PUCL Bulletin, December 2001

A critical look at
25 Years of PUCL

-- By Rajni Kothari


When a nationally spread out and widely recognized organisation like the PUCL completes 25 years, what kind of a "celebration" it should engage in? While certainly the occasion calls for the conventional type of recognition for its - and for individuals and groups long associated with it - having at least tried to live up to its mandate, having been involved (along with like minded groups and institutions, and of course individuals) in activities and struggles both against violation of civil liberties where ever they takes place and for defense of rights of individual and people, of justice and emancipation it also needs to look into the real extent to which it has contributed to the broader good of creating a liberated, just, and emancipated, world, both with in the country and in the larger human community of which it happens to be and integral part. We live in a world in which the goals of freedom and justice have to be sought after collectively over time and where therefore, the movement having completed 25 years of existence, survival and growth calls for all around reflection, evaluation and introspection which also implies that whenever not found satisfactory the organisation needs to engage in critical self examination and, resulting there from, a process of refashioning goals and values that it had set before itself to begin with.

If I were to engage in the latter exercise, I should be willing to place the PUCL in the larger historical setting of securing and enhancing rights, making that the touch stone of anything that I were to undertake and keeping that in the forefront of any understanding and evaluation, join in the whole record of the human struggle for liberation, creation of a just social order and human emancipation.

Taking this touch stone - the paradigm of rights to be pursued continuously and incessantly - for evaluating the record of PUCL at the end of 25 years of its functioning, there is little doubt that it has been a long drown out struggle, ranging from legal and constitutional battles to radical upsurges, at times involving revolutionary upheavals, at any rate in some major regions of the nation, and almost everywhere involving the very bottom tiers of civil society in which individuals and groups involving middle class intelligentsia and professionals have played more than a catalytic and consciousness-raising role. Nor has the effort been merely vis-à-vis. the State and established institutions and elite strata but also vis-à-vis diverse elements in the social arena as a whole, be they powerful castes and landed interests or more simply individuals and more entrenched structures of privilege and power in the communities, cultural terrains, ecological balances, ethnic diversities, and personal / personalized propensities. It is with in this multifaceted context of what I have lately been calling the "human enterprise" of which the "Indian enterprise" is an integral part that the whole engagement in both struggles against and struggles for (as laid down above) have been waged and at this point in time needs to be told and evaluated. And within the evolving stages of that engagement how this key institution of human endeavor with which I am concerned here, the People's Union for Civil Liberties, needs to be both understood and critiqued - within the framework of ideas and undertakings that it understood to pursue both when it began and adopted a charter for itself and along the way over the years.

What kind of a "progress" has it registered? Has it any? If yes - that is how I tend to think - are things better off today then when we started on out journey? How do we assess the journey from 1976 -2001? Where indeed do we stand today as compared to 'then'?

Speaking personally with a personal angle of understanding, especially as regards who we had undertaken to wage struggles against and who did we wage them for, can we say that apart from carrying out a whole lot of investigations into violations of People's rights and institute a wide variety of innovative undertakings - ranging from the Journalism for Human Rights Award, the instituting of the JP Memorial Lecture, the opening of a whole series of State and local level branches and nominating individuals in positions including at State level, and on the whole through these and other institutional steps taking cudgels against the "State" on behalf of the "People" of whom the PUCL claims to be a "Union" and especially on behalf of people affected by violation of basic rights - we can certainly claim all this - do we (a) find this a satisfactory record (b) think that on the very point of departure of all these undertakings, viz., waging struggles against the State and its diverse concomitants, do we believe that we are following the right path and that it stands the scrutiny of our conscience as committed and credible human beings?

