Human rights and Indian values


Dadri, Alwar and Rajsamand are names that must ring a bell for every aware Indian. In a little more than a year these have been sites where a fellow citizen has been brutally murdered by another Indian. They should be a source of deep shame to us as these were not random events. In every case the victim was a Muslim from the poorest sections of our country. Mohammad Akhlaq, Pehlu Khan and Afrazul Khan were murdered for the identity assigned to them and the alleged guilt that is thereby claimed to cling to them.


December 10 is the anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the UN General Assembly. As an early supporter of the UN movement and a constant participant in its deliberations, India has, in international fora, constantly endorsed the charter of rights that the declaration unfurled.

Two noteworthy things.

  • India’s commitment to human rights emphasising the duty of governments to ensure them to individuals. Second, he observed that human rights existed in India not due to some constitutional morality but because of the DNA of Indian civilisation. 
  • The many assurances of the freedom of thought and expression and the right to life and liberty in the Constitution, suggesting that their provenance lies in the immemorial history of the country’s civilisation.
  • While there may be a grain of truth in this observation it doesn’t count for much when it comes to repeated violation of human rights in India.

Role of government:

  • the constitutional provisions are inadequate by themselves and the role of government is fundamental in advancing them.
  • Historically, votaries of civilisational values have struggled to break free of cultural prejudices and accord similar status to other civilisations. Not very long ago, colonialism had been justified on civilisational terms, with the very term “civilised” being used to differentiate the West from the indigenous populations of the lands colonised by Europe. It is perhaps this that led Gandhi to respond to the query of what he thought of Western civilisation by saying, “I think it would be a good idea.” Gandhi is unlikely to have been any softer on champions of the superiority of eastern civilisations.
  •  It is clear that Indian civilisation has not had much success in ensuring their delivery. If any progress has at all been made in the desired direction, it has been after the adoption of a democratic form of governance; an arrangement that is distinctly non-Indian in its origins. In terms of human development, 21st century India is radically different from what it was in the 20th century. That economic inequality has steadily risen and ecological stress is written all over the country cannot take away from the fact that there has been progress of a form that has collapsed social distance. 

Ways to tackle intolerance:

  • Our task of ensuring human rights in India is, however, made no more easy after rejecting the potential of civilisational values and of the instrumentality of economic growth combined with constitutional morality in achieving such a state.
  • While “constitutional morality”, a term used by Ambedkar to appropriately reject any role for “societal morality” in the Republic, is of course a useful guide to the courts when it comes to adjudicating between individuals, it is by itself helpless in preventing acts of violence.
  • The efficacy of constitutional provisions is entirely dependent on the government machinery entrusted to our elected representatives.
  • An effective protection of individuals, in this case women and minorities, from acts of violence requires the power of the state to weigh in on their side.
  • In too many cases of violence against women, Muslims and Dalits, the Indian state is distinguished by its absence.
  • In a recent paper Canada-based economist Mukesh Eswaran demonstrated that it is possible to understand “9/11” and home-grown terrorism in western Europe as a response to the historical wrongs inflicted on Muslim societies by Western powers, notably the invasion of Iraq. This is a useful corrective to the collective gasp of incredulity let out by Western elites when addressing the violence unleashed against them by Islamic groups.
  • Transferring Eswaran’s reasoning to the Indian context, one might argue that India should contain violence against its Muslims to ensure the safety of Hindus.
  • But such crass instrumentalism would be unworthy of a great civilisation.
  • We want to ensure the flourishing of all the peoples of India not out of self-preservation but because we want to be civilised. Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, anyone?


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