July 26, 2020

Human Rights also Locked Down

Som Dutt Sharma

QUINTESSENCE of human rights is the dignity of the human being.  Universal declaration of human rights adopted by the United Nations(UN) keeps this dignity of humans in focus when it says, “ everyone has the right to work, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection of himself and his family and an existence worthy of human dignity---everyone has the right to standard of living adequate for health and wellbeing for himself and his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care.”

What is stated above is a declaration of human rights by the UN. India is signatory to it and for fulfilling her international obligation has enacted The Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993 setting up Human Rights Commission presided by no less than a retired supreme court judge. The Judiciary under the constitution of India is conceived as the sentinel on the qui vive.

The top court of India in a catena of decisions also read ‘human dignity’ in Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, which speaks of protection of life and personal liberty. While widening the horizon of right to life, the ‘human dignity’ has been given a jurisprudential basis. Thus ‘human dignity’ as a jurisprudential concept has now been well defined by the supreme court in K S Puttuswamy, wherein a nine judges bench observed: “Our constitution places the individual at the forefront of its focus guaranteeing civil and political rights in Part-III and embodying an aspiration for achieving socio-economic rights in Part-IV.”

Following quote from the judgement is worth reproducing:

“That the refrain that poor need no civil and political rights and concerned only with the economic wellbeing has been utilised through history to wreak the most egregious violations of human rights. Above all, it must be realized that it is the right to question, the right to scrutinise, and the right to dissent which enables an informed citizenry to scrutinise the action of the government. Those who are governed are entitled to question those who govern, about the discharge of their constitutional duties including the provision of socio-economic welfare benefits. The power to scrutinise and to reason enables the citizens of a democratic polity to make informed decisions on the basic issues which govern their rights. The theory that civil and political rights are subservient to socio-economic rights has been urged in the past and has been categorically rejected in the course of constitutional adjudication by this court.”

The (mis) management of COVID-19 pandemic both in prevention and cure need not detain us from dealing with an extremely important aspect of degradation of human rights.

The saga of around 80 million of guest workers, travelling back to their villages braving hot and humid weather, without food and footwear, with despair and awe in their eyes, presented a pain full  spectacle from May 1 to the middle of June. Many lost their lives in road accidents and on railway tracks. Railway Protection Force reported 80 deaths on board the shramik special trains between May 9 to May 27. Many were found dead by the road side, in all probabilities due to exertion and exhaustion before reaching their destination. Yet they travelled thousands of miles, carrying their family and possessions with injured feet and concealing themselves in cement mixture machines to be treated like thieves and receiving police beatings on detection. Their heart rending conditions must be fresh in our minds.

However, it will be apposite to narrate a few instances of police atrocities which have left indelible dent on already degraded human rights by want and hunger.

1.      The complaint of a group of workers tells us that they were beaten by the police 22 times during their six days journey back to their village in Baghpat district , Uttar Pradesh. After declaration of the lockdown the police in  many states could be seen on electronic media thrashing the citizens without any provocation and shaming them in most appalling manner which cannot be countenanced by any civil society.

2.       The government and media both electronic and social particularly ‘whatsapp’ university mounted a campaign of ostracising the entire Muslim community as being responsible for the spread of the coronavirus. It had its cascading impact on the streets where the vendors from Muslim community were beaten and humiliated. This caused a rage in the international community castigating the government. However, the hate campaign had its impact on the human dignity of the members of the minority community.

3.      Arti Lall Chandani, principal of the Kanpur Medical College, in her communal tirade against the Muslims who were infected with corona,  was seen on camera suggesting to take them to jungle or jail for solitary confinement instead of hospital’s isolation wards. She surpassed all limits of civility expected from a person at such a position.

4.       Deepak Bundele, an advocate at Betul in Madhya Pradesh, suffering from a combo of diabetic and hypertension when steps out for purchasing medicines on March 23, lockdown not being in force as yet was caught hold by the police, slapped and was beaten with fists and batons. He was left only on his disclosing that he was an advocate and would take them to the court. Bundele showed his body injuries on camera. The victim filed a written report of his ordeal to the concerned police station with copies to NHRC, SHRC, chief justice of the high court. The report was not converted into an  FIR by the local police even after 50 days of the incident for the reason it was against the erring policemen. This is not the end of the story.

After about a month of lodging of the report, one policeman visited the victim’s house, as per audio conversation between the victim and interlocutor, the victim was requested to withdraw his complaint. Audio of the talk went viral in which the policeman is reported to have said:

“ In fact whenever there are riots, it (police) takes the side of Hindus, it is also well known to the Muslims, but the incident with you happened by mistake. We have no words to utter. This incident happened to you because you had a long beard. He (reference is to the policeman who beat up Deepak) is a die hard Hindu.”

When Bundele refused to withdraw the complaint the interlocutor threatened the victim that police would see to it how he would practice in the court. At present Deepak is before the court seeking direction to the police to register FIR. But before appearing in the court, the police registered a false FIR against the victim under section 188 CrPC r/w section 353 of IPC. That is the classic example of an adage: pot calling the kettle black.

5.      Then comes registration of false cases against CAA protesters and their arrest on concocted narrative of communal violence. The leaders of BJP;  Kapil Mishra, Pravesh Verma and minister of the state, Anurag Thakur who were caught on camera inciting violence are not booked. The UN human rights experts termed these arrests as designed to send a chilling message and called for the release of activists arrested over anti- CAA’s protests. The report severely indicts the government in the following observation: “These defenders, many of them students, appear to have been arrested simply because they exercised their right to denounce and protest against CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act), and their arrest seems clearly designed to send a chilling message to India’s vibrant society that criticism of government policies will not be tolerated.” The UN human rights experts particularly referred to the arrest of Meeran Haider, Gulfisa Fatima, Safoora Zargar, Asif Iqbal Tanha, Devangana Kalita, Natasa Narwal, Khalid Saifi, Shifa Ur Rehman, Dr Kafeel Khan, Sharjil Imam and Akhil Gogoi. One is reminded of the Emergency days of 1975 when people were arrested on concocted charges and on their release by the courts, were slapped with fresh warrants under Defence of India Rules at the gate of Jail for their continued incarceration.

6.       Incident at Toothukudi, Tamil Nadu once again has brought the issue of custodial torture to the fore. Torture and killing of Jayraj and his son Benicks in police custody brings out an extremely inhuman face of the police. This incident presents the barbaric methods of the police in dealing with the citizens as if they do not enjoy any human right. The police behaviour is a legacy of colonial rule. In the United States, George Floyd’s death at the hands of a white policeman triggered widespread protests all over the world to raise voice against racism, which is yet another variant of human rights violation. In India two persons were tortured and killed by the men in uniform but the public silence with the exception of the local protests, remains a disturbing signal. India is a signatory to the International Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or degrading Treatment or Punishment (in short CAT) but so far the government has not enacted any law to prevent the custodial torture despite law commission’s recommedatiions in its 273rd report.

Alas the supreme court also refused to intervene in the writ petition seeking direction for enactment of law on this issue on the ground that it is a matter of policy. One fails to understand how the orders to the police for encounters can be a policy matter and for the same reason how not taking up matters of habeas corpus can be justified. Some deeper malaise is creeping in the system. The judiciary of late is seen abdicating its responsibility of being a sentinel on the qui vive, may it be habeas corpus petitions, or issues relating to Jammu and Kashmir, or initial posture of the supreme court on migrant labour and host of other issues, which trend is opposed to the survival of democracy and human rights. Human rights can not be put on hold even during pandemic.