What is the situation today at the end of the 25 years? Have all our investigations and reports placed before our National Conferences and briefing of the mass media through press conferences and the like on them produced a more humane, egalitarian and emancipated World? And then of course, something I have already hinted at, is the Indian State the only or even the main institution whose record is what should be put to go test? Is the State the primary culprit in the growing encroachment on civil liberties and people's rights? Even if it still continues to behave in a repressive and exploitative manner? Or are we in the throes of a quite different social terrain where such violations are found to emanate from sources other than the State (along side the State of course). How do we assess the situation towards the end of 2001?
Before I embark on such - or further - introspection, let me nonetheless place on record some truly noteworthy engagements in which the PUCL (among others) was involved. Among these undoubtedly are our strong indictment and denunciation of the highly violent incidents involving the genocidal assault on the Sikh community in Delhi and various other cities following the assassination of Mrs. Indira Gandhi, when we (in association with the PUDR) brought out the at once revealing and provocative booklet
Who are the Guilty?, which was then translated in several languages and circulated widely both in India and abroad, a similar indictment of the no less genocidal incidents following the mindless destruction involved in the Bhopal gas tragedy, our outright denunciations and "secular" onslaught against communal and "fundamentalist" outrages indulged in first under the Congress during Mrs. Indira Gandhi's rule and then under the auspices of the Sangh Parivar, our taking up cudgels against the BJP dominated coalition on the issue of our being declared as a nuclear weapon state and, of course, the ecological disaster represented by the building of the dam on the Narmada river.

All of these as well as a whole series of both investigative and more direct interventions by different branches of the PUCL need to be taken full note of as part of PUCL's record of "achievements".

Alongside, under the leadership of major figures from the legal constitutional arena like justice Tarkunde, justice Rajindar Sachar, and Mr. KG Kannabiran who incidentally has also been actively associated with the APCLC and is systematic exposure of State repression, encounter deaths, and the outright killing of APCLC office bearers themselves, and legally - as well as politically - persecuting authorities at not just State and National levels but deep in the whole range of regional and Muffassil centers running from one town and another, and putting the culprits in the dock.

And yet, while all this brings credit to civil liberties organisations like the PUCL as we take full cognizance of the situation we confront today - at the end of the 25 years of the functioning of the PUCL - we appear to face a whole new range of issues to ponder over and reflect upon. As we do this we find that whatever be the nature of introspection we engage in we will need to take full note of the fact that while it was necessary to focus on the politics of the social change as steered from the top it was not proper to define the political process only by confining attention to State related atrocities. Where we seem to have slipped behind is on the whole spate of violations found to emerge from what in theory we call "civil society", from within the social and cultural terrain itself. As I scan the surface on this aspect what do I find? Among other things I find two large and simultaneous tendencies at work: there has taken place a phenomenal increase in both inequity and apartheidisation on the one hand and resurgence in democratic faith on the part of the poor and the hitherto victimized sections on the other.

I happen to believe that given the growing spread of inequality and exclusion worldwide, there is also, as Igancy Sachs put in his comment on my book on Poverty, " a world wide drift towards apartheid societies in which the rich do not need the poor any more".

The democratic process both in India and worldwide is being impinged upon by two contradictory forces: democratic assertion of the subaltern classes on the one hand and the forces of globalization reducing democratic spaces on the other.

The 20th century has been a century of pushing further the accumulation of both wealth and poverty; the failure of "revolutions" too is pushing the poor towards exclusion while the declared goal of spreading human rights globally by western hegemonic powers and by intellectuals generally has only led to a consolidation of the corporate capitalist thrust of so-called "modernizing societies (which India among other countries is vying to become).
We need to ask ourselves: what have we, not just in PUCL and other civil liberty organisations but in the whole arena of so-called "activist" bodies, ranging from NGOs, other "voluntary" and "grass root" based structures done when it comes to fundamental dilemmas and contradictions that are emerging from socio-economic, cultural, ecological, and ethno-civilisational arenas? The country - and the world at large is in the throes of growing sufferings, starvation deaths, collective suicide, and "murders" ranging from political opponents to vulnerable social strata like young children (often a whole collection of them put to death), refugees and migrants, tribals and Dalits and of course women.

We need to ask ourselves at the end of our 25 year journey as a prime organisation committed to preserving freedom and liberty of citizens: Are we at all cognizant - or becoming so - of the very fast changing scenario of human suffering at a time particularly when leading institutions (not simply of governance but also of thinking and pondering over the human affairs) are getting hijacked by the neo-liberal framework of ideological thinking, with globalisation pushing the 'nation state' on the side lines, the same being the case with other legal and cultural associations, almost all of whom are either getting eroded or simply co opted. 25 years is a long enough sojourn to not just "celebrate" but also deeply reflect upon.

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