. There is a prayer meeting every evening at six at the very spot where Mahatma Gandhi used to hold it. Alas, the number of people at the meeting has been reduced to a number, which can be counted on one's fingers.

I was in Sevagram when some Gandhians and human rights activists met to discuss the brutalisation of society at the hands of fanatics on the one hand and the economic reformists on the other. Nearly 50 people were there. The 90-year old Gandhian, Siddharaj Dhadhha, Kisen Patnaik, Amar Nath Bhai, and the leading lights from among human rights activists such as Medha Patkar and B.D. Sharma were present. They resolved to develop a new paradigm of alternative development with equality, justice and democratic planning. The emphasis was on a struggle against casteism and communalism and adherence to social equity and secularism. I wondered how many takers would be there in today's India


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