PUCL Bulletin, February 2003

The right to life. The right to know.

By Satchit Balsari
18 March 2003

Every man is entitled to his opinion. And each to express it. It is when the results thereof transgress on the rightful spheres of freedoms of other men that clashes arise. The ideology of rights cannot be dismissed, in a civilization as old as the history of man and in a civilization from which have evolved some of the most profound philosophies, as mere western hegemony. The pursuit of freedom, transcending even the metaphysical, has been an integral part of Indian civilization, millennia before an overarching global institution accorded freedoms to every human being. And it is precisely because freedoms are accorded to all, that freedoms cannot - however antithetic this may appear - be absolute. Freedom comes with responsibility: the responsibility to not, by way of one's actions, violate the rightful freedom of another.

Freedoms are granted by man-made institutions through practice or texts, contemporary and historical, or by divine approval reproduced through religious tomes. And therefore the Constitution of India, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Shastras and the Koran all contribute to the understanding of freedom. It is futile to deem one superior to the others. It is futile to evoke one to fight the other, for the greatness of these compilations lies in their common pursuit of fairness to one and all. While the nuances of these texts may differ to adapt to the historical populations they served, through them emerges a canon of consensus. Not one of them would justify the politics of today. Not one of them would condone the slaying of worshippers, the scorching of travelers, or the plundering of innocents, for the inalienable right that shines most bright from the edifices of religion and justice, along the entire march of time, the one right that is pronounced each time nature lets another being come into existence, the one right that towers above all and engulfs all cultures -- is the right to life.

Political freedom has not brought the naturally consequential freedoms that were promised, as Mahatma Gandhi had forewarned. Millions suffer the indignity of deprivation. The people of this land, denied food, water and education in varying but abominable proportion, are not free to pursue their lives at will. They have not tasted freedom - the freedom to make choices. Those that have never experienced freedom may not easily comprehend the sanctity in protecting the freedoms of others. They do not therefore find it reprehensible to violate of others what has always been denied to them. This line of argument in some weak measure may explain their actions, but can by no measure justify them, for it is precisely to correct such wrongs and to protect the freedoms of all, that we have installed institutions of protection: to protect one from knowingly or unknowingly violating another.

These institutions of protection may take the form of the State via the government or judiciary or armed forces or may also take the form of religious authorities, however unpalatable the latter suggestion may seem to some. When these institutions fail because of human acts of omission or commission, society progressively begins to lose its freedoms. A generation born into failed institutions learns not to believe in them.

The children of Gujarat belong to different communities, to that of the violated, to that of the violators, to that of the mute observers, to that of the protestors and to that of the apathetic. Each child will be molded into an adult most acceptable to his community, each community will thus pass on its legacy. The children of the violated have seen much. They have experienced firsthand the unpredictability of life. They have seen the lives of those they loved been violently and suddenly terminated. They have seen the helplessness of those around them in preventing this. And finally they have seen the community around them condoning it, repeatedly.

What the children of Gujarat hear today is not what the secular think-tank writes in the English media. What they hear is the slogans raised around their houses: in the name of Ram and Raheem. The children do not live in an isolated bubble protected by the Convention of the Rights of the Child. Au contraire, some of them live unprotected in the in the graveyards and on the fringes of Ahmedabad and they see processions celebrating their plight; they also feel the palpable pangs of both despair and revenge in the people around them. They do not hear the muffled voices of the anguished few who protested, in horror, the verdict of the electorate. They saw instead a grand gala celebrating the triumph of their defeat. They did not hear a voice challenging the wrongs, they did not see a gavel sentencing their violators to the dungeons. They therefore now do not see that the right to life cannot be violated.

Children who lost their parents at Godhra or Akshardham or in the beautiful northern vale for which lakhs have been orphaned, can never be consoled. Their outrage is natural and justified, their loss is permanent. It does not matter where the children are, they are all children of humankind, born into their nation and religion by chance, not choice. The actions of those around them shape their normative notions. And hence if some of these children saw the society around them sharing their distress, they would know what has happened to them was an aberration, a wrong, an act of injustice that society will not accept. They will see the logic in an institutional form of justice that brings the guilty to the dock. They will see society avenge for them without having to turn into violators themselves. Yet, the fear today is that the children of Gujarat may not see this.

All terrorists were once children. Indoctrination may make children killers. Perceived violation surely expedites this process and experienced violation may ensure its fruition. Similarly every man in the roaming mobs in Gujarat in March and April was once a child. There is no doubt that the subtle but omnipresent saffron agenda throughout their lives primed their minds into being eager receptacles of recent campaigns of hate and revenge. But that cannot fully explain their actions. For if it was only injustice that they fought against, they would have turned to those vested with the duty to mete justice. They have known not of such institutions. Their lives have been battles of survival, where each is on his own. They did not perceive society fulfilling its obligations to them. Their life was a string of many small crimes committed against them, many violations of their various freedoms, their freedom to live a meaningful life, their freedom to pursue a vocation of choice, their freedom to be in control of their own lives. Their right to be an equal member of a fair and just society was always denied. The bane of their lives was now identified for them by those in positions of social recognition and power. Once the root cause of their problems was 'obvious', they were urged to fight for their rights. Rights that were absolute. Rights that came without responsibility; responsibility to either others or to themselves. With the latest call for Hindu suicide bombers, 'the cause' is now even more glorified than before. The right to life is now more arbitrary than ever before.

