PUCL Bulletin,

December 1992

The strategy of fighting for civil liberties
- By Nissim Ezekiel

(Inaugural Address at PUCL National Convention held in Bombay on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1, 1992.)

It is a privilege and an honour to be chosen for occasion of PUCL's biennial National Convention. I must confess that I don't feel I deserve it, because I have not been an activist in the context that matters. Merely being interested in it is obviously not enough. Anyone who attends such a Convention is familiar with essential ideas, ideals and stances relating to civil liberties and does not need to be reminded of them.

All of us assume that we share the crucial views relating to the two main themes of this Convention, the proposed Human Rights Commission and the Rights of Women. I feel it is not necessary for me to offer any comment on these, except to warm myself, as a man, that there is always the danger of accepting all the ideas in relation to women's rights, while secretly violating them in practice.

The subject I have chosen to express my views in this Address may be entitled "The Strategy of Fighting for Civil Liberties". I take it for granted that there has to be a strategy, and that it has to be created within the political, economic, social and cultural ethos of our country. Such a strategy may have a more universal application, but I shall not discuss that aspect of it. As a regular reader since its inception, of the PUCL BULLETIN, I would like to claim that I am, as no doubt all of you present are, in agreement with its basic concepts and arguments.

Let us consider, for example, the relation of the caste system to the innumerable problems we face in India about civil liberties, which may in this case be referred to as normal rights in all human relationships. What can be done and should be done by us to improve the situation? Let me agree with the statement of the PUCL BULLETIN editor, in an article ("The Caste System and Human Rights Violations"- Oct. '92 issue) that "activists will have to think of remedies…". Activists always have to think of remedies, but the editor I am quoting adds "without demolishing the walls lock, stock and barrel, respect for rights and liberties will remain a distant goal". This is followed by the last sentence of the article which I intend also to discuss briefly: 'Nothing short of a philosophical revolution can bring about a change, and for that we need to have iconoclasts, not status-quoists and constitutional experts".

Well, now nothing I say be regarded, I hope, as championing the mode of thinking common to status-quoists, but constitutional experts are still needed for validating necessary changes in society as a whole. And the philosophical revolution, which I am entirely in favour of with its iconoclasts, will have to face multi-lingual and multi-cultural factors. We can neither wait for such a revolution nor do without it. So it seems to me a practical way of thinking about and within it to consider the possibility of persuasive arguments and liberal reforms which move in the direction of the ultimate goals. If, on the other hand we dismiss such a proposition as a shameful compromise, we have as the PUCL BULLETIN editor does, consider it impossible "to reform Hindu society so far as the caste system is concerned".

What happens, then, to certain practice sin other religions which are not in the spirit of universal human rights? Can we expect hosts of iconoclasts in those religions to bring about a comparable revolution in their communities?

I must add again that I am entirely against weakening our unavoidable critical view of the caste system and of the dogmas in other religions which reject our convictions about civil liberties and human rights. All I am drawing attention to, and even insisting on, is the need for a strategy which will help us to spread our ideas without creating more enemies than friends.

I am aware of the argument that it may not be possible to avoid making enemies if we assert our beliefs and act in accordance with them. But I still believe it is possible to widen our appeal, to make it seem more reasonable and practical. If, for example, we take the stand that the caste system is unlikely to be wiped out overnight or that the rights women will win all the victories they deserve in every conceivable situation without a specific process that can be encouraged and assisted to prevail in a hundred different ways. That kind of revolution may require patience as much as persistence, and not divide the forces of work into rival camps, with civil war as the inevitable consequence.

An article by Dr. Bernd Pfling on "Education and One's Own Order" in the October issue of The adical Humanist edited by Mr. Tarkunde quotes a statement by Reinhold Niebuhr in his book Moral man and Immoral Society, that "power must be challenged by power" because " social injustice cannot be resolved by moral and rational persuasion alone". Dr. Pflug responds to it by asking the question "Could those who have no power challenge those who have all the power". His answer is "Probably not at all - but there is a chance to understand this to see through an injustice, to perceive a situation, to nurture the idea that one wants to understand but for certain reasons is not in a position to change situation - that is knowledge which can become part and parcel of a process of enlightenment which then in turn would be the base for acting if found necessary and feasible".

It is enlightenment of that kind which alone can prevent conflicts so powerful that they inevitably lead to violence. I believe that enlightenment is the only basis for action which does not need the qualifying phrase "if found necessary and feasible". It is the only kind of action which does not provoke counter action, and it can be made feasible because that's what enlightenment includes, which knowledge by itself does not. If that seems merely idealistic I can only add, in this speech, that it has to work out all those modes of action before it deserves the word enlightenment. Without it, all we may finally achieve is a kind of faith in our convictions which has to war with other faiths. Time may led to victories in that war, but we cannot arrive at the kind of success which alone in the long run leads to a meaningful peace, and to development in our society as a whole.

President's Comments

Mr. Rajindar Sachar, speaking after the inauguration speech, said that times are quite critical for those who believe in human rights because a tirade has started against Human Rights Organisations. He was not, however, in any way worried about this because he believe, he said, that PUCL and its members have sufficient strength to withstand all lies and insinuations spread against the PUCL. He stated that it was falsely alleged that PUCL was motivated against the Govt. and gave publicity to wrong reports. He mentioned specifically that he had written to the Home Minister Mr. Chavan pointing out that in the various reports of PUCL specific instances and details have been mentioned and inviting him to mention any report which was wrong, and assured him that it that is so, the PUCL will have no hesitation in correcting its stand. He regretted that there was no response to this for the obvious reasons that the veracity of the reports of PUCL could not be challenged. Mr. Sachar castigated Mr. Ajit Panja, the Minister for Information and Broadcasting for wrongly suggesting that Human Rights Organisations are taking money fr0om foreign agencies. So far as PUCL is concerned, all finances are arranged within the country and on its own efforts and no grant is accepted from any foreign funding agencies or governments.

Mr. Sachar also mentioned that USA, after the collapse of USSR, is now wanting to lay stress on the Convent of Civil and Political Rights and wanted to maintain that economic and cultural rights like rights to housing, right to work, etc. were not part of human rights. Mr. Sachar repudiated this division between the so-called political and economic rights are essentially a part and parcel of the human right and without one the other cannot flourish. He criticised American attitude which did not want to include in the Covenant on Economic Rights as an aspect of human rights. In this regard he regretted that the Indian Govt. was falling in line with the American Government in that it suggested that the proposed Human Rights Commission should concern itself with only civil and political rights. Mr. Sachar maintained that if the proposed Human Rights Commission was not given power to look into economic and cultural rights of the citizens Human Rights Commission would be a toothless element and just a futile exercise. Mr. Sachar also maintained that this approach which had resulted in the Indian Govt. not ratifying the Rights of Child even thought three years had passed since the Convention was adopted by the UN General Assembly, especially he castigated the various Central Govt. departments for not giving proper attention to the child question on which the development of the National depends. Mr. Sachar also maintained that the Human Rights Commission should have independent investigative power and machinery and should itself have power to initiate prosecutions. It should, in fact, be an implementing machinery itself and not recommendatory Body.


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