First Person | NHRC’s Job

Discuss human rights, instead of turning it into a competition

Ghazala WahabGhazala Wahab

Since 1996, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has been organising an all-India inter-Central Paramilitary Forces debate competition in collaboration with one of the CPMF’s (on a rotation basis) which takes care of the logistics. The idea seems to be to inculcate a sense of responsibility towards preservation of human rights in the Paramilitary forces. This year, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) was asked to conduct the debate for NHRC, in which the Border Security Force (BSF) walked away with most of the awards, in both Hindi as well as English categories. Since the participants ranged from constables to deputy commandants, NHRC’s focus clearly was on those involved in operations.

The subject this year was: ‘Human rights can be observed by security forces without compromising national security concerns.’ While the first prize in the English category went to a BSF assistant commandant, Avinash Kumar who spoke for the motion, the second prize was bagged by a BSF constable B. Murugan who spoke against the motion.

Given that Justice K.G. Balakrishnan, chairperson, NHRC and former chief justice of India was the chief of jury, it is safe to presume that arguments on both sides of the divide must have been so forceful that he had to respect both point of views. Hence, there was a sound argument justifying incidents of human rights violations. While it would be petty to judge NHRC’s intentions on giving CPMFs an opportunity to debate issues like human rights, my point is, human rights is such a serious matter that it cannot debated as an exercise in which there are winners and losers.

Competitive debates are for students, to score points, to hone their argumentative and analytical skills and to exercise their vocal chords. On issues of national importance, one needs discussion, workshops or even training programmes. NHRC is the premier human rights watch dog in the country. Unfortunately, it only has recommendatory role and no punitive powers. There is very little that NHRC can do once a human rights violation has occurred. At best it can send its own investigative team and submit its report to the government or recommend action against certain personnel.

Hence, its greater responsibility lies in creating a consciousness about human rights amongst those who run the biggest risk of violating it, deliberately or accidentally. While CPMFs are one such omnibus body, the other, even greater potential violators are the state police forces, which have the capacity of violating human rights on a daily basis. The army could also do with some amount of HR sensitisation in areas where it operates in a counter-insurgency role.

Perhaps, NHRC could organise an annual conference on human rights where members of the security forces are invited to discuss the challenges they face when operating in hostile areas or when facing hostile people. Human rights activists, members of the civil society, victims of human rights could form part of such discussions to understand each other’s psyche, limitations and weaknesses. Sure, there could be some amount of acrimonious name-calling at such foras, but so what. In addition to this, NHRC, through its affiliates in various states can hold workshops for the military, paramilitary and police personnel on how preservation of human rights can actually contribute towards fighting insurgencies. Instead of chanting the UN definition on human rights, these officers and men can be shown through examples how small unintentional actions can lead to alienation of the population and how even a little sensitivity can help.

Let’s presume that most violations are accidental and no uniformed personnel get up in the morning with the agenda of raping women or knocking a few people down. Hence, such periodic workshops can demonstrate to overworked personnel how HR accidents can be avoided.

I have had opportunities to attend a few HR seminars or conferences organised by various forces and I am always dismayed at the level of discussion. Most uniformed personnel believe that unless somebody is raped, tortured or killed, no violation occurs. They don’t realise that forcing people to constantly live in an atmosphere of fear also amounts to human rights violation. Presence of armed uniformed personnel is seldom reassuring; mostly it is disconcerting, especially if you have heard horror stories about them. Another favourite argument is, what about the rights that the terrorists violate. Terrorists are not the custodians of human rights, which is why they are terrorists; the government is and by extension its executive arm, comprising police, paramilitary and the military. By comparing themselves with the terrorists, our brave soldiers don’t even realise that they are only undermining the sanctity of their uniform.

In an average Indian city, with or without insurgency/terrorism, women seldom want to go to a police station even to lodge a complaint unless escorted by someone. Do they fear getting killed or raped? I doubt it. Most of them fear being spoken rudely to. In our cities, the mere act of rudeness or callousness amounts to violation. Imagine the agony of those who have to live cheek by jowl with armed soldiers. This is the level of sensitisation we need among our men and officers.