Terror cannot be rationalized. But that there are factors at play incessantly making monsters out of men cannot be forgotten. While the enlightened remain whispering their disdain, the politicians are shouting from the temple-tops. Using God and Nationhood, they continue to urge the silent to rise. Theirs, unfortunately, is the only voice that is heard in Gujarat. The voice that Hindu children hear is that of assent, the nod that condones what they saw, the cheer that celebrated what they must have gawked at. The voice that the Muslim children hear is that which is mocking at them, daring them to attempt to lead a meaningful existence, challenging them to pursue their right to be alive. Ishtiaq, from Vatwa camp says that when he ran to the uniformed men for help, they asked him why he was still alive. That is the law of the land Ishtiaq knows. He does not know of Eleanor Roosevelt and the beautiful document she drafted, he does not know about Gandhi who loved all humans unconditionally, he does not know of the many Indians who feel his pain; he does not know of a world that is any different from his. His right to life is threatened by those around him, and keeping them in reciprocal fear may be his only promise of solace.

Paresh is 14 years old. His parents have provided him all cotemporary material comforts he could ask for. But he is convinced that Ishtiaq's clan is the bane of India. Paresh's world is no different from Ishtiaq's. In Ishtiaq's annihilation lies his deliverance. Everyone around him tells him so.

In the given milieu, the one group that is reproducing at an alarming rate is the school of ideologies. These ideologies are undoubtedly reproducing in the erstwhile camps, in the rehabilitation shanties, in the broken houses of the violated, but they are also reproducing themselves in the seemingly benign drawing rooms of nodding middle-class households, in schools and in the shakhas; each ideology advocating the transgression of others' rights to realize one's own. Each impinging on the freedom of others. Each teaching man how to be lesser of one. Akshardham may not be the last. Naroda Patia neither. For the children of India will ensure that the cycle continues. And each will vie for the life of another.

A sense of justice is paramount to and inalienable from the healing process. Wise men from across the globe who have fervently advocated for the International Criminal Court have done so to promote this very notion - the sense of justice- to rekindle hope and to revive faith in the wronged that there is a better order in the world which acknowledges their equality on this planet, their right to freedoms, their right to life.

The Constitution of India has provided enough mechanism for the realization of these rights. It is the failure of vital arms of this machinery over several decades that has led to the current debacle. While we attempt to take on these large and powerful institutions, with utmost urgency we need to focus on the children of India, that are bearing witness at very impressionable ages to the complex social churning unraveling before their eyes. They see only the symptoms of dark maladies that have gripped this nation. Their faith in the form of justice collectively agreed upon by humanity can only be built be instruction and practice, where one is needed to buttress the other. While justice, as is in practice currently, is delayed and denied, education of this notion of justice we hold so dearly must at least continue. Voices firmly protesting the warped ideologies in all communities must reach the children, and these voices need to be loud enough to drown the cacophony of blood thirsty slogans.

People must be educated about their rights. If one does not know of a better social order, or the promise of one, it is difficult to expect one to know what one is being denied. The unemployed youth of India who is increasingly becoming 'lumpenized' must be given the capacity to identify their true obstacles. It is only when they realize that the State has let them down, will they challenge the State. It is only when they know that they have a right to food, clothing and shelter as much as any other Indian or as any other man on earth, will they begin to ask for their rights. When they will fight this battle to realize their rights, when they continue the struggle for freedom interrupted five decades ago, they will learn to respect freedom. When they realize that their rights cannot be terminated arbitrarily, they will learn to balk at such transgressions on others.

The importance of human rights education has been part of western academic discourse for a long term now. Any suggestion of its promotion in previously colonized countries is looked upon with contempt; this is unfortunate for a civilization entrenched in the pursuit of liberation and in the quest for God. The education of rights and freedoms is a prerequisite to any logical and concerted opposition to the current tides. It does not matter whether it is clothed in the jargon of rights, the mantra of the superiority of the Indian Constitution or the voice of God. But every child of India must know that he has a right to life which no one, absolutely no one, must deny him.

Dr Satchit Balsari
The author independently spent several weeks in various towns in Gujarat between July and September 2002, to analyze the status of the mental health of the children in Gujarat. The author is currently a research associate in the Program on Humanitarian Crises at the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University. Views expressed in this article are that of the author only and do not reflect any position taken by any institution that the author is affiliated with.